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Monday, April 23, 2012

Mike Seeger's Folk Tradition

'True Vine' biography details vital musician

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Mike Seeger was a founding member of the folk-blues revival string band the New Lost City Ramblers as well as a distinguished solo artist, concentrating on early American music. He was a virtuoso on many instruments, such as banjo, violin, guitar and autoharp, and his traditional singing voice could have been that of an American back-hills storyteller from as early as the 1920s. The subject of Bill C. Malone's Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life & Musical Journey (University of North Carolina Press) devoted his life to performing and recording, but also to collecting the folk music of white and black Southerners.

He was the son of musicologists Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger and a brother to Pete and Peggy Seeger. Intending to faithfully recast string bands of the 1920s, Mike formed the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, and it was this musical group that more than any other remained consistently in touch with early American mountain music.

For him, traditional music was always the “true vine.” Seeger recorded and produced more than 40 albums that included the work of Libba Cotten, Dock Boggs and Maybelle Carter, along with New Lost City Ramblers recordings and albums that never uprooted the vine that was true. As Malone relates, his authentic, musical ability brought forth an unusually candid statement from Bob Dylan in 1963: “Mike Seeger is really real.” Going further in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, Dylan reports that Seeger was “the supreme archetype… What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes… Nobody could just learn this stuff…” And then with the insight that only Dylan qualifies to expose, “Maybe I'd have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn't know.”

Seeger's performances during the folk/blues revival were full of self-effacing humor—characteristic, really, of the period of music performance that he fathomed with natural dexterity that was often comedic between songs. Or, with a sudden seriousness worthy of any accessible scholar, he would detail song histories with dramatic accuracy—and then play the given song without removing purity and at once bringing a cultural immediacy.

In 1984, Seeger began one of many renewed periods of intense research with a grant from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and another from the National Endowment for the Arts. He traveled with a camera crew throughout southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. His research was focused on documenting rural dance styles such as flatfooting and clogging. These steps were not only preserved on film, finally receiving visual documentation, but “they also presented prime demonstrations of the major theme that increasingly characterized Mike's work: evidence of the musical interchange that has always characterized African-American and white musical cultures.”

Though he was a multi-instrumentalist, his favored instrument was the five-string banjo, and on his numerous recordings he was as much an interpreter as he was an artist in his own right. His versions of traditional American music, while pure and correct, inspired younger musicians to see themselves performing those songs in a contemporary setting.

His passing in 2009 was a tremendous loss to all who seek to discover and perform traditional American music and participate in its diverse cultural heritage. Do forgive a final statement of remorse that is personal, but were it not for his patience with this author in the early spring of 1964, I would not have finally learned to play the guitar just the way I had heard it played by those I wanted to emulate. But my entry, here, is not unlike that of so many others. Mike Seeger always took the time to teach us, to keep the tradition clinging to the true vine.
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