From Appalachia to Folk & Traditional Music Festivals Past and Present: The Mike Seegers' Unique Lifes' Work

Article Contributed by Elizabeth Bissette | Published on Friday, August 17, 2007

Mike Seeger has helped bring the music of the rural South to popular attention. He did this as a folk musician in the 60s, bringing traditional musicians not yet well known to the forefront of popular attention and continues to do so through performances and archive work today.  It is in part through his influence on his own generation that we have the folk-based songs of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

Though he has played an interesting role in the lives of the now famous in some instances, Mr. Seeger said in an interview I had the pleasure of undertaking about a year ago that he feels that all musicians, those who play for their own enjoyment and with their friends, those of younger generations as well as his own, have equally helped shape the what he refers to as the "True Vine" of American music.

The musical branches of the Vine tumble and wind from Virginia, across Appalachia onward through the territories of American music. Each culture in our country has helped to water it, so that its branches have become blues, bluegrass, country, rock, rap and all American genres.  In it, we see generational, cultural unity.   By participating in it, as listeners or as musicians, we can maintain the unity in our own generation, laying groundwork for generations to come, as Mr. Seeger did and continues to do.

Traditional music has steadily come back in style, in part spurred by the death of Jerry Garcia, who towards the end of his life was returning to the traditional music he learned early in life and performed with the group "Old and In the Way". Festivals like the recently held Appalachian String Festival, (see photo gallery), Galax and others are incorporating neo-traditional, new music and outlaw categories and are drawing larger and more diverse audiences than ever before. One particularly good example is Fraley Fest, (see Photo Gallery). Once a family reunion, this gathering has grown to the point that a documentary is being made about it this fall by a Kentucky PBS station.

Bob Dylan, another underlying force of generational unity, said in his Chronicles of meeting Seeger: "He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was a duke, a knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart…It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. It dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns…the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought."

Though he does have a strikingly sonorous voice, Mr. Seeger didn't strike me as eerie over the phone. In fact, he was the opposite, down to earth, funny. It is a little eerie, however, that almost as if in response to the above he said in our interview: "All music doesn't have to be something. These days, people seem to think you either make up your own music or you're not anything. That's not the important thing. You can do that, as Mr. Dylan has shown, make up things on your own and show your perception of past, but also what the possibilities are. I think there's real value in that. I think, at the same time, it's very important to keep old songs alive."

Why is keeping the old songs alive so important? Well, there are many answers to that, too many to explore in one feature. One reason is in the music of the True Vine we have a first-hand account of people who lost the battle of potential versus opportunity: railroad workers, coal miners, members of the underground railroad, those blown about in the Dust Bowl, migrant workers, and countless other minorities and those who fought for their rights throughout American history. It is these people who often have the most to say; but for their songs their voices would be silent.

Of it Mr. Seeger said: "It's very like classical music in a way, but it's the classical music of the people. That's why they called it folk music. There was classical music and there was folk music.  All music has, since then, built on a combination of both. "I think of the True Vine as the long vine of human culture, music in this case.  It was here before 1607 amongst Native Americans.  Africans and Europeans brought their strains..."

The music of the folks has inspired countless recording artists. Many of the songs recorded by both Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead were either traditional or tradition-based songs.  Before them, Pete Seeger along with band-mates Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, along with countless others did the same, each in their own unique way. Many today follow in their footsteps.

This music encompasses the entire range of human experience and emotion. The songs that speak of hardship seem to be the ones most often re-recorded by popular musicians during turbulent times. Perhaps this is because they are so straightforward about past struggles they unveil present injustices equally well. They speak the timeless truth of the experience of multitudes.

However, looking back, life has always been this way. Moving forward from 1607 through the history of all American people, decade by decade, one finds new struggles as injustice dons different masks: economic depression, the ravages of the dust bowl, the struggles for equal rights, war after war after war after war after war. In the face of each sorrow, traditional or tradition-based songs rise up and speak loudly against it.

The music of the True Vine is the heart of the struggle. New songs have grown from it, others have been adapted, the words changing as each artist reflects his or her own time in its mirror. The men and women who have written, recorded and popularized these songs have often been jailed, killed or otherwise had their lives destroyed for their efforts. It is in this light that I see Mike's efforts to "keep these old songs alive" and the importance he places upon doing that.

For example, during the heated struggles for workers' rights in the early 1900s, a singer, songwriter and activist named Joe Hill was jailed, tried and given a death sentence. His songs were part of the reason why. His music, traditional and tradition-based, became a sort of hymnal for those who fought against the extreme conditions of the Industrial Revolution. This led, ultimately, to the reforms that were the foundation of today's labor laws. Some of us may know him through the beautiful song Joan Baez wrote about him in the 60s. Most of us have, probably unknowingly, heard his story in the song "Long Black Veil," recorded by Johnny Cash, The Chieftains and others.

Another example of the force of these songs is found in the life and music of Pete Seeger. He wrote and co-wrote immortal classics like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "We Shall Overcome". We all know that these and other folk songs were sung as riots raged in the '60s, but did you know it happened in the '40s, too? At that time at a music festival in upstate New York, Pete Seeger and many others were attacked in full sight of police. Worse still, the police appear to have assisted the attackers.  Why? This was because their music strongly supported integration and workers' rights, among other things.   Poor people, African-Americans and unions, oh my!

Pete would not be defeated, he 'overcame', (just like his song) and kept on being an "unsettler" in the landscape of American music. In the '50s, he was blacklisted by McCarthy, which drove him and much of the newly emerging pop-folk genre underground. When called before the Committee, he refused to speak against others but also refused to take the 5th Amendment, which many artists cited in attempts to avoid testifying about others when faced with the same situation. (They failed. McCarthy imprisoned many and/or had their careers destroyed.)

An unabashed Pete said he was happy to talk about his music, which was, he thought, why he'd been called before them in the first place. As a frustrated and blustering Committee repeatedly talked themselves in circles trying to get something out of him, he asked if they'd heard the music. He then offered to sing instead of speak, humorously remarking that he wasn't sure how well he'd do without his banjo, but he'd try. The Committee declined and threatened him with 10 years prison time.

The music of the True Vine has also "disrupted" people's lives in happier ways. An example of this is found in the life and music of Elizabeth Cotten, who worked for the Seeger family. Peggy Seeger, sister of Mike and Pete as well as a beloved folk singer and prolific songwriter, was active in the folk revival in England. Among other songs, she brought Freight Train there, which she had learned from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth won a Grammy in the '80s for her "Live" album. She was a talented songwriter and had a guitar picking style that influenced the way the instrument is played in popular music today. Though she was obviously a quite remarkable musician, the music-laden Seegers didn't know it for some time. Mike said:

"She worked for our family for about five years before anyone knew she played an instrument. One day my sister found her playing the family guitar. Later, Peggy sang Freight Train, which at the time I don't think any of us even knew she'd written, when living in England. It was picked up by English folk singers who made Pop recordings of it. Then Americans made Pop recordings from there. There have been recordings of tradition-based songs ever since. All have been huge hits."

So, Freight Train was a sort of musical "shot heard 'round the world". Elizabeth Cotten, contrary to what one might imagine, did not become rich and famous although her song skyrocketed instantly to #5 on British Pop Charts and was recorded by countless other artists.  I asked what happened and Mike said that after his brother helped her sue a publishing company she got 1/3. "After that", he said, "sometimes they paid her and sometimes they didn't." "Was she angry with this?" I asked. "Well, outside of the being angry about the money other people had made with their top 10 covers of her song?"

"I don't know that she necessarily wanted that," Mike said. "She was a remarkably graceful person. She didn't have ill will and she went on being Elizabeth Cotten. She grew to love to perform for people and that's what she did until she passed."

Often the heroes of the songs become archetypes, like John Henry or Stagger Lee Shelton, the first musician on record as selling his soul to the Devil. Some of the musicians who popularized the music have also become almost archetypal.  The lyrics of these songs provide a first-hand history of every day people. It is, in many instances, the only record of them we have.  In them, we have a sort soundtrack of American life over centuries.

Is this because of the singers or the songs? While the answer is both, (they are as entwined as the branches of the vine), I think the scales tip slightly more heavily on the side of the songs.  They are re-interpreted, generation after generation, as they have always been.

The Vine of American music grew slowly at first. Traditions were passed down from person to person. Music and musicians were relatively isolated, unique to each region. This slowly shifted as people arrived here from a wider range of countries, settled more of the country.

Because Virginia was the site of the first colony, traditions began there strongly influenced the way American music evolved as people migrated to and through Appalachia to the West. Traditions were also carried North, where we find them still alive in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a deserted area where many who chose not to fight in the Revolutionary War sought and found refuge. The Gold Rush, the railroads, the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Industrial Revolution, among other events, also helped shape the sound.

The work of new and established artists have also contributed to bringing the immense relevance of this music back to popular attention. Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album. Cyndi Lauper and Bono recently incorporated traditional music into their work more and more. Neil Young wrote a new set of songs for his recent protest album. Artists in younger generations are doing the same. We are having another folk revival.

Why right now? It may seem to us that these people and songs speak to us because we feel we live in a uniquely uncertain time. Maybe right now we thirst for truth yet find it too often veiled, so hear the eternal truth of the "True Vine" more clearly.

But let us return to Mr. Seeger. Most of you probably know who he is, or have heard of him, but perhaps wonder why he isn't super-famous, like Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia? Or his brother Pete?

Well, he reminds me a little of the Wizard of Oz, though, unlike the Wizard, he doesn't pretend to be something he is not. He is, in fact, one of the most genuine people I've ever spoken with. However, a little like the reclusive figure in the story, he is ensconced in the emerald green of the Shenandoah Valley, the foothills of Appalachia, where the music he loves has most flourished.   From there and other locations, he has been, for some time, a sort of "'man behind the curtain"; a somewhat unseen, yet fundamental force in American music.

As the Wizard didn't set out to change Oz, Mike didn't set out to change music, or to be a celebrity. During my conversation with him, I perceived that he has just always done what comes naturally to him. His parents, brother Pete and sister Peggy were musicians and archivists as well. He was born with music in his blood and surrounded from an early age by amazing artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie; so he plays.

What did Mike Seeger, hope to find at the end of his yellow- brick road?  Fame? Fortune? No. Like the Tin Man, he did it for love.  "I didn't start out wanting to make a living doing it," he said with graceful candor. "It just happened that it was possible to do it. We try to, in being musicians on our own, show that it's accessible from day to day. To show that we have a lot to say, that old songs have a lot to say."

His unique style and approach were somewhat revolutionary during the 60s, an important and influential era of American music. That's not the type of thing many musicians achieve. But he didn't try to do so. He just did all that by being himself.   He brought the old time and folk traditions he grew up with to the stage and others followed his example.

Was his life juggled like dice because of his music? I don't think so, but he fits the term he gives the first people to arrive in America, an "unsettler", someone who stirs the melting pot to over-boiling, in a sense.  Perhaps he shook things up the most with The New Lost City Ramblers. Though they played traditional Southern music, they weren't necessarily doing something new simply by doing that; urban musicians had been playing folk songs for quite some time.

The revolutionary thing about The New Lost City Ramblers was they played the music the way it was played in the rural South, whereas others before them gave it an urban sheen, smoothed it over. The Ramblers also toured with or otherwise promoted rural virtuosos like Maybelle Carter, the Stanley Brothers and the Monroe Brothers. The musicians of the urban folk-revival began to imitate them.   The ever-humble Mike said of the Ramblers:"We didn't become influential, if we were, until the '60s. A lot of musicians listened to our playing at that time who were folk urban, most notably Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. We influenced them and others, not as well known, who started listening to and playing more and more traditional music. Bob Dylan continues. Jerry Garcia was going back that way."

He doesn't keep his talent on an inaccessible pedestal as many who have reached his level of accomplishment do. He shares it by playing it every day with musicians from his own and younger generations, showing us that it can be part of our daily lives as it is of his. Because of this, he has helped shape American music.

Though described by 'Rolling Stone Magazine' as "An American artist standing forth ... himself branch and root of the entwined true vine…" he said of himself in our talk: "These days you tend to think of personalities as being the most important thing. When I started with music I thought of that secondarily. Because I'm playing the music, the music I'm choosing says something about me, in sounds and with the types of songs I choose. But I've always felt I'm part of a long process, which is why I call it music from the true vine. Mine is just a part of it."

So, 'Rolling Stone' seems to focus on Mike Seeger the celebrity and Mike Seeger on himself as a part of a long standing tradition of the 'True Vine'. He strikes me as not only is he part of the vine, but its gardener. He is not only a performer but has helped ensure the preservation of the music he performs by recording and archiving traditional American music for both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian; music that otherwise may have been lost or forgotten.

Because of the impact he has had, in part through showing us that all musicians, of all levels and all generations, have something equally valuable to say, he has helped us to follow the winding path of the True Vine for a very long time. At the end of it, we are fortunate to still find a man, not a wizard. A man who is similar yet different from the rest of us because he most reflects the best parts of us: sincerity, humility, revolutionary boldness, and a rare, all-encompassing patriotism that embraces all Americans as equal.  He tells it, or rather, plays it, like it is.

It is also the best of us that is reflected in his music. It is that to which we find him keeping time at the end of the vine. If we but find him and listen, we hear that the most valuable things we have are the unchanging truths we have had all along.

It is certainly a great honor for a musician to receive a Grammy Award, but it seems to me that it is Mike Seeger who has given the musicians and audiences of America the most valuable award of all. The ability to hear our own voices clearly resounding, echoing over centuries and some certainty that generations to follow will continue to do so. He gives us the heart, mind and courageous spirit of America that he so aptly calls the music of the True Vine.

So, if I ever become a rock star or whatever kind of music star, I don't think I want a Grammy Award. I want a Mike Seeger Award.