Posts Tagged ‘Mike Seeger’

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…)