PUBLICATION: The Roanoke Times
The honeysuckle once owned Mike Seeger's Rockbridge County land. It spilled over ledges like green water. Hugged trees. Buried rocks.
Periwinkle grew here, too, pinwheel flowers in tentacles of pine-colored leaves. Everywhere you looked, there were vines.
Years passed and Seeger tamed the honeysuckle, some of it anyway. His wife, Alexia Smith, has a picture of him in his garden-warrior wear, heading toward the woods with a tangle of greenery.
But one stubborn vine remains here. Seeger, a musician, collector, folklorist and internationally recognized authority on old-time music, will never trim it back. He calls it "true vine" and it is more idea than vegetation.
In the Bible, Jesus says: "I am the true vine," pruned by God to bear fruit swollen with promise.
To Seeger, more an evangelist of old-time music than anything else, true vine is "a great, long-growing oral tradition." It is a following of songs back to the days when every home had a banjo or a fiddle, when music grew wild around tired front porches, and bloomed.
'I've always looked south'
Seeger was born in 1933 and raised in a Maryland suburb of Washington.
His family, to understate things, was musical.
Mother Ruth Crawford Seeger was a significant composer and writer. Father Charles was a musicologist. Mike's half brother, Pete, now 81, became one ofthe country's best-known folk singers and offered his voice for socialjustice. Sister Peggy, 65 and a ballad singer, used her own voice to advance the women's movement.
Mike's interest was in old-time, the music he describes as "real, mountain-type folk music" and the foundation for bluegrass.
He turned his musical talents toward preservation and continuation.
When he was 18, Seeger started studying guitar with jazz's Charlie Byrd andclassical guitar's Sophocles Papas.
Six months later, he said, "I got completely taken up with the banjo."
Compared to others in his family, he was a late learner, though he has now tamed nine instruments including mandolin, Jew's harp, fiddle and autoharp. (He counts bass, cello and viola as one.)
But if Seeger was late in learning an instrument, he had been listening all along; to raw, wonderful music on the aluminum Library of Congress field recordings his parents would play in their home. Pioneering collectors had gone out and recorded that spare music all over the United States. His mother transcribed it, and both parents learned the old songs and sang them - Ruth, in her Midwest-meets-Florida accent, Charles with his cultured New England voice. Mike Seeger sang, too, especially songs that thrived closer to home in rural Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia.
"I've always looked south," said Seeger, who moved to his farmhouse near Lexington in 1981. "For my music, I've always looked south."
His obsession with the banjo would eventually help him flunk out of college, but his real education was just beginning.
When he was almost 20, Seeger began making field recordings like the ones he'd grown up on.
"It was as natural to me as walking and talking," he said. "It was an assumption. I loved the music. I liked it so well I wanted other people to hear it."
His first recordings were of Elizabeth Cotten, the family's housekeeper.
Seeger's parents had liked Cotten's stories and songs. He was attracted to her guitar playing on tunes like "Freight Train," now a folk standard, which the late Cotten composed at age 12. On a 1953 recording, she sings and strums an old nylon-stringed guitar while Seeger's mother types in the background.
Seeger recorded Cotten's first album, which was released by FolkwaysRecords, now Smithsonian Folkways, in 1957. She lived in a row house on Capitol Hill then. "She sat on her bed with her three great grandchildren sitting on the floor," Seeger recalled. "And I held the microphone for her."
When he would record other musicians around Washington and Maryland, Peggy Seeger would sometimes ride along in the passenger seat of the family's '38 Chevy.
She, too, had grown up on field recordings, and her parents had recorded a few people in their home. "But it was in our house, our territory," she said.
"We went - Mike and me - to trailer camps, to bars, to places our parentswould have died, if they'd known we were in them."
Roni Stoneman, later a comic star of "Hee-Haw," was 15 when Mike Seeger first started lugging his '55 Magnecord to Carmody Hills, Md., to preserve theconversations and songs of her father, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman. Pop, who had been featured on some of the earliest recordings of country music, sent Seeger to Southwest Virginia. "If you really want to hear the autoharp," he'd said, "go to Fries."
Roni Stoneman, now 62, remembers Seeger as serious and thoughtful. He dissected everything.
He could get her reluctant mama to play. He could get Roni to play, too, and he recorded her version of "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad."
"I thought to myself 'he's different, now what makes him different?'" she said. He looked like a slightly faded college professor, and dressed in brown instead of bright blue jeans.
"Everybody loved Michael because he would talk to the old people about themselves," Stoneman said. "They understood that someone understood them and loved what their culture was about. ... I don't remember anyone ever disliking him, except maybe a wife or two."
Though the old folks liked his company, they didn't necessarily believe he would make long-play records when he came back with heavier equipment months later.
"Pop told me straight," Seeger said, eyes bright at the memory. "He didn't think I'd actually put it out."
But Seeger released "The Stoneman Family & Old Time Southern Music" on Folkways, also in 1957.
"Because of him, our legacy will probably live forever," Stoneman said. "Because of him, a lot of people will live forever."
Seeger has recorded or edited some 30 collections of field recordings, often with exhaustive liner notes. He played on more than 20 albums with his influential New Lost City Ramblers, which he started with John Cohen and Tom Paley in 1958. He's recorded children's songs with his sister, old-time music with musician and former wife Alice Gerrard and a dozen albums and videos of his own.
His archives are filled with string band tunes, ballads and interviews. With the ringing of Mother Maybelle Carter's autoharp and the banjo of Norton's Dock Boggs. With people you've never heard of - real people, playing yesterday's music.
"I think it's important to keep as much of this going as possible," Seeger said. "Not because it's part of history; because it's part of us."
He wishes now he'd done more field recordings, spent more time on the back roads. He was in such a hurry then, married, with three young children who sometimes accompanied him on these trips.
His field collections were never best sellers, but that was never his aim.
He wanted to learn from and record musicians who were unique and timeless.
John Cohen, a founding member of the still-enduring Ramblers, believes the music - the people - became real for Seeger just after the Korean War.
Seeger, a conscientious objector, was finishing out his service doing kitchen duty in a tuberculosis ward in Pikesville, Md. There, he met the family of Hazel Dickens, a vocalist known now for her impassioned tunes about miners and the working class.
"He had heard the music - all those things from the Seeger background," said Cohen, who married Seeger's younger sister, Penny, now deceased. "But they really humanized it."
Before that time, Seeger said, he had spent his life in suburbia. At the hospital, "I worked, every day, with working-class people. I'd never done that before. That was an education for me."
At the end of the day, he joined the Dickens family to play music. He would spend much of his time learning and recording the music of the working class.
"Once he set his mind on doing this," Cohen said, "hespent his life at it."
The Ramblers formed a few years later when folk music was beginning another resurgence, kicked off, in part, by the Kingston Trio's version of "Tom Dooley."
The music had been rekindled as recently as the late 1940s and early 1950s by people who favored politically inspired tunes during paranoid times; older brother Pete Seeger, who was in the thick of it, was labeled a communist and blacklisted.
During the later resurgence, Northern city musicians, fascinated with rustic Southern life, tried to lead the public to the old music in different ways.
Some groups, like the Kingston Trio and even Pete Seeger's Weavers, updated the sound to fit in with popular music of the time, hoping people would follow it back.
The Ramblers (with Tracy Schwarz replacing Paley) weren't interested inmaking concessions. "They were making people admire how amazing those old traditional sounds were," said Tony Seeger, head of Smithsonian Folkways and son of John Seeger, one of Mike's half brothers.
The Seeger siblings never really debated their varied musical paths. "My father believed strongly in family music," Pete Seeger explained from his home in New York. When he would visit his father's house, they would all sing and play, Ruth and Charles sometimes even yanked their younger children out of school to participate.
Charles Seeger had always been quite specific when he spoke of a folk revival in America: "Let the young people hear the music as it's made by the people who really know how to make it well and let them decide what they want to do with it," Pete Seeger remembered him saying.
Pete, who has led sing-alongs and performed traditional songs, as well as protest songs at civil rights rallies, practiced all possible uses of folk music in today's world, Mike Seeger explained. For Mike, though he would also come to appreciate the newer bluegrass, there remained one seed. From it grew one, true vine.
"He is, by far, the best musician in the family," Pete Seeger said. "He's stuck to one kind of music that he wanted to become expert in, and he really has become an expert."
'Wild, heady times'
He doesn't tour now as much as he used to, but Mike Seeger spent much of the1960s on the festival circuit with the Ramblers.
If the group's music spoke to rural life and the values, the stages they performed on spoke to the era at hand. The band played on the same stages as Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
"Those were wild, heady times," Seeger said. He and his band mates brought along artists they had rediscovered in the rural south, people like Boggs, a miner from Wise County, and Kenneth Benfield, an autoharp player from Mount Ulla, N.C., who performed one year at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
"It was out of this world," recalled Benfield, 77 and a cattle farmer. "Swarms of people. They wined you, dined you and fed you. And they were really interested in country and bluegrass and folk music."
Seeger drove all over the country with 12 instrument cases in a Volkswagen bus.
Among his other upcoming projects - a CD tentatively titled "Music from True Vine, Vol. II" and a series of videotapes offering instruction in older banjo styles - is a two-CD set of the Ramblers' live performances. The New Lost City Ramblers have been called archivists. They've been called crusaders.
"We didn't set out to be crusaders," Cohen said. "We set out to play music that we liked, and it spread like the dickens."
Cohen believes Seeger's biggest contribution is in keeping the crusade alive.
Crusader. Missionary. Even proselytizer. People who know Mike Seeger talk about his dogged pursuit of this music in religious terms.
"People don't like to hear much about a mission today," Seeger said. He laughed. "They probably would if I were a little bit more humorous about it."
He does add bits of humor to his performances. And Pete offers this image of his brother, a champion cyclist before music became the obsession: Mike Seeger, playing the banjo while balancing on a unicycle.
But Seeger has a reputation - perhaps even a countenance - for approaching his music earnestly. Friends say he has to work to relax, but that he succeeds.
He'll go to a contra dance with his wife, and often, they sing together after supper. At least once a week, Seeger will set a loaf of bread to rising in a room just off the kitchen.
He is taking time now to focus on his own music, his twist in the vine.
"It's about time," Roni Stoneman said. "He was always so busy taking care of the rest of us."
But he is still doing that, too. He no longer makes field recordings - his interest lies in music that came before mass media, and those artists are mostly gone now.
But he continues to roam through his archives, finding musicians he says need to be heard, like Cousin Emmy, a banjo player and one of relatively few women in the early country music scene.
Recent releases include a video on the musical styles of the Carter Family and the Grammy-nominated "Southern Banjo Sounds" recorded in his farmhouse studio.
Last year, he recorded "Retrograss," also nominated for a Grammy, with mandolinist David Grisman and fiddler John Hartford. The CD contains a version of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," and the Beatles' "When I'm 64," seemingly a break from form, though the old-time instrumentation remains.
When the trio appeared on "Prairie Home Companion" in March, host Garrison Keillor said: "That's something I never thought I'd hear: Mike Seeger playing a Beatles song."
Seeger will play with the trio several more times this year, while continuing his solo appearances.
This week, he mailed off the lengthy notes for the first of his three banjo styles videos.
Smithsonian Folkways' Tony Seeger said the videos, which will teach traditional styles to a new generation through writing, sight and sound, may be his most important contribution to old-time music.
Mike Seeger doesn't know what people will remember him for the most: preserving and presenting traditional music, or performing and reviving it.
"I think I'd like to be remembered for both, because it's all part of the same thing," he said.
The same vine. The true vine.
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