2003 Honorary Member
Just as the musical traditions of rural southerners are rich, deep, and varied, so too have been the life, career, and contributions of our foremost champion of southern folk music--Mike Seeger. And, just as southern rural music has had an impact on the larger musical world in ways untold, Mike Seeger's influence has been broad and pervasive in more ways and on more levels than probably even he realizes.
One is hard-pressed to single out any one of Mike's activities as being more important than the others. As a performer, he has toured the world for over four decades. Through these performances he has not only entertained audiences with his singing and his playing, but he has also inspired countless others to try their own hand at picking up a guitar, or fiddle, or banjo…or any other of the seemingly endless number of instruments that he plays. Mike's playing appears on nearly forty albums, either as a solo artist, with other members of his family, with various collaborators, or as a member of the seminal modern string band, the New Lost City Ramblers. Five of these albums have been nominated for Grammy awards.
Mike also has been one of the leading recorders and collectors of southern folk music. His field recording activities have led to the production of more than thirty commercially released albums. These albums have brought the music of such master traditional musicians as Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Sam & Kirk McGee, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, Eck Robertson, Kilby Snow, Lesley Riddle, the Lilly Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, and countless others to public attention, often for the first time.
Although I suspect that Mike might shy away from the label of "scholar," he certainly has contributed enormously to our knowledge and understanding of southern rural music. In the 1950s Mike was one of the first people from outside the south to emerge as an advocate for bluegrass music. Mike's 1957 production, American Banjo Scruggs Style, an anthology of the playing of fifteen different banjo players, is recognized as the first long-playing album devoted to bluegrass. The chapter on Scruggs-style picking that Mike contributed to his brother Pete's influential banjo instruction book gave many aspiring players their first tools for unlocking the mysteries and complexities of the bluegrass banjo style.
As bluegrass became more widely known and appreciated, Mike turned much of his time and attention to earlier forms of music. In 1958, Mike, John Cohen, and Tom Paley founded the New Lost City Ramblers, a band devoted to recreating the sounds of the classic southern string bands. The Ramblers gave many people their first exposure to old-time music, and sparked an interest in old-time music that continues to this day. Again, once the string band revival was safely in high gear, Mike delved ever deeper into the older layers of southern folk music, beginning to play gourd banjo and quills, and continuing his field work with older traditional musicians, both black and white.
Mike has been equally tireless as an educator, working with students from elementary school through college and graduate school. At present he is in the middle of a semester-long residency at the College of William & Mary that is, by all accounts, an enormous success.
Much more could be said of Mike Seeger and his work, but the point should now be clear. Performer, collector, scholar, educator, producer, promoter, and advocate. Fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, mandolinist, singer, player of quills, dulcimer, autoharp, mouth harp, and jaw harp. Mike is all of these. But perhaps what he really is at bottom is a farmer, of sorts. He has sown seeds that have taken root and borne fruit in myriad ways over half a century. Mike often refers to the sounds and styles that have been at the center of his life's work as "music from true vine." Mike's own music has long been one of the strongest branches on this vine, and has produced such a wealth of offshoots that we can all be sure the vine will grow and prosper for generations to come.
Citation by Paul F. Wells
Mike Seeger died in 2009.
Visit Mike Seeger's website.