Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mike Seeger, 1933-2009

Mike Seeger, long-time collector, performer, and teacher of traditional American folk music, passed away on August 7. Mike was proficient on a number of instruments including guitar, autoharp, fiddle, mandolin, and harmonica, but he claimed that the banjo was his main instrument.

Mike was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that formed in the 1950s and continued performing and recording into the 2000s. It was their album String Band Instrumentals, given to me by a fellow St. Johns College student around 1965, that ruined my life by presenting me with the old-time music of the Appalachians and southern Piedmont.

On the album cover Mike is in the middle, and that's his autograph. It reads "an artifact! Mike Seeger 2/05."

I was listening to the Beatles at the time, and this rustic, acoustic music didn't immediately grab me; however, a few of the tunes did tickle my ear, and as I continued to listen I gradually became aware that, somewhere deep in my mind, I knew I had to do it. After a false start with a tenor banjo, I got a 5-string banjo. Then I found Pete Seeger's famous instruction manual in the Hagerstown Public Library and got started in earnest. I've been learning ever since.

I first met Mike at the Florida Folk Festival in 2004. Then in 2005 he was an instructor at the Suwanee Banjo Camp, a weekend series of workshops held at Stephen Foster State Park on the banks of the Suwanee River. I took a couple of lessons with him and found him to be a clear, patient teacher, very hands-on. I have some photos of these workshops and will post a few when I find them. It was at this camp that he kindly autographed my copy of the old album that got me started.

Anyone wanting an introduction to the sound of old-time, traditional, acoustic American music can do no better than to listen to the New Lost City Ramblers. I recommend the two compilation cds The New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years (1958-1962) and The New Lost City Ramblers Vol. 2, 1963-1973: Out Standing in Their Field. But there are others; just do a search on There is also a new (2009) documentary film, Always Been a Rambler, available on dvd. You can view the trailer here:

Mike, if you can hear us, we're already missing you.

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