On Caritas in Veritate
Five Movies

Mike Seeger, R.I.P.

I got in the car yesterday and turned on the radio, which was tuned to the local public radio station, and heard someone talking about Mike Seeger. Gradually it dawned on me that the speaker was using the past tense, and that I was listening to an obituary. When I got home I looked around on the web and saw no mention of Seeger’s death until I went to his Wikipedia entry: he died of cancer this past Friday night.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the media at large don’t find him worthy of notice. But I do. Mike Seeger was, I think, the most substantial musician of the Seeger family. Pete has been important more as an organizer and discoverer and promotoer. (Mike was also less tiresomely propagandistic.) I’ve never really heard that much of his work, and yet it has had an influence on me. When I was a teenager and discovering real folk music, moving from groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Highwaymen to the artists who lay behind them, I was given, by my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Libby who had an interest in this music very atypical for the time and place, a four-disc folk music anthology issued by the Vanguard label. At the time Vanguard was the home of some of the top folk and quasi-folk artists, and there was a lot of wonderful music in that box. Much of it became part of my soul, including two tracks by Mike Seeger, “Little Moses” and “Young McAfee on the Gallows.” I didn’t like them at first. They were too rough and stark. They didn’t sound like what I thought of as folk music but more like what sophisticated people called hillbilly music, which I thought I didn’t like. But of course hillbilly music was folk music. Those two tracks grew on me, and I came to love them.

For some reason I’ve never gotten around to hearing more of Seeger’s music. Among those reasons, I suppose, are that it’s never been widely available, but perhaps more important was the fact that I tended to bypass people like him, who came to this music from outside its native time, place, and culture, and to go for the originals.

But I think that may be unfair to Mike Seeger, because I don’t think he was merely an imitator. He let himself be shaped by the music, and in turn shaped it, so that his work became not just an imitation but a continuation. That is a sort of hypothesis, based on my memory of what those two tracks actually sounded like—I’ve not listened to that anthology for some years—and of what others have said about his work. I believe I will test the hypothesis and buy something by him.

At any rate, I thank and honor this man who made the living preservation of this music his life’s work.

Here is one of the few obituaries I’ve seen; it gives a good overview of his life and of what he meant to American folk music. I’d like to see that film about the New Lost City Ramblers.

Here he is singing that standby of pop-folk, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”; notice how subtly different the phrasing is from the more slicked-up sort of thing most of us have heard.



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