PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
September 25, 2007

A More Homey Kind of Music

by Jim Newsom

America is full of individuals who went into the family business, be it a law firm, construction company, bank, plumbing contractor, newspaper or even political office. George W. Bush and his father both know a little something about following the path that daddy trod before.

Mike Seeger laughed a couple of weeks ago when I noted that he, too, had gone into the family business.

"I didnít think Iíd be doing it for a living when I started," he said. "But then I began experimenting with singing on my own and the possibility occurred about 1960. Thatís when I started playing full-time with the New Lost City Ramblers and doing my own solo music."

Seeger, who will perform at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts on Saturday night, comes from one of the first families of folk music. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musician and scholar whose pioneering work in ethnomusicology was crucial in the preservation and promotion of folk music. His mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a serious composer who became a collector and transcriber of folk songs after she married Charles. His sister is folksinger Peggy Seeger, and his half-brother is folk music icon Pete Seeger.

But Mike shies away from putting the "folk" label on his music.

"Call it old-time country music or old-time mountain music," he said. "That will help define it a little better if it needs to be defined quickly.

"To a lot of people, folk music means a contemporary song singer with a guitar. Thatís not what I do. I donít use the word Ďfolk musicí any more as a result. Some people might even call my music bluegrass, but it isnít. Itís the predecessor to bluegrass."

Ironically, the Seeger household had no radio in Mikeís younger days. But it was a home filled with music.

"That was the way it was until I was about 12 or 13," he recalled, "when my uncle gave me a radio. My folks sang with us and had these field recordings that were in our family collectionórecordings by such people as Skip Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons; Iíll never forget those boogie-woogie 12-inch records that they had. Fantastic! That just thrilled me when I heard it."

Pete, who is 14 years older, also had a major musical impact on his younger brother.

"Pete didnít live with us," Mike explained. "He was of my fatherís first marriage. By the time I was seven I heard him on the radio. My father brought a radio home from work in 1940 or í41, and we were familiar with himóheíd come visit us. We had his early records with the Almanac Singers and I listened to them until I broke some of them. I loved what he was doing.

"Iíll never forget he came to visit us when I was 16. He was getting ready to record one of his early recordings, I think it was ĎDarling Corey.í He was practicing up on the third floor of the house we lived in, and it was just a real thrill to hear him play. He was a fantastic banjo picker and singer at that time."

Mike Seeger first made his own mark during the folk music boom of the late í50s and early í60s with the New Lost City Ramblers, a group known for playing string band music from the 1920s and í30s. He has continued to explore that fertile terrain through the years. I asked him what constitutes "old-time" music.

"There are no rules," he replied, "but in general it means that youíre singing older songs in an older style. Of course, I may add a line or two to a song, especially if I canít understand the original. Some people will actually write an old-time tune, but thatís pretty rare. There are so many good old-time songs that I really like to sing the old ones.

"Mostly, old-time music is string music, but itís also the Jews Harp, harmonica tunes, the quill or panpipes. Itís quiet music that I play. Some of the pieces are breakdowns, and quite often thereís humor. I always bring at least eight instruments, so thereís a variety of sounds."

His repertoire comes from the pre-show biz, pre-recording industry, pre-television era when neighbors gathered on porches and in living rooms to share stories and songs.

"It was meant to be home-style music," he said, "for self-entertainment and entertaining friends and family. Thatís where it lived for hundreds of years until recording and radio started in the 1920s. Industrialization and urbanization really changed everything, and radio and records were part of the revolution."

Seeger, who has lived near Lexington in Rockbridge County for the last 26 years, sees a hunger for something more organic and more relaxed in the fast-paced rush-rush of modern life:

"A friend of mine said once, ĎItís not that you know what you like; itís that you like what you know.í If you hear mostly electric instruments and drum sets, then thatís what most people go with. But I think quite a few people like to have the relief of less in-your-face music, a more homey kind of music. I consider that Iím just part of this revival of acoustic, homemade music. There are thousands of people who are playing fiddles and banjos and singing with their friends. Itís a movement of players and musicians.

"There are some occasional gatherings where nearly everybody plays something. The best known is Galax [Old Fiddlers Convention]. They get together and just have a big music party."

Mike Seeger thinks thatís something we all need to do more of.

"You feel good," he said enthusiastically, "when you can make some music for yourself!"

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.