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Mike Seeger Passes

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A giant of American Roots Music has left us, after a week in hospice, following a long struggle with cancer. When I heard he was near the end, I wrote him:

Mike, I am very sorry to know I’ll not see you again. But you will live in my mind for the rest of my life. I will remember what a great feel for music you have always had, and how you have exemplified honesty, dignity, and respect in your music.

It was a major pleasure for Joan and me to perform and visit with you at that little festival a few years ago in the Montana mountains. We will always remember that.

I will keep this short, as I’m sure it must be tiring to hear from as many people as you have touched over the years. Please know that you’re leaving this earth a better place for your time here.

Pete Wernick

Mike is being eulogized by many who list his lifetime of unique accomplishments in traditional American music. Anyone interested in such information should have no trouble finding it in the wake of his loss. Here is a stunning and moving set of photos taken of Mike in recent years. Here is a radio report on NPR. And from his local newspaper in Virginia.

I wrote the following at the request of Banjo Newsletter for a tribute to Mike:

So many reasons to honor Mike Seeger. Many others have detailed his accomplishments regarding old time string band music, which of course were monumental, but there’s much more. Though his career emphasis was not on bluegrass or bluegrass banjo, here are some highly significant accomplishments:

  1. Mike recorded and produced in the 1950s American Banjo Scruggs Style and Mt. Music Bluegrass Style, the first LP records featuring bluegrass style banjo.
  2. He did the first *accurate* Scruggs tabs ever published (for the 1962 edition of Pete Seeger’s book).
  3. He recorded and disseminated many live shows of important bluegrass groups of the 50s and early 60s, whose music was not readily available, enabling far-from-the-southeast fledgling pickers such as myself (+ Jerry Garcia and David Grisman among many others) to hear people like Bill Keith, Allen Shelton, etc. and learn more music.

It was always special to be around Mike. A lasting remembrance:

When I first met Mike in the 1980s I was touring a lot with Hot Rize, and I was very curious to hear what it was like when the New Lost City Ramblers were a national attraction and an influence on many pickers, circa 1960. They traveled coast to coast, and though I knew they wouldn’t have had a bus, like Hot Rize, I asked what their vehicle was. At first I thought he said a VW bus. “No,” he corrected me, “a VW bug.” That was a shocker! I remembered seeing them in 1964 with all sorts of vintage instruments on stage, and indeed he said it was tricky packing them all into the Beetle along with the three musicians. I shook my head in wonder.

Then he told me about another part of traveling that still amazes me: “non-sched airlines”. He explained: To save money on cross-country plane travel, there was a system something like a taxi improvising travel to maximize ridership. You might be heading for St. Louis from Washington, D.C. The first stop may be to Philadelphia to pick up a few passengers, then over to Pittsburgh to drop off some people and pick up a few more. Then over to Columbus to get some more folks, and on to Chicago to drop off some and get some more, and so on, till you finally arrived in St. Louis. This was before interstate highways so it still saved considerable time, and of course avoided the considerable hassles of long-distance car travel.

I asked how long it might take to get across the whole country that way, and he said typically about 24 hours. Yikes! But I can see why it made sense at the time as a reasonably economical alternative to doing it by VW Beetle!

That little conversation has stuck a long time in my memory. When talking to young musicians, I try to make a point to let them know the obstacles faced by “the founding fathers” of our music. Most of us have a hard time comprehending how different things were just 50 or 60 years ago, when playing on top of concession stands at drive-in movies, and traveling long roads in VW Beetles, and taking non-sched airlines were the best choices available. All for the sake of playing music for a living, and to the benefit of all of us listeners and pickers.

Without mentioning a word about the great sounds and importance of Mike’s contributions as a musician, I thought I’d offer that bit of perspective about what it took to accomplish what he did.

One last thing: Mike was from a highly educated family with a strong sense of propriety. His demeanor and use of language, even his facial expressions, somehow expressed a patrician sensibility. Yet he spent his life immersing himself in the music and culture of folks the general society dismissed as “hillbillies”. He studied it, he mastered it, he wrote about it, he promoted it in many ways, always in that gentle vaguely upper-class way with great respect and not a trace of condescension. This always struck me as remarkable, yet in Mike’s case, so very natural.

During the 20th transition of the U.S. landscape from primarily rural to primarily urban/suburban, the music scene changed dramatically, and much was lost. Thanks to a handful of hardcore enthusiasts, much of it survived and has been held up and transmitted to future generations for its ongoing life and preservation. Thank you all, and especially Mike Seeger.

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