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Music from the True Vine

Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey

Bill C. Malone
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  • Book Info
    Music from the True Vine
    Book Description:

    A musician, documentarian, scholar, and one of the founding members of the influential folk revival group the New Lost City Ramblers, Mike Seeger (1933-2009) spent more than fifty years collecting, performing, and commemorating the culture and folk music of white and black southerners, which he called "music from the true vine." In this fascinating biography, Bill Malone explores the life and musical contributions of folk artist Seeger, son of musicologists Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger and brother of folksingers Pete and Peggy Seeger.Malone argues that Seeger, while not as well known as his brother, may be more important to the history of American music through his work in identifying and giving voice to the people from whom the folk revival borrowed its songs. Seeger recorded and produced over forty albums, including the work of artists such as Libba Cotten, Tommy Jarrell, Dock Boggs, and Maybelle Carter. In 1958, with an ambition to recreate the southern string bands of the twenties, he formed the New Lost City Ramblers, helping to inspire the urban folk revival of the sixties.Music from the True Vinepresents Seeger as a gatekeeper of American roots music and culture, showing why generations of musicians and fans of traditional music regard him as a mentor and an inspiration.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0265-3
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    “Who is Mike Seeger?”

    I was asked that question far too often after mentioning that I was writing his biography. And a second question frequently followed: “Is he related to Pete Seeger?” Trying not to show my irritation, I generally responded with, “Yes, he’s his half brother, but he’s a much more talented musician than Pete.” (That statement shouldn’t shock anyone, for Pete himself said that Mike was “the best musician in the family.”¹) But realizing that my answer was unsatisfactory—largely because it was both defensive and incomplete—I then noted Mike’s commanding presence in the folk revival of...

  5. 1 The Seeger Heritage
    (pp. 9-26)

    When Mike Seeger began contemplating a musical career in the early 1950s, he despaired about whether such a goal was possible. He certainly would have been acutely aware of, and probably burdened by, the Seeger name and the prominence that his family enjoyed in the realm of American folk music. His parents, Charles and Ruth, had won fame and distinction in the 1920s among avant-garde classical musicians (an admittedly small group); driven by the radical consciousness of the Depression years, however, they had moved far away from the fascination with musical dissonance that had once enthralled them and had become...

  6. 2 Folk Music and Politics Growing up in the Seeger Household
    (pp. 27-52)

    Although Mike Seeger spent most of his youth and early adulthood in the Washington, D.C., area, he lived his first thirty months in New York. He was born in the Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City and, except for brief interludes at Fairlea, his paternal grandparents’ home in Patterson (Putnam County), lived the rest of his New York years at 111 East 87th Street in Manhattan. Mike understandably had few memories of these early years, but he gained some glimpses in stories, family recollections, and photographs (including one of the famous four-wheel trailer that Charles and Constance had...

  7. 3 Discovering Bluegrass The Baltimore Years
    (pp. 53-76)

    The Baltimore period proved to be one of the pivotal phases of Mike Seeger’s life. Between 1954 and 1958, he became immersed in the city’s thriving bluegrass music scene and, with his introduction to Hazel Dickens and her family, became intimately involved for the first time with the working-class southerners who had made and preserved the music he loved. Profiting from his experiences playing and listening to bluegrass music in the clubs and house parties of Baltimore, Mike also made his first major contributions to the American folk music scene when he documented the emerging bluegrass phenomenon in two historic...

  8. 4 The New Lost City Ramblers Creating the Old-Time Music Scene
    (pp. 77-112)

    In January 1959 Mike moved into what he called a “dreary little apartment” on Douglas Street in Northeast Washington. His job as a recording engineer at Capitol Transcriptions was sometimes interesting, but it was not totally satisfying. He was not yet married and was still unsure about what to do with the rest of his life. With members of his family under siege because of their political beliefs, Mike was busy trying to make music as often as possible and yet steer clear of the taint of “Seeger radicalism.” Apparently, Mike had tried and failed to get a job in...

  9. 5 Music from the True Vine Mike Seeger and the Search for Authenticity
    (pp. 113-146)

    During his involvement with the New Lost City Ramblers, Mike Seeger never ceased making music on his own or being active in a multitude of ways in the emerging old-time music scene. When he made the decision in 1960 to devote his life fully to music, Mike invested his total energy and passion. That decision exacted a costly toll on his health, marriage, and family life. He worked indefatigably over the ensuing decades, often as a member of the Ramblers but increasingly on his own as a missionary for old-time music. Mike was the supreme multitasker: he gave innumerable solo...

  10. 6 Lexington and Alexia Home at Last
    (pp. 147-168)

    As Mike’s marriage dissolved, his thoughts turned toward Virginia. In the months immediately following his separation from Alice, he lived in a Washington apartment, still beset with the anxieties, compulsive habits, and physical ailments that had long troubled him and dependent on prescription drugs and the support of counselors and therapists. With the help of David Winston, a chemist and five-string banjoist who lived in Natural Bridge, Virginia, Mike began checking out possible homesites in the Lexington area. Moving to Virginia was the fulfillment of a dream that probably began with his first trip to the fiddlers’ convention in Galax...

  11. 7 The Mike Seeger Legacy
    (pp. 169-174)

    Alexia told me that sometime during the last few weeks before his death, Mike said, “I wonder if Bill Malone has one more question.” I did, of course. In fact, there are still many questions that I would like to have asked him. Mike’s life was so full and vital and his work practically unending—he was still working on instructional videos and CD anthologies within weeks of his death, including a duet album with Peggy of songs they had done in childhood and teenhood and an audio documentary of southern banjo players (sung and unsung)¹—that no one could...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 175-208)
  13. Note on Sources
    (pp. 209-214)
  14. Selected Works by Mike Seeger
    (pp. 215-216)
  15. Index
    (pp. 217-235)