Mike & Peggy Seeger’s Legacy Album
Hearth Music Guest Blog
by Paul Michel
Fly Down Little Bird
Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger
Remember 1955? Good for you. Let’s set the stage for the forgetful: Ray Kroc launches his first McDonald’s, the Salk polio vaccine is approved, Disneyland opens its gates in Anaheim, the Mickey Mouse Club debuts on TV and President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledges his support for the government of the new South Vietnam. And in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C., a twenty-year old musician named Peggy Seeger, mining the vast trove of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax and transcribed by her mother Ruth, releases a 10” LP called Songs of Courting and Complaint. At the same time, her half-brother Pete is busy trying to sing louder than Senator Joe McCarthy can screech, and her brother Mike, just two years older, is immersing himself (via those same field recordings) in the traditional “old-time” styles and repertoire that will fuel the campus festival phenomenon soon to emerge as the New Lost City Ramblers. The table was being set for the big folk music revival of the 1960s, and an awful lot of the cooking was happening at the Seeger house in Silver Spring.
Fast-forward to 2009. In the months just before his short, losing battle with cancer, Mike and Peggy managed to reprise the sound, and indeed many of the same songs, that sweetened the Seeger home more than a half-century ago. Their newly-released collection, Fly Down Little Bird (Appleseed Recordings, 2011), is a fourteen-cut journey into a distant but resonant chapter in the continuing revival and popularization of rural American, mostly Appalachian, music. After Peggy’s move to England in 1959 (a victim of McCarthyistic blacklisting) she turned her significant musical talents mostly to political songwriting, for many years in partnership with Scottish actor and folksinger Ewan MacColl. Mike continued to research and champion the “true vine” of American music as a folklorist, performer and tireless proselytizer of all things old-time. They collaborated infrequently over the decades; most notably on a 94-song (!) Rounder Records triple LP in 1977 called American Folksongs for Children, which included some of the “play-party” pieces repeated on the Appleseed release. Peggy’s liner notes to the new album, Fly Down Little Bird, insist that “These are not ‘children’s songs’—they are grown-ups’ songs, and we grew up with them.”
They did indeed, and over the years they left them very much as they’d found them—or rather, as they’d adapted them originally. For although there’s a plantation porch, corn-shucking quality to these recordings, it’s a whimsical illusion. These charming renditions of old ballads, tunes and nonsense rhymes don’t evoke the Lomax field recordings nearly as much as they do Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1950s living room. The evocation is unapologetic and endearing. Mike and Peggy produced in this project, appropriately and lovingly in Mike’s last days, a tribute not so much to the “authentic” traditional music of the American soundscape as to their younger, pioneering, unforgotten selves. There is virtuosity here to be sure—the driving, haunting claw-hammer banjo entwined with fiddle both ragged and right in the Georgia tune “Big Bee Suck the Pumpkin Stem,” and a tasty sample of Metis fiddling in “The Red River Jig.” There is the broad Seeger instrumental range, including fiddle, guitar, several different banjos, piano, Hawaiian guitar, harmonica, mandolin and lap dulcimer. Duets are sung as often in octave unison as in country harmony. There is silliness (“Fod!” and “Jennie Jenkins”), fond familiarity (“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’) and homespun politics (“The Farmer is the Man”). But mostly there is comfort. This collection is delightful from the first listen and grows on one steadily. It’s a simple, cunning capture of two old sibling souls, up in years at long last, singing and smiling back at a slice of yesterday that—like McDonalds and Mickey Mouse, I suppose, but much easier on the ears—never really went away at all.
Mike Seeger & Peggy Seeger: The Farmer is the Man
Mike & Peggy Seeger: Big Bee Suck the Pumpkin Stem
Note: Mike Seeger passed away on August 7, 2009.
Hearth Music Guest Blog by Paul Michel, a noted author and folk musician in the Northwest. We love Paul’s writing, so it’s a treat to bring him back on board! And while you’re at it, check out his new novel: Houdini Pie, a novel based on historical facts, about the efforts of a group of hapless entrepreneurs to mine for the mythical treasure of a tribe of ancient Hopi Indians under the streets of urban Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.