Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Homage to Mike Seeger, 1933 - 2009

Last weekend brought the sad news that Mike Seeger, one of America's most beloved and influential folk musicians, passed away at his home in Lexington, Virginia, at the age of 75. He was the younger half-brother of Pete Seeger, about whom I have written in a previous blog entry, and Peggy Seeger, also a major folk artist. He was also the son of Charles Seeger, in many ways the founder of the field of ethnomusicology, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, a major American composer.

Mike's obituaries were carried by many newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Telegraph,

A moving radio profile by Paul Brown ran on NPR the day after Mike's death. Some of his best loved and most representative songs can be heard on the associated NPR Web page.

Smithsonian Folkways--the world's pre-eminent archive of folk music, incorporating the historic Folkways Records label--has published an informative tribute to Mike's work, and has posted an interview and performance on YouTube.

Mike's own Website is also rich with musical resources.

I first became familiar with Mike Seeger's music when I was in college, and a number of the songs that I sang and played on the five-string banjo with my roommates Fritz Mulhauser (flat-pick guitar) and Daniel Simberloff (mandolin), were taken from the albums of the New Lost City Ramblers, a seminal group, co-founded by Mike in 1958, which strove to propagate or even revive a number of traditional musical styles known fondly as "old-timey music", featuring such instruments as the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, as well as the lesser-known dulcimer, dobro, autoharp, and mouth-harp. The Arhoolie Foundation (Arhoolie is a small but influential folk music record label) has posted a video preview of a documentary film on the group, "Always Been a Rambler", which includes some splendid footage of Mike speaking and playing with the Ramblers over the years.

I had met Mike briefly after a concert during my college years in the early 1960s, but was able to speak with him at some length in the hours prior to a concert which he shared with Pete and Peggy two years ago under the sponsorship of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. The event was a last-minute add-on following a major two-day symposium and concert at the Library of Congress, whose Website features Webcasts and photos of this extraordinary event--"How Can I Keep From Singing--which focused on the life and achievements of all the Seegers, who could well compete in breadth of talents and scope of influence with the Jacksons for the title of "America's Musical First Family."

Before the FSGW concert, during sound-check time, I was interviewing both Pete and Peggy for television features for the VOA Urdu Service (of which I was then chief), and--given the shortness of time--I resolved to interview Mike on his next visit to Washington, since he lived fairly close by. Though that intention remained, somehow we never reconnected, and sadly, this is my first writing about him--too late, too late.

I had sensed the gentleness, humor and deep humanity of the man through his music and performances, but to speak with him, sitting a few feet away was yet another experience--soft yet richly resonant voice, sparkling eyes, and an extraordinary musical wisdom.

Mike, we all will miss you.

No comments: