Mike Seeger, 75; Versatile Musician Was a Force in Folk Revival

Mike Seeger, center, with Tracy Schwarz, left, and John Cohen, fellow members of the New Lost City Ramblers. Schwarz had replaced Tom Paley.
Mike Seeger, center, with Tracy Schwarz, left, and John Cohen, fellow members of the New Lost City Ramblers. Schwarz had replaced Tom Paley. (By Ed Grazda)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mike Seeger, 75, a folk musician, music historian and collector of traditional music who was a major influence in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, died Aug. 7 of multiple myeloma at his home in Lexington, Va.

The younger half brother of folk musician Pete Seeger and part of a renowned musical family, Mr. Seeger dedicated his life to documenting, teaching and keeping alive traditional music of the American South. The interwoven strands of Anglo-American ballads from the Appalachian hills and hollers, the blues laments of black people in the rural South and the gospel sounds of both black and white churches made up what he called the "true vine" of American music.

A singer and an instrumentalist, he was once described as a "one-man folk festival." He played banjo, fiddle, guitar, autoharp, jew's-harp, quills, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica, and recorded extensively on Folkways Records and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He made a number of recordings in the 1950s and 1960s as a member of the folk revival ensemble the New Lost City Ramblers.

Mr. Seeger influenced a number of musicians, including the young Bob Dylan. "Sometimes you know things have to change. . . . Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door and your head has to go into a different place," Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One." "Mike Seeger had that effect on me. He played on all the various planes, the full index of the old-time styles, [and] he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes."

Michael Seeger was born Aug. 15, 1933, in New York. His father, Charles Seeger, was an ethnomusicologist who once headed the folklore and ethnomusicology department at UCLA; his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a noted composer and folk song collector. Mr. Seeger and his two sisters grew up immersed in music.

In 1935, the family moved to Chevy Chase when Charles Seeger took a position with the Works Progress Administration in the Roosevelt administration. "Exciting people were always dropping in," Mike Seeger's sister Peggy, who also became a prominent folk singer, told Folkways Magazine. "Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, John Jacob Niles, Bess Hawes, Henry and Sidney Cowell, John and Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, composers and writers . . . and, of course, beloved Pete, our tall exotic half-brother, with his long, long-necked banjo and his big, big feet stamping at the end of his long, long legs."

In high school, Mr. Seeger left Chevy Chase for an alternative school in Vermont and at age 18 began teaching himself to play stringed instruments. He and Peggy were soon playing for square dances. At about 20, he began collecting songs on a tape recorder from traditional musicians he encountered in the Washington area.

Among his discoveries was Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten, who had learned to play the guitar -- left-handed and upside down -- as a youngster growing up in rural North Carolina and then had put the instrument aside for the next half-century. He had met Cotten in the late 1940s at Lansburgh's department store in Washington when Mr. Seeger's mother had taken her three children shopping at Christmas. Peggy wandered off, and Cotten, who was selling dolls at Landburgh's, brought her back.

Cotten became the Seegers' housekeeper, and Mike Seeger eventually taped her singing and playing. She became a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter whose classic "Freight Train" had an enormous impact on folk music. Cotten and Mr. Seeger celebrated her 90th birthday in 1983 by touring from New York to Hawaii. She died in 1987 at age 95.

Mr. Seeger, who was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, worked briefly in radio and in 1958 formed the New Lost City Ramblers with fellow traditional music enthusiasts John Cohen and Tom Paley. The Ramblers came together with "the explicit intention of performing American folk music as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies and television had begun to homogenize out diverse regional folkways," said Jeff Place, head archivist for the Smithsonian's folklife collections.

Relying primarily on Library of Congress field recordings and 78 rpm "old time" and "race" records from the 1920s and 1930s, the Ramblers revived a vast repertoire of songs and playing styles by such groups as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers and Ernest Stoneman and his Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers.

The Ramblers also modernized the repertoire with their own compositions, including a mock-patriotic ditty called "If George Washington Slept in All the Places He Said He Did, It's No Wonder He's the Father of Our Country." The Ramblers continued to play, with occasional periods of inactivity, into the 1990s.

Mr. Seeger produced 36 documentary recordings and 51 recordings of his own, including "Tipple, Loom and Rail" (1966), a collection of songs about coal mines, cotton mills and railroads, and his Grammy-nominated "Solo: Old-Time Country Music" (1991). His "Retrograss" (1999), produced in collaboration with David Grisman and John Hartford, recast rock-and-roll songs by Chuck Berry and the Beatles into old-time musical styles.

Mr. Seeger was nominated for six Grammy Awards and, shortly before his death, received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

His marriages to Marge Marsh Seeger and Alice Gerrard Seeger ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Alexia Smith of Lexington; three sons from his first marriage, Kim Seeger of Tivoli, N.Y., Chris Arley Seeger of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Jeremy Seeger of Bellevue, Mass.; four stepchildren, Cory Foster of Ithaca, N.Y., Jenny Foster of Rockville, Joel Foster of Silver Spring and Jesse Foster of the District; two sisters; two half brothers; and 13 grandchildren.

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