Remembering Mike Seeger

Published:August 10, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Mike Seeger and Ken Whitson at Royce Hall, Los Angeles, 1968

Mike Seeger, the folk singer, instrumentalist, and folklorist, died in Lexington on Friday. He was 75. The New York Times has an excellent obituary, which includes this, from Bob Dylan:

“Mike was unprecedented,” Mr. Dylan wrote, adding: “As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart. He was the romantic, egalitarian and revolutionary type all at once.”

NPR also has a remembrance. But for those of you interested in what the man meant on a more personal level, I give you over to Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program here at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities:

I feel particularly overwhelmed by this loss.  Mike had become, over the years, a dear friend of mine.  I also put him among my most important mentors, though I doubt I will ever make a contribution to our field and our world like Mike did, though I’ll do my best. Mike was managing Leukemia for many years which brought him to Charlottesville about once a month to get treatment at UVA. On many of these visits, we met for lunch—meetings I will cherish for the rest of my life.

The last time I saw Mike was a couple of weeks ago. We co-taught a seminar at Wintergreen. Each of us shared field recordings and talked about all things folklife to a very engaged crowd of about 20 seniors. I was so blown away about Mike’s knowledge about things. For example, I spoke about my recordings of Appalachian songster (and former Master Artist in our apprenticeship program) Spencer Moore, and spoke about how Alan Lomax had recorded him 50 years prior. Mike then told us exactly what tape recorder and microphone Lomax used for that recording, how much the device weighed, and so forth. Mike played field recordings of Doc Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten, and others—folks that we simply would not know about without Mike’s diligent work, passion, and dedication.

At the end of the four hour seminar, Mike, his lovely wife Alexia, and I went for lunch by the ski mountain. Mike was in a lot of pain, particularly when he walked. So, Alexia dropped him off at the restaurant and parked the car down the hill, where I parked mine. When she got out of the car, she looked extremely haggard and stressed. It was then that she told me that they had received Mike’s devastating diagnosis that very morning, before he did the seminar.  I still can’t get over that. At lunch I showed Mike some old gospel 78rpm recordings that I picked up in Butte, Montana the previous week. He took such delight in them.  He spoke enthusiastically about his banjo project, funded by the VFH.  He spoke of future plans, then once caught himself, and said something like, “Well, actually, I might not be able to do that.” The lunch was filled with laughter and good cheer. Again, I just don’t know what to say about this except that I think of this as Mike’s final, and perhaps most valuable lesson to me, and one I’d like to pass on to all of you.

IMAGE: Mike Seeger and Ken Whitson at Royce Hall, Los Angeles, 1968 by Philip Melnick