Interview: Bill Malone on Mike Seeger’s Life and Legacy

Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey, by Bill C. MaloneToday is the publication day of a fabulous new biography of influential folk musician Mike Seeger, Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life and Musical Journey. In this interview with the author, Bill C. Malone discusses the legacy left by this important folk artist.

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, Mike’s 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 book’s 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. Mike’s 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.

Q: Why do you think he is less well known than his half-brother, Pete Seeger?

A: He is less well known than Pete because Pete has been a very visible, public, and charismatic performer since the 1940s. Pete has been both idolized and feared by millions of people. Mike, on the other hand, was a very reserved performer who never sought the limelight. In fact, he deliberately set out to build a style and career separate from the music fashioned by his big brother.

Q: Why did you choose to document the life of Mike Seeger alongside his growth as a musician?

A: I chose to document the life and career of Mike Seeger because he spent a lifetime collecting, preserving, documenting, and performing the music I love. When I began research on my first book, Country Music, USA, the folk music revival was well underway in the United States. In some ways, I felt aloof from the revival, but nevertheless borrowed heavily from it and, especially, from Mike Seeger. This biography permits me to honor that indebtedness, and to recognize Mike’s crucial role in the scholarly world’s discovery of country music.

Q: Seeger was as much a researcher as he was a musician. Did you find yourself influenced by his research as well as his music?

A: My work as a scholar of country music has always been strongly influenced and enhanced by the work done by Mike Seeger. I borrowed copiously from the recordings that he both made and supervised, and from the New Lost City Ramblers Songbook that he produced with his musical partners, John Cohen, Tom Paley, and Tracy Schwarz. As indicated above, I had some difficulty admitting this. I have long wanted to acknowledge this interrelationship, and Mike was interested in having his story told. This biography is the result of those mutual desires.

Q: What would you say was Seeger’s purpose in his musicianship? Did he have a political agenda?

A: Mike Seeger tried to remind us of the eloquence and timelessness of old-time music. As mentioned above, he made us aware of the people who produced the music in the first place. By preserving and popularizing the old styles, he lent respectability to their creators. He never had an overt political agenda, although he tried to let the world know that the lives and culture of working people were important and should be valued.

Q: Over the course of your relationship with Mike Seeger, did you ever get to play with him?

A: I played music with Mike at my home in Madison, when he and his wife Alexia visited with us, and at a local jam session here in Madison. I also played a song or two with him on one earlier occasion when he gave a concert in Madison.

Q: What is your favorite New Lost City Ramblers song?

A: I have several favorite songs done by Mike, either solo or with the New Lost City Ramblers: “When First Unto This Country,” “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor,” “Battleship of Maine,” “Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Back Again,” and “Sal’s Got a Meatskin,” to name just a few.

Q: Bob Dylan is an enthusiastic Mike Seeger fan. Who else in the music world owes a debt of some sort to Mike Seeger?

A: Many musicians, such as Dom Flemons (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), Hazel Dickens, Ry Cooder, Hank Sapoznik, Bruce Molsky, and Jerry Garcia, were indebted to Mike Seeger.

Q: How did Mike Seeger learn to play the banjo? What other instruments did he play?

A: He learned to play the banjo right at the end of his high school days, before he decided to make a career out of music. His brother Pete was an obvious influence, but so were Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. Mike played just about anything with strings on it, plus the harmonica, Jew’s Harp, and panpipes.

Q: Ultimately, what is Mike Seeger’s musical legacy? How will he be remembered?

A: Mike’s legacy lies in the music made by people like Elizabeth Cotten and Dock Boggs, whom he introduced to modern folk music audiences, and in his own music which is still available on records, CDs, and DVDs. The thousands of people who still play old time music can also be considered part of his legacy.

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