Archive for the ‘Mike Seeger’ Category

Seeger, Hartford, Grisman

September 3, 2014


Retrograss is Mike Seeger, John Hartford, and David Grsman.  The band’s only album, the 1999 Retrograss (Acoustic Disc), is an inconsistent, fascinating mess: the old-timey treatment doesn’t flatter Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” quite the way it does the Beatles’ goofy “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Hartford’s mannered vocals are the disc’s most serious flaw, especially on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and the Redding tune–he often sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else.

And on “Hound Dawg,” a sparse arrangement of the Big Mama Thornton song Elvis made famous, Hartford and Grisman’s stilted enunciation comes off as almost parodic. Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” on the other hand, works fine as a Dock Boggs tune, and Berry’s “Maybellene” sounds appropriately hot-blooded propelled by the boing-boing of Seeger’s mouth harp and Hartford’s bluesy banjo–probably because Berry adapted it from a country song in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, Retrograss does just as well, if not better, when it covers folk and bluegrass tunes: Randall Hylton’s “Room at the Top of the Stairs” prickles with existential dread, Hartford’s fiddle bawling convulsively over Seeger’s obsessive single-chord banjo patterns, and standards like Earl Scruggs’s “Flint Hill Special” and Jimmy Martin’s “My Walking Shoes” practically catch fire.

Mike Seeger

July 3, 2014


Mike Seeger- Mike Seeger







Mike Seeger
Vanguard 79150

reviewed by Gary von Tersch (from

The timeless, home-grown music of the late mulch-instrumentalist and folklorist Mike Seeger nostalgically evokes a bygone age of old-time rural music, early acoustic blues and pre-World War II country strains – all “performed with the affection and dedication of a true scholar,” as a reviewer for the American Record Guide put it back in 1964 on the occasion of the original Vanguard release.

This album was recorded as the influential group he had recently co-founded, the seminal old-time revival trio New Lost City Ramblers, was adjusting to the sudden departure of fellow co-founder Tom Paley (first to Sweden then to England, where he remains active at 84). Seeger effortlessly breathes new life into songs from a wide swath of styles, all emblematic of the Southern folk tradition and including the riotously satirical “We Live A Long Long Time To Get Old,” a relatively recent composition by Knoxville, Tennessee, hillbilly musician Jimmy Murphy.

Nice-to-hear-agains also include a trio sourced to the Carter Family (Seeger’s clear-voiced recall of A.P.’s inviting “Hello Stranger” and his bluesy version of “It’ll Aggravate Your Soul” and Maybelle’s English folk song-oriented “Fair And Tender Ladies”) as well as the a cappella “Young McAfee On The Gallows” (a cautionary “goodnight” ballad by Jean Ritchie), a droning dulcimer-rhythmed “Waterbound,” the banjo-driven instrumental “Leather Breeches” and an optimistically melodic redo of Grandpa Jones’ hit “I’ve Been All Around This World.” It’s great to have this classic available once more. Informative liners by both John Crosby and and D.K. Wilgus.

Ry Cooder and the Seegers

April 20, 2013

Ry Cooder, Mike Seeger, and Pete Seeger play “J. Edgar.”


Ry Cooder: I took lessons from Mike Seeger when I was a kid — also from one of the other Ramblers, Tom Paley. The Ramblers used to play the Ash Grove all the time. I learned a lot of songs from those guys, sure did.  I’ve known Pete Seeger a long time, too, because I used to see Pete Seeger everywhere.

I saw him when I was six, and then at folk festivals later on. It’d be just like you’d think. You’d go up to him and say, “Hi, Pete, how ya doin’?” And he would say, “Well, I’ll tell you something.” And off he’d go on a long speech.

Mike, Pete and I recorded Pete’s song, about a pig named J. Edgar at Pete’s house in Beacon. Pete doesn’t travel to LA — hell, he’s pushing 90. We had lunch, and Pete wanted to talk about how there are too many people in the human race and they’re pressing down on the earth and here’s how you measure that force, and I’m like, “Man, we have to record. You’re wearing me out. Let’s play this song, and then we can get back to this.”

Which he did when the tune was done. Pete didn’t understand it. He said, “What’s all this about J. Edgar?” “It’s a pig, Pete,” I said. “Well, I… I just don’t understand,” he said. So I wrote out the words for him on a piece of paper. Then he understood. “Oh, I see,” he said. “This is a joke, it’s a gag.” Very literal-minded cat.

SS: Recently you said that those old union songs meant a lot to the movement at the time, and they can mean a lot to us now.

RC: Well, songs empower people. Civil rights certainly needed music on the spot, like an injection. Pete Seeger’s theory is if you sing you become unified — within minutes. It’s an amazing phenomenon. So we’d better utilize it, because we need to do something to overcome this terrible isolation of people from one another today, and the misunderstanding and the ignorance.

“Banjo Tales”

March 31, 2013


BANJO TALES with Mike Seeger accompanies the late National Heritage Fellow, American musician Mike Seeger, on his last musical journeys through southeastern Appalachia, as he records and talks with some of his favorite old old-time musicians.

In early 2009, though weakened from a ten-year battle with lymphoid leukemia, Mike traveled through the southeast (Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia) by car to record some of the finest southern traditional banjo players in their homes.

Filmmaker Yasha Aginsky accompanied Mike and his wife Alexia and filmed as Mike interviewed, recorded and interacted with the talented and colorful musicians who were being recorded. Many of the banjo players also sang or fiddled in these sessions as well, and they were occasionally joined by other musicians, including friends, brothers, fathers and Mike Seeger himself. In every encounter and conversation Mike inquired about the role of old-time music in the player’s past and present life, revealing an on-going rich cultural heritage that forms the heart of this documentary.

After the last shoot in June, Seeger and Aginsky made plans to get together in early September in California to begin editing the material they had collected. Upon his return home to Lexington, Virginia, Mike fell very ill with an aggressive new cancer, multiple myeloma, and on August 7, 2009, he died peacefully at his home, leaving this wealth of video material in Yasha’s hands.

Breaking up Christmas

December 25, 2012

Close to Home

December 17, 2012

by Mike Seeger, from notes to “Close to Home”:

Fly Down Little Bird

December 5, 2012

Mike and Peggy Seeger

“Fly Down Little Bird,” by Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger
Review by Paul Michel (

In the months just before his short, losing battle with cancer, Mike and Peggy managed to reprise the sound, and indeed many of the same songs, that sweetened the Seeger home more than a half-century ago. Their newly-released collection, Fly Down Little Bird (Appleseed Recordings, 2011), is a fourteen-cut journey into a distant but resonant chapter in the continuing revival and popularization of rural American, mostly Appalachian, music.

After Peggy’s move to England in 1959 (a victim of McCarthyistic blacklisting) she turned her significant musical talents mostly to political songwriting, for many years in partnership with Scottish actor and folksinger Ewan MacColl. Mike continued to research and champion the “true vine” of American music as a folklorist, performer and tireless proselytizer of all things old-time. They collaborated infrequently over the decades; most notably on a 94-song (!) Rounder Records triple LP in 1977 called American Folksongs for Children, which included some of the “play-party” pieces repeated on the Appleseed release. Peggy’s liner notes to the new album, Fly Down Little Bird, insist that “These are not ‘children’s songs’—they are grown-ups’ songs, and we grew up with them.”

They did indeed, and over the years they left them very much as they’d found them—or rather, as they’d adapted them originally. For although there’s a plantation porch, corn-shucking quality to these recordings, it’s a whimsical illusion. These charming renditions of old ballads, tunes and nonsense rhymes don’t evoke the Lomax field recordings nearly as much as they do Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1950s living room. The evocation is unapologetic and endearing.

Mike and Peggy produced in this project, appropriately and lovingly in Mike’s last days, a tribute not so much to the “authentic” traditional music of the American soundscape as to their younger, pioneering, unforgotten selves. There is virtuosity here to be sure—the driving, haunting claw-hammer banjo entwined with fiddle both ragged and right in the Georgia tune “Big Bee Suck the Pumpkin Stem,” and a tasty sample of Metis fiddling in “The Red River Jig.”

There is the broad Seeger instrumental range, including fiddle, guitar, several different banjos, piano, Hawaiian guitar, harmonica, mandolin and lap dulcimer. Duets are sung as often in octave unison as in country harmony. There is silliness (“Fod!” and “Jennie Jenkins”), fond familiarity (“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’) and homespun politics (“The Farmer is the Man”). But mostly there is comfort. This collection is delightful from the first listen and grows on one steadily. It’s a simple, cunning capture of two old sibling souls, up in years at long last, singing and smiling back at a slice of yesterday.

Pete Steele, Reed Martin, Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler

January 30, 2012

Pete and Lillian Steele

by Reed Martin

Paul Pell came from Hamilton, Ohio. He loved the banjo and made them in his spare time.  It seems that back in Hamilton, there was an older man (Pete Steele) who PLAYED the banjo, and also liked to drink a bit. When the money ran low at a bar, Pete Steele would offer his banjo as collateral and keep drinking. He would leave that bar and never go back, but he would let Paul know eventually that “something had happened, and he could no longer find his banjo.” So Paul would smile, make Mr. Steele another banjo and the cycle would start once again.



Indiana University had a college “Folksong Club” which sponsored monthly folk music concerts on campus. Paul suggested that they invite Pete &  Lillian Steele for a concert, and the Steeles could stay at the Pell household for the weekend – thereby making it less expensive on everybody – and besides, Pete was once again between banjos, and Paul needed to connect with him and hand him another banjo to play.



The evening concert was breathtaking. No set list as I recall – just Pete & Lillian singing whatever came to mind. When there was a need to take a vocal rest, Pete would unload another blockbuster on the banjo.  Later – some voice expert said to me, “did you notice that they don’t sing in harmony – Mrs. Steele sings an octave higher than her husband.”  What do I know about singing – it all sounded great to everyone in the audience !!!



They had given me their home address in Hamilton, Ohio, so six months after their concert I drove over for a visit. I arrived about noon and left before suppertime. We played, talked, and played.  I asked Pete if I could take a photograph of him holding his banjo. He thought that would be fine. I asked if I could take a picture of both he and Lillian together. He thought that would be fine, too.

I asked if I could take a photograph of just his two hands – stretched out showing his fingers – and he questioned me on that one….. Why would you want to do that? – he asked…. So I told him exactly why…..”in the years to come, when you are not playing banjo on stage anymore, young banjo players will absolutely not believe that you do not have extra fingers.  I will have photographic PROOF that you do indeed have hands mostly like everyone else’ hands..”  So he laughed, I got my photo, and it is always in my banjo case if I need it for proof that he did indeed have just regular hands….just four fingers and a thumb on each hand…. (more…)

Music From the True Vine

November 17, 2011

A conversation with Bill Malone, author of Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life and Musical Journey (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)  Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

 Q: In your book’s introduction, you point to the irony of being Mike Seeger’s biographer because you were once sure that you didn’t like him. What changed?

A:  In the early 1960s, when I first saw and heard Mike, I had the impression that he was aloof or, at worst, arrogant. After I got to know him, I found that he was instead shy and reserved. I also mistakenly thought that he was an “interloper,” that is, an outsider who didn’t grow up with the music as I did, and therefore didn’t really understand it. I can now admit that my impressions came from ignorance and biased feelings about the culture from which he came. I have learned over the years that Mike had actually been listening to, and loving, old time music ever since childhood. While my introduction to country music came through the radio, Mikes came from the Library of Congress field recordings and the commercial hillbilly recordings that his family owned. My knowledge of this fact changed my perception of his authenticity and made me face up to my original prejudices.

Q:  What does your books title refer to?

A:  Music From the True Vine refers to the body of music made and shared by black and white rural Southerners. Mike believed that it was the vine, or source, for most of America’s music. He spent his entire life trying to preserve and make people aware of this great body of music.

Q:  What stylistic elements of Mike Seeger’s music set him apart from his contemporaries?

A:  Mike stressed authenticity of style. Without slavishly imitating the music note for note, he tried to play and/or sing a style in the same fashion used by the people from whom he collected the music. No one else on the urban folk revival scene (including his brother and sister Pete and Peggy) tried to do that. Mikes faithfulness to style lent dignity to the people from whom he borrowed his music. His complete absorption in this idea led him to explore aspects of his own musicianship, promote original musicians, create instructional videos, and mentor young enthusiasts. (more…)