The ATM Blog regrets this Friday’s passing of Mike Seeger at age 75, a long-time contributor to the Smithsonian Folkways label. A dedicated proponent of "old-time" music, this accomplished musician and singer helped keep traditional, rural roots music alive, recording the performances of the musicians, forming revival groups that played the music in its original incarnation, and spreading knowledge to other musicians and listeners.
Seeger was essentially a music historian, as well as a skilled multi-instrumentalist; he was adept on the banjo, guitar, fiddle, autoharp and harmonica, among others. He wasn’t just Pete Seeger’s younger half-brother, by any means.
Sometimes it's difficult to describe Seeger’s type of music to today’s generation. In May 1997, Seeger described his beloved "old-time music" in a piece he wrote for Bluegrass Unlimited:
"Old-time music was the old-time name for real mountain-type folk music. Old-time music is the main foundation for bluegrass music. It is the kind of music that Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and in fact most rural people prior to the mid-nineteen twenties, were raised with. . . It's a rich and varied heritage of music—as rich as the roots music of any country. . .I can talk on and on about reasons for liking old-time and bluegrass music, but really it all boils down to "it just suits me."
Seeger spent most of his time with the three-piece, folk-revival outfit he founded in 1958, The New Lost City Ramblers, and influenced many musicians on the burgeoning folk scene, including Bob Dylan. Dylan, from his memoir Chronicles: Volume 1, praised the New Lost City Ramblers:
"Everything about them appealed to me—their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and especially I liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough."
Throughout his career, Mike Seeger was remarkably productive, both as a New Lost City Rambler and as a solo artist, earning six Grammy nominations and contributing to 75 Smithsonian Folkways albums.
On August 25, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will release 50 Years: Where Do You Come From, Where Do You Go?, a box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of The New Lost City Ramblers.