Jo Reed: It was with enormous sadness that we learned about the recent death of Mike Seeger. The folk musician spent his life celebrating Old Time Music , and he was the recipient of four grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and had just received the NEA’s Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award. A generous and humble man, Mike made life-long friends wherever he went. Here is remembered by the NEA’s director of Folk and Traditional Arts, Barry Bergey.
Barry Bergey: Mike Seeger was to come to Washington, DC this Fall to celebrate in a public ceremony and concert the fact that he had received the 2009 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship given by the National Endowment for the Arts. This award is given annually to one individual in recognition of their contributions to our nation’s living cultural heritage through performance, teaching, documentation, or advocacy. Mike Seeger made significant contributions in all of these areas. Unfortunately, Mike passed away on August 7, 2009.
It is appropriate that Mike was to receive this award, named after Bess Lomax Hawes, the distinguished Director of Folk Arts at the NEA and the person who initiated the National Heritage Fellowships. Bess, a member of the Lomax family, whose father John and brother Alan were pioneer documenters of American traditional music, was, like Mike, both a performer, a scholar, and advocate for the folk arts. During the 1930’s, when Mike was but a child, the Seegers and the Lomaxes had both a close professional and personal relationship, as both families were residents in the DC area and were working on federally-funded projects. Mike’s mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger who was a musicologist and composer, was engaged in transcribing field tapes for the Lomaxes in preparation for their seminal publication Our Singing Country. Mike recalled to me a “home education” that included listening to field recordings and impromptu musical sessions by both the Seeger and Lomax family members.
I first met Mike more than 40 years ago. He came through Missouri with some of the traditional performers that he had taken to appear at the American Pavilion of the 1967 Montreal Exposition. This traveling folk festival included bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and ballad singer Grant Rogers, along with some Appalachian clog dancers.
Mike encouraged those of us in Missouri who were interested in this music to search out and document local folk artists. In fact, what amazed me at the time was that he was telling us about old-time musicians in our own back yard that we didn’t even know about. He returned to visit us a number of times. At concerts, in typical fashion he was a one-man- band, surrounded on stage by an array of banjos, guitars, fiddles, harmonicas – although I must say, he usually played no more than two instruments at a time. He also visited us from time to time to participate in cider pressings, and to make music for barn dances. Each time he paid a visit, he encouraged us to discover the music that surrounded us – to document artists in our local communities.
This wasn’t experience with Mike that was unique to our little group of regional advocates in Missouri. Mike did this around the country. It was his attention and effort that brought artists like Doc Boggs, Elizabeth Cotton, Sam McGee, and Kilby Snow to public light.
Mike was a great solo performer and of course, a co-founder of the old time string band The New Lost City Ramblers, but the stage and the studio never kept him from traveling to the cabin in the pines or the corner at the end of the street to discover, and maybe even record, unheralded traditional artists.
When I called Mike to let him know about this award, he responded with this statement: “I’ve always felt that I was striving to document and play traditional style Southern music for pleasure and for its intrinsic value as well as to encourage others to listen and participate in their own ways – especially those who were raised in the music. It’s all equally part of the same effort: to have this music live on in memory and everyday life.” That was the end of his quote.
Because Mike Seeger so generously shared his music and his knowledge throughout his career – we’ll all benefit from his work for years to come.
Jo Reed: That was Barry Bergey, the NEA’s director of Folk and Traditional Arts. He was remembering Mike Seeger, the 2009 recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award which is given by the National Endowment for the Arts.