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Mike Seeger Remembered

Mike Seeger at CDS on March 16, 2009. Photograph by Nick Pironio.

Mike Seeger at CDS on March 16, 2009. Photograph by Nick Pironio.

When Mike Seeger died late Friday night last week we lost a remarkable musician, an indefatigable documentarian, and a fine soul. What Mike Seeger gave us is hard to measure—from his own recordings, beginning with his albums with the New Lost City Ramblers, to his documentary field recordings, which number beyond an easy count.

This past March, on the night he visited the Center for Documentary Studies, Mike told me that it had taken two wheelbarrow loads to move his instruments from his Lexington, Virginia, house to his car to make the trip to Durham. At first I assumed he was joking. But when it came to music, Mike was seldom joking. He played what seemed every instrument that night: gourd banjo, old-time banjo, guitar, jaw harp, autoharp, harmonica, pan pipes, and no doubt something I’ve let leave my memory. He was the consummate virtuoso, but much more. His ongoing research and his role as a public advocate for folk music and creativity have inspired countless musicians and listeners.

Like most of us, I heard Mike Seeger on record long before I met him. I first met Mike in person in the living room of Tommy Jarrell’s house in Surry County, North Carolina, in 1981 when I went with Cece Conway to visit Tommy. When we walked in, Mike and Tommy were playing fiddle tunes, Mike on banjo and Tommy on his fiddle. I was in awe of both of them, and before the night was over Mike had explained to me the history of much of the music I’d heard. He was a natural teacher, a passionate interpreter. Jim Watson, one of the original Red Clay Ramblers and now with Robin and Linda Williams, said it clearly, “Without Mike many of us might never have started playing this kind of stuff.”

Nothing, no one is immortal, but Mike Seeger’s music will outlast us all, along with the music he documented and introduced to the world through his many beautiful recordings. We’ve lost a great one, but he left us his perfect pitch, lyrics, and tunes that will live forever.

–Tom Rankin
Director, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University

Mike Seeger Performed At CDS On March 16, 2009, In A Public Event Held In Conjunction With Alice Gerrard’s Course Documenting Traditional Music. To See More Photographs Of His Visit To CDS, Click Here.

2 Responses to “Mike Seeger Remembered”

  1. Bill Cheatham says:

    Good job, Tom.

  2. Bill C. Malone says:

    You made a fine statement about Mike, Tom. Mike Seeger can be valued for many contributions, but to me his finest accomplishment was in giving voice to working class Southerners. I understand why Hazel Dickens said that Mike had “validated her culture.” In being faithful to original musical styles, Mike was demonstrating the value and worth of the cultures that had produced them. This was a profoundly democratic act, and every bit as worthwhile as anything his big brother, Pete, ever did.

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