Popular culture is a strange thing. One day something is popular and the next thing you know it’s retro because its time has gone by. The resurgence of popular interest in “old timey” music aka folk music, AKA mountain music, that has been brought on by the Cohen brothers fabulous film “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou,” has made the roots of American popular music new again. Rhino Records has just released a collection called “Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970,” which seeks to chronicle the folk troubadours who influenced such folk rock icons as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and today the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Blasters.
Among the artists in the collection you will see the name Seeger several times. Pete Seeger and Peggy Seeger both of whom sing traditional music that they have written as well as traditional standards are obvious, but nestled in the collection is also a little band called, “The New Lost City Ramblers,” which was fronted by Mike Seeger, who plays only standards. It’s no accident that this trio of siblings is so heavily present in a collection of folk music. They are considered the heirs of one of the first families of American folk music, their father Charles was a pioneering musicologist who helped chronicle American traditional music pre-1930 and his mother, Ruth Crawford was a music educator and the author of “American Folk Songs for Children.”
The family was close to the famous field recorders, the Lomaxs and the house was always alive with the sound of original traditional music that had been collected and recorded at the root of traditional American music: the people who had passed it down from generation to generation. Mike Seeger believes “you can only communicate about music if you can hear the music,” and he is a living embodiment of this belief. One of the ways he preserves traditional music is via his amazing website, which is almost a master class in the history of traditional music, and the other way is by continuing the live performance of the music he was raised on. If traditional music is a religion, then Mike Seeger is a voice singing in the woods of his home in Virginia.
On January 25th he will be coming out of the woods and to Los Angeles to play a show at UCLA’s Royce Hall in support of the Rhino box set. Along with Seeger will be fellow icons of the 60s urban folk revival: Tom Paxton, John Hammond and Loudin Wainwright III. I spoke with Mike Seeger via phone from his home in Virginia where he is working on a new CD called The Vine due out soon on Smithsonian Records in May and looking forward to playing in Los Angeles.
CARLYE ARCHIBEQUE: Tell how you came to play traditional folk music.
MIKE SEEGER: My parents and the Lomaxs saw that the older styles of orally transmitted music were giving way to commercially dominated music and they set about trying to make sure, as much as they could, that some of the older styles remained viable and in the public’s consciousness. My brother Pete started playing the banjo then and that was his way of doing it. My folks were mostly involved in music administration and music education. My mother put together books of folk songs for children and beyond that, my sister Peggy, mostly in England, well she sings both the traditional songs and her own songs, and I followed up. I sing strictly old traditional songs and I strive for traditional style.
CA: You’ve said that old time music just seems to fit you. What is it that draws you to it over contemporary music?
CA: Is it a feeling you have? Is it comforting, like the difference between being home and going to a hotel?
MS: That’s a good way of looking at it, the feeling of being at home. That’s a thought that never occurred to me. It’s home-music. It’s the music I was raised on. Some people turn their backs on the music they were raised on.
CA: Some people do rebel from their roots, but you seemed to have embraced them to an extreme measure.
MS: Yes, and gone deeper and deeper with it, because there’s so much there, I find it a very rich tradition. There were so many different people playing so many different songs in so many different ways, each with such feeling, in those days, especially before recorded music began homogenizing and changing things. It’s intriguing to me and it’s accessible to me on a day to day basis and I can play it whenever I feel like it…well, I guess I can’t play it whenever I feel like it because there’s too much, unfortunately, email and travel plans. But my reward is playing this music for fun and to a certain extent I play it for my living.
CA: You mentioned email and all of these other things that invade your life. I know you mentioned in one of your essays on your site that it became easier for people to turn on the radio than to learn to play instruments or to sing songs. It seems like the old time music seems to have a feeling of casualness because there weren’t twenty things competing for your attention when you got home.
MS: Yes, it could be that way. And then of course within the tradition there were people who followed it completely to the extent that there were great virtuosos of the music down through the years. They didn’t make records, nobody wrote about them, but they became regionally, or maybe just in a local area, well known, and loved and valued at dances and musical gatherings. So there were people who could play maybe two or three tunes and then people who had hundreds of tunes in their repertoire or singers who didn’t’ play anything, but had maybe 300 songs in their head. That’s 300 of the great songs I mean, including the old songs and some new ones. People liked Almeda Riddle, for instance, the great Arkansas ballad singer. All of these things were possible. Today there are thousands of people across the country who are playing this kind of music and then thousands more who are playing complementary types of music that are different cultures from the Southern Celtic, or sometimes Afro-Celtic.
CA: So what do you think of your fellow performers for the UCLA show?
MS: It will be a unique experience, this one.
CA: How is the show going to run, are you going to play together?
MS: No, we’re each going to do sets, I’ll be first.
CA: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
MS: It’s a good thing for me because in a way the music I play is the foundation for everything else.
CA: Do you have any idea which songs you will be playing at your upcoming show in Los Angeles?
MS: I’m sure I’ll be playing something on the gourd banjo, which is the original type of banjo that came to this country with the Africans. It’s not an original instrument, I had one made, but it’s like the original. The song was played mostly by the African American mountain men, mostly, and those from the Piedmont too. It’s one of the old songs from England, “The Coo Coo Bird.” They learned it and they played it on the banjo, and then the white people learned it too. A gourd banjo is just a gourd with it’s top sliced off and a skin stretched across it and a neck.
CA: So the banjo was originally African?
MS: It was brought here by the Africans and played mostly by them until the early 19th century. It was played by European Americans to some small extent, and became a European American instrument from the late 1800s on.
CA: I have to ask, cause I love the answers I get, what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
MS: A fiddle and a violin are the same instrument. A fiddle means that you’re probably playing rural music. (chuckles a little) Though classical musicians who are very secure in their place in the world don’t mind calling them fiddles, but only if they don’t have to worry about their place in the world.
CA: What other instruments will you be bringing along that are unique?
MS: I’ll bring an auto harp, have you seen a zither? It’s more or less like a zither but it has bars on it to press certain strings to make chords. It’s used in the rural south, especially Northern Virginia and throughout rural America.
CA: How was it made?
MS: It was invented by some Germans in the 1870s, in that gadget happy era, and it took hold in the rural areas and has been marketed by Sears & Roebuck every since it failed as a fad in the north in the1890s. And then I play the Jews Harp which is a little iron instrument you play in your mouth.
CA: That’s what Snoopy plays isn’t it?
MS: Yes, but this is played very differently than that.
CA: Well, I would hope so cause he’s only animated.
MS: (Laughs) He just goes boink, boink.
CA: You refer to the music you play as traditional music.
MS: Yes, and traditional is a word just like folk, a name for music that has been changed through commercial use in the past 30 or 40 years.
CA: So what would you mark as the boundaries of the music you play?
MS: Most of the music I play, I play in pre-1930s style, but one or two of the songs I play might be from the 1930s.
CA: Los Angeles, and a good portion of the music listening public, does tend toward the contemporary music tastes, what would you say to people who aren’t familiar with this type of music to entice the to try something old that’s new again, so to speak.
MS: Well, this music has been played by thousands of people over the centuries. The styles that I play in have been played by hundreds of thousands of people. So by use, in our democratic society, they voted for it and they love it and when they hear it, they love to hear it still. It was the majority music in our country until into the early 20th century. It’s remarkably varied. It’s the foundation of “Oh, Brother,” some of it is actually in “Oh, Brother,” (laughs) but this is “oh, mother, oh father.” I actually didn’t see the film, it came to town for two days and I wasn’t here. I hate watching things on video, but I guess I’m going to have to.
CA: It was a fascinating film from a musicology standpoint. Just to see the popularization of music and the change from players having been in the physical vicinity of the people who saw them perform to having people they had never met and would never meet, having heard and been influenced by their music.
MS: It changes the entire process. If one person that you’ve never seen dominates the music scene, it tends to dominate what you do musically. One person in your valley might dominate and when you go home, you do your version of it. So that’s quite different. It just changes the whole thing. I must say, that the musicians that I learned from in person are the ones that remain the strongest influences to me personally. People like Maybelle Carter, Elizabeth Cotton, Dock Bogs and Roscoe Halcolmb. Those are the musicians that are strongest to me when I sit down to play or I play a song that I’m not familiar with it comes out in a style that is very heavily based on their music.
CA: With your father being a musicologist, and your mother being a music educator, was there a lot of music in the house?
MS: Yes, always, they had field recordings that they let me play on the phonograph, that was a big part of it.
CA: Can you give me some lyrics, what are these songs about?
MS: Some of these are just like…haiku. Some people call them country haiku. The lyrics are brief and they give you a feeling, but they’re not necessarily heavy messages and they’re not narratives. They’re just for singing between playing. It gives you something word-wise between verses of playing. It’s poetry, but it’s country poetry.
CA: So it makes the music a little more meditative that the more lyric or message heavy tunes?
MS: Well, there’s a side to this music, which can be, oh, almost like a mantra. Some people do refer to it as a mantra. I get together with some people to just play every once in a while and you can play a single song for 20 or 30 minutes…but mostly it’s just three or four minutes.
CA: I know you only play old traditional tunes as opposed to writing songs yourself. Where do you go to reference your songs?
MS: I go back to the collections of the Lomax’s they did incredible collecting. He was undoubtedly the greatest and most prolific collector of folk songs that I know of, so I go to his collection, and his father John’s collection. These are all deposited at the Library of Congress and there are other collections there too. Such as Sidney Robertson Cowl who married Henry Cowl the composer and then I use commercial recordings of 78s, those made before music became too commercial and the music started folding back and influencing new music.
CA: Do you think there are still tinges of traditional music in the most modern of music. The Red Hot Chili Peppers for example seem to have hints of the traditional in their music.
MS: I’ve only heard one or two pieces of their music and actually someone sent them to me because they felt that it sounded like they had been listening to the old music.
CA: It seems like the older music doesn’t’ have a credited author, it’s just music that’s always been played.
MS: Well, most of these songs were always played, and they didn’t have a PR crew and they didn’t copyright them. They weren’t going to record them, it was all a new idea and they were learning what to do with the songs. A lot of the musicians made publishing companies rich and didn’t know what to do about it. That’s how it was for most of them actually.
CA: Do you think it was like with the American Indians where the whole idea of owning and selling land was ridiculous, that the music makers didn’t think you could own a piece of music.
MS: At the beginning I don’t think they understood it at all. AT Carter was one of the first who was used by a publisher. His publishing company copyrighted a lot of songs that were written by others years before. The whole idea was so new in the beginning, but the companies caught on in a hurry.
CA: It seems like you enjoy being a conduit to keep old time music alive. Is that part of your life goal?
MS: Oh yes, that is it. I was much more conscious of it at the start. Now I kind of take for granted that aspect of it, that that’s one of the things I’m trying to do. I remember when I was in my early to mid-20s, when the Kingston Trio came out, and it became possible for me to join a music group at the time, I don’t remember who it was, and it became clear to me that it would be easier to live day to day in the way that I wanted to live, and then I would not be ashamed of it. With the New Lost City Ramblers it became clear that we could have become more commercial if we added a string bass to our group and I could see the possibility then, and I just didn’t want to do that. The way that you live is so important from day to day. I think that it’s important to keep your daily activities in tune with your mind. Do you know what I mean? In connection with your philosophy I guess. So we, my group and me, made it a mission in our early years to help other traditional musicians and to try too, when we could, to encourage presenters to have other traditional musicians on the stage with us. My first concert as a soloist was also Elizabeth Cotton’s first concert as a soloist. Talk about copyrights, her song “Freight Train,” which we thought was a traditional song, Peggy taught it to people in England when she was there, and they copyrighted it when Elizabeth Cotton had actually put the song together and unfortunately she only got one third of the royalties after she got a lawyer involved.
CA: It seems like you’ve been lucky. A lot of young men might say, “I want to play traditional music and encourage traditional musicians to keep the music alive,” but not everybody manages to be able to follow their philosophy and keep their dream alive. It seems that every part of your live is part of that ideal. How is it that you have been, seemingly, so lucky?
MS: I’ve just been lucky. I’ve gone ahead with it as I assumed I would be successful and I was very fortunate that I came along at the right time for one thing with something that was new that fit into a current, almost like a fad, in 1959, 60 & 61. And I’ve also been very persistent. I’ve never given up and there have been some very lean times, about 15 years ago, because I was working so hard on traditional music that I forgot that I was supporting myself by playing it and I neglected to make recordings for a while and pay attention to my own career. So I had a rough time there for 8 or 10 years.
CA: Have you played in Los Angeles before?
MS: Oh yes, at McCabes, and the Ash Grove, the old one and the new one, on the pier before they went under. And I played at UCLA for the Folk Festival in 1964. CA: Oh my, I was born in ’64, (both laugh), so I didn’t make it. MS: As far as you know.
CA: I have more of a punk mentality; I think I would have remembered.
MS: Have you heard of the Dickle Bros? They record for a punk label, they’re kind of a punk mentality but they play in the old time tradition.
CA: That sounds cool, anything can be punk though, there’s punk the lifestyle, and punk the music
MS: Well, the punk movement fills the college scene the way the New Lost City Ramblers did in the 60s, just as an alternative lifestyle in a way, with a certain type of philosophy.
CA: Now what kind of lifestyle existed that made your band an alternative to it?
MS: It’s a big subject and I don’t know that we can go into it. And perhaps it’s a half-baked idea on my part. I view these kinds of alternative music as similar in a way to our old time music of the early sixties, in it’s intent of a focused rebellion, or maybe not focused, because it’s supposed to be very individualistic too. Isn’t punk supposed to be a rebellion of the working class, but on a college campus?
CA: Well, when punk sprung up in New York and then more popularly in England it was a reaction of the working class to the corporatization of, strangely enough, music and art and therefore social thought. Disco was being packaged and shoved down people’s throats. In England, it was a poor working class reaction to the massive unemployment and poverty put up against the luster of the monarchy. The best example being the Sex Pistols following the Queen’s 25th anniversary boat down the Thames on their own boat singing “God Save the Queen,” which had lyrics that were less than complementary to the monarchy, until they were pulled over by the UK version of the harbor patrol.
MS: In the 60s a lot of our focus was on the corporatization of folk music. It’s just a feeling I get when I listen to the music today. I like listening to the college music stations, the ones that aren’t NPR stations. A lot of the music is fresh and it’s different.
CA: I think it’s the idea that once corporations start in on art it’s the beginning of the control of social thought and you can’t allow that to happen. I mean some people may be more comfortable with the idea of everything being fed to them, but most artists aren’t.
MS: Some people live like that. It’s a matter of struggling for existence and what their priorities are, because the priority is usually to have food and a roof, and music to some people is not that important. There are other people where the music is so important that they don’t always have a roof or food. It’s a matter of priorities, and I think for most people it’s a roof and food, but then a lot of folks do that and they say now I need an SUV and my house needs to be bigger and I need a boat.
CA: …and they need a bigger music system to play the corporate music on…
MS: (laughs) They get carried away.
CA: You seem like someone who would rather have music than a roof.
MS: I’ve been fortunate to have both, by borrowing money sometimes, other times by selling an instrument I wanted to keep.
MS: That’s ok. I always had another one.