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On Friday evening, August 7th, 2009, one of the greats of American music passed away. Mike Seeger was a member of the renowned Seeger Family, including Pete and Peggy. Mike was also an old and dear friend, someone who was of inestimable influence to me in my work. In his 75 years Mike championed American traditional music in was both profound and palpable. In 1958 he founded the New Lost City Ramblers along with John Cohen and Tom Paley. The Ramblers not only introduced urban audiences to Southern rural music, they served as a template for hundred of other groups that would explore American roots music througout the folk revival and beyond. I remember seeing Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in a little schoolhouse in Nickelsville, VA some years back and hearing Ralph introduce a song, “Here’s a little number we learned from a New Lost City Ramblers album.” Full circle!
Mike did not have formal folklore training but he was one of the most influential folklorists of the 20th century. His groundbreaking recordings gave insight into our musical heritage and, more importantly, made it feel vital, immediate, and accessible. He introduced new audience to Maybelle Carter, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotton, Kilby Snow, and countless other elders. His own performances and recordings were mind-boggling in their skill, intelligence, and wry sense of humor.
And not just incidentally, he was one of the most encouraging and generous of mentors. He was thrilled to see a second and third revival of string bands following the Ramblers’ wake. He was not threatened by the innovation and daring that many of the younger bands exhibited. Rather, he saw them as a natural extension of what he’d witnessed in rural communities around the South: a synthesis of everything at their disposal all rooted in a love and respect of tradition. He was an indefatigable lover of music and dance, as often in the audience and on the dance for as on the stage. He was, to the end, curious, hungry and open to learning things that challenged what he was sure he knew.
When I was a young, over-enthusiastic musician just emerging on the scene Mike shared contacts, ideas, recordings, and evenings of music in ways that ignored the fact that he was my senior in every possible way. Whenever we were at festivals or other performance events together we requested sets next-to one another or even together. Our common well of knowledge in Southern musical styles allowed us to extemporaneously dip into a wild variety of adventures on stage and thrilled us both, I know.
One of my fondest memories in sharing a stage of stories and song with Mike and his half-brother, Pete, at the Virginia Festival of the Book a number of years ago. During that evening I remember telling a story of being at a festival in Minnesota with Mike back in the early 1980’s. He was traveling on that tour with the great guitarist, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotton, then in her 90’s. Mike was, as ever, tending to her every need and desire, all the while frantically rushing about…in his inimitable, energetic way…moving monitors around, setting up microphones just so. I sat down with Libba to chat and it was a bit like watching a tennis match with Mike running to-and-fro in front of us. Finally, Libba turned to me and casually asked, “John, who’s going to take me around when Mike dies?” Who indeed?
Mike’s family has lost a husband, a brother, a father. I’ve lost a teacher, a partner-in-crime, and an old and treasured friend. We’ve all lost one of the most fiercely intelligent and dedicated of men, a wonderful soul, a breath-taking musician, and a damn good dancer.