I had the opportunity to emcee a concert Mike Seeger was giving at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern a few years back and as a young man looking out over an ardent crowd of old-time music lovers, most twice my age, alongside top notch musicians like Molly Tenenbaum and Jody Stecher and Mike himself waiting to the side I found I didn’t know what to say. Moments before I had stepped into the Tractor’s Green Room and found Mike sitting quietly by himself with his guitar. Musicians before gigs are similar I’ve found; they don’t particularly want to talk, they tune their instruments and noodle around on them. Mike wasn’t much different in that way. The smallness of it all though was different. He looked slender to my eyes and awfully quiet. He neither seemed nervous or surprised at the attention he received or bought into his hype as living legend. I was again impressed during the show because in his own way he was there to entertain. Too often, this type of thing becomes an educational or somber affair of times past and gone. All the old stuff gets gathered up and placed in glass box so we can look without touching. Mike wasn’t like that at all. He knew what we thought as we looked at him in his suspenders and jeans and button down shirt. He knew the slightly professorial feel he had and used it against us with sly jokes and upside down tales, and double entendre songs. At the end Mike wasn’t much different than all those home movies and field recordings he made with John Cohen and friends back over all the years. He had tales to tell and songs to sing. A burden of legacy to carry on, a people’s history to tell, but like all real histories the facts blur and change and it never comes out the same way twice.
Now, this next bit is outsider’s perspective mind you, based on little fact and all subjectivity. As with all families with multiple famous siblings we each have our favorite. For instance, I prefer Alec, while my wife really likes, inexplicably so, Billy. Don’t even get us started on the Stoneman’s and even though the Statler’s weren’t actually brothers who are would we be kidding to say many a dinner table wasn’t ruined with the inharmonious argument of Lew vs. Harold. When it comes to the Seeger family I’ve mostly leaned toward Mike. Maybe I like the underdog or we have the kinship of both being a little brother, though I can’t imagine Pete holding a young Mike face down in a painful arm lock after Mike threw a rusted railroad spike into his gut, but these things happen to the best of us and really, who’s to say. Charles Seeger wouldn’t have approved I’m sure, but I can’t say that my father did either. So, there it is, I’ve sided with Mike and I’m not going to apologize for it or allow anyone to say that taking sides disparages the other. I don’t and I ain’t.
Pete has always, at least to my ears been a bit more tonic, where Mike has been more gin. There’s a crooked grin coming from Mike and he plays a bit of the trickster crow. It’s not that what he says isn’t truth or what he plays isn’t right, it’s that sometimes he fractures it and plays it all bent. There’s an old Zen teaching about looking at the moon rather than the finger pointing at it. Mike could always trick you into looking at the fat old orb and forget all about that finger.
Mike was born in New York City in 1933 to Charles and Ruth Seeger. The poor kid didn’t have a chance. His parents worked with John and Alan Lomax in the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress. His half-brother, Pete, performed in the Weavers and the Almanac Singers, and well, is Pete Seeger – what needs to be said, no? His sister, Peggy, was a singer and songwriter, protester and, like her brother, a walking encyclopedia of folk song and for a brief time his housekeeper was folk legend Elizabeth Cotton. An accountant he was never meant to be.
He began playing the autoharp at about the age of 12 and would add fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, and lap style guitar by the time he was done. He never made music as smooth as his brother and sister did, but the ragged but right quality about it sounds good to my ears. The fiddles are a little squeaky and the vocals kind of match, but the immediacy is there. Remember this is a kid who was listening to Lomax field recordings growing up pressed on aluminum and played with cactus needles. How clean was it ever going to be?
Traditional music is a twisted path. It comes from…it sounds like…you play it on…
Easy to answer, easy to argue. Often though it comes from popular songs from our past. Broadsides, composed and sung about local events, murders, love affairs. Someone else sings it and changes the town or who did the killing or the loving and so it goes. The path continues to be walked down and eventually becomes a lane, which itself turns into a road and no one remembers why exactly that curve is where it is. It just is and how it’s always been and so shall it be. That’s how we arrive at a place where traditional music shouldn’t have drums or electric guitars and big production though all of these things are accessible to the people now as mouth harps out of a Sear’s catalog were years ago.. Be wary of the path you walk down, lest it walk down you!
Mike never strayed from the path in the way some of his contemporaries would like Bob Dylan (b. 1941) , Elvis Presley (b. 1935), Chuck Berry (b. 1926). All of these singers worked within the traditions of country and blues and tin pan alley material, but only Mike would keep the source as close to his chest. There’s a prankster in there though as there is in the other singers mentioned. He never seemed interested in simply copying something, or educating the masses, it seems to my ears his main interest was the heart of the songs. The way they spoke truth over generations. None of this is to say he hasn’t worked out of posterity. Southern Banjo Sounds, True Vine and Early Southern Guitar Sounds all do just that. It’s what else they do that interest me though. Haunting songs like his version of “Wind and Rain” from Solo-Old Time Music or licentious songs like “Fishing Blues”. He covered the songs of all three of the before mentioned peers on his Retrograss album with David Grisman and John Hartford. Is there any surprise that when those three men sat down they played everything from “Uncle Pen” to “When I’m Sixty-four”?
So, there it is. True Vine. It twists and climbs trees and brick without caring which it is. It finds water where it is and holds onto what it’s got. If there was ever a map of traditional music, where it’s been and maybe more importantly where it’s going Mike Seeger would be one of the chief cartographers.
Oh, and what did I day that evening at the Tractor? I told the truth as I knew it. I told the people I wasn’t there to educate them on Mike Seeger, for many of them were much better suited than I for doing that, nor was I there to speak words of wisdom about the folk process – no one wants to hear that stuff – but simply that I loved his music and it was a small way to share in it and if the heavy job fell to me to bring this man, this legend, onto stage then at the very least I’ll try not to screw up his name.
Post Script: Just because it keeps me honest…and because my Dad first read it to me when I was a boy.
C’mon, read it. Poetry is good for you. Not like brussel sprouts, more like tomatoes.
The Calf Path
by Sam Walter Foss
One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail, all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then 300 years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still, he left behind his trail
And thereby hangs my mortal tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way.
And then, a wise bell weathered sheep
Pursued the trail, o’er~vale and steep,
And drew the flocks behind him too
As good bell weathers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade
Thru those old woods, a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path,
But still they followed, do not laugh,
The first migrations of that calf.
And thru the winding woods they stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street.
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowed thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis.
And men, two centuries and a half
Trod the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a 100 thousand route
Followed the zig-zag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A 100 thousand men were led
By one calf, near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way
And lost 100 years per day.
For this such reverence is lent
To well establish precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained , and called to preach.
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out, and in, and forth, and back,
And still their devious course pursue
To keep the paths that others do.
They keep the paths a sacred groove
Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh
Who saw that first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach,
But I am not ordained to preach.