Mike Seeger – True stories
“I think about music a lot,” Mike Seeger says, and there’s a lifetime’s worth of recordings, articles, liner notes, films, concerts, awards and more to prove it. In presenting Seeger with the Ralph J. Gleason Award for “outstanding contributions to culture” in 1995, the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation offered the following assessment: “A tireless proponent and a brilliant performer of traditional American music, Mike Seeger has been an important force in our cultural lives for more than three decades.” If anything, they understated the case.
At the very least, as the release of his new Smithsonian Folkways release True Vine suggests, the “more than three decades” notation could easily be changed to four. At age 70, Seeger is not only a bona fide elder statesman of American roots music, but a unique one — at once a musician, a song collector, a recording engineer and record producer, a concert presenter and an educator — and no matter where your interest in the great sweep of American vernacular music stems from, the odds are overwhelming that you’ve been touched, even if unwittingly, by his work.
Whether onstage or at home, Seeger is a man who speaks unhurriedly, and with a distinctive, almost fussy precision, choosing and shaping his words with care. He communicates a passion for making his thoughts clear in a way that mirrors a strain of the old-time music that’s been at the center of his life, exemplified on True Vine by performances such as the forthrightly squared-off melody and rhythm of “The Raftsman’s Song”, or “Johnson Jinkson” (not the oldest song on the album, but the one he’s probably known the longest).
His home shows the same kind of care. An old house near the top of a hill off a winding country road from which you can look out across the mountains of central Virginia, it’s neat and comfortable, filled with the instruments he’s devoted himself to mastering over the decades. It’s mostly without air conditioning, and Seeger takes a certain pleasure in working outside.
“Yesterday I was cutting bamboo and slinging it into the woods, because it’s taking over, so I’m a little dehydrated,” he says by way of explaining his steady consumption of water throughout our interview. But the place is not determinedly retro; one sizable room has been made over into a recording studio where he makes his albums. All in all, it is, like the man himself, plain and straightforward — relaxed, yet purposeful.
To grasp the essence of Seeger’s music is easy: All you need to do is listen. True Vine, which he describes as “a collection of some of my favorite songs and sounds, a representation of the kinds of solo music that I do,” makes as good a starting point as any. But to understand where his career fits into the larger picture of American popular music, and why it is worth celebrating, is another matter.
Though in age he’s within a few years of musicians such as Ralph Stanley and Sonny Osborne, his story is, in its complexity, unlike theirs. On the other hand, though he has spent his life engaged in the world of folk music, he has never played the role of song leader like his half-brother Pete, nor carved out a place for himself as a singer-songwriter. Rather, Mike Seeger has chosen to engage in a variety of roles that have taken him behind the scenes as often as they have placed him at center stage, and in doing so, he has done as much as anyone to ensure the survival of American roots music.
Born in 1933, Seeger came from a family engaged in one of the great cultural projects of the 20th century: a redefinition of what American “folk music” might mean, and the documentation of its rich variety. The purpose was not only (or even mainly) scholarly, but rather an activist one, and Mike’s classically trained but politically inspired parents, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, together with Pete and friends such as brothers John and Alan Lomax, were at the center of activity.
“My father had been radicalized in California in the teens, when he was head of the music department out there, and then during the early Depression he got very interested in music of the people,” Mike says. “We moved to Washington when I was 2 years old, because he had been asked to come there to be a part of the WPA, to run a music program within the Resettlement Administration. And the way I understand it from him was that his take on what should be done was that he wanted to help people who were not doing well and who had been put down culturally to appreciate their culture and to at least have a good time in the camps and other communities.
“At the same time, he met the Lomaxes, and they got into a friendship. There was a whole excitement going on in Washington at the time, in the late ’30s, where America was kind of documenting itself. For several years before that — well, for a long time — they’d been searching for an American way to make music, that wasn’t European. They’d been told that there was no folk music in the United States worth thinking about. And yet they heard a Dock Boggs record that was made only four or five years before, or Aunt Molly Jackson, this firebrand Kentucky singer, and here it was.”
The juxtaposition of the names of Boggs and Jackson is revealing. An earlier generation of scholars and collectors had contended that only those “Anglo-Saxon” ballads that had survived in the southeastern mountains qualified as folk songs, and that these were being crowded out by degenerate commercial materials. To younger, more functionally minded collectors and enthusiasts, it was another story.
“Alan Lomax went around with Pete, my brother, looking through traditional music record catalogs and listening to the records of early 78s, to figure out what folk music there was available on commercial recordings,” Seeger remember. While his recollection of that material pales next to the volumes of field recordings he heard around the house as a youngster, they formed a part of the stock he would draw on as an adult performer. More importantly, they helped to keep his mind open to sounds and styles regardless of the “purity” of their sources.
In the meantime, he was growing up in a house filled with folk music. “My parents would sing with us, in my mother’s midwestern accent and my father’s New England accent,” he says with a smile. A year after Mike took up the guitar, his sister Peggy discovered that the family housekeeper, Elizabeth Cotten, played, too. She became another model for his developing interest.
“What Libba always said in her concerts was that Peggy found her playing the family guitar and she was embarrassed,” he recalls. “But she’d been working in our household for I think at least five years before she took that down off the wall. She played piano, too, and I kind of wonder if she also did that when nobody was paying attention.