Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mike Seeger

It is difficult getting the news from Twitter, but an old poet-musician friend & guitar maker, Layne Russell just tweeted that Mike Seeger died (8/15/1933 – 8/7/2009). It seems that lately my blog has been turning into an obit column. The sloughing of mortality's coil—a sign of the times. Our times. Sigh. I've been playing YouTube and NPR clips of Mike Seeger all day long in remembrance.

I met musicologist-folksinger Mike Seeger at a Grass Valley folk concert in the early 1970s. All the locals turned out for the event set in a rustic converted storefront space replete with creaking floorboards—it was a veritable sea of plaid shirts.

* * *

There was not a whole lot going on in Grass Valley in those days—or nights. Or locals. Not since the mine closed. Unless you counted the time when your front yard caved in because one of the old boarded up Empire Mine tunnels collapsed. That happened to Bob's next door neighbors. Step outside your front door and directly into the mineshaft. No commute.

My boyfriend, Bob Hamilton, who grew up in Grass Valley, which was more of a retirement community than a mine town in the 1950s and 60s, never forgave his family when they defected to the suburbs of Fremont. So, in the throes of young love, we spent most weekends camping out around Grass Valley in a blue VW bus, taking inventory of all his old boyhood haunts.

We traveled the backroads to the goldmine towns of Downieville, Rough and Ready, Red Dog, and You Bet; scree-riding the slippery slopes of Malakoff Diggins, climbing up to the old lookout fire station made famous in a poem by Gary Snyder.

We admired the sunset at the garbage dump, hiked the ridges and drank in the sweet odor of mint, pine and bearmat, visited the old flooms he floated down, swam in the deep canyons of Greenhorn Creek and in Scott's Flat Reservoir above Nevada City. Went into the old Nixon Family store at the Quaker Camp.

We very nearly moved to Grass Valley, like everyone else, we were going to live off the land—but the land deal fell through on the west facing high ridge above the old Abrogast Ranch Road, by the YCC Camp: the crossroads of a life we might have lived.
Bob Hamilton & Maureen Hurley, Fremont, CA, 1973
* * *

It was a full house that night, people came from miles around, so we were seated right onstage. Mike Seeger played the banjo, the dulcimer, the mandolin, and danged near every stringed instrument that strummed or resonated, while keeping up a running inventory of jokes and stories as he tuned and retuned that slippery stringed eel of a banjo and played it like the music of a mountain creek.

Mike was joined onstage by (if memory serves me right) his sister Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; they sang The Wind and Rain, Darlin' Cory, and Wildwood Flower. Mike also played the autoharp, the mouth harp and the Jew's harp. And sitting stage center, I was all tangled up in his eyes—it was as if he sang for me alone. I was mesmerized, a deer caught in the headlights— within the supple songs of that folkstream.

Mike Seeger, half-brother to folk musician Pete Seeger, was born in New York, 1933, and largely raised in Maryland. His was a prominent musical family: Mike's parents were collectors in the emerging field of ethnomusicology; his father Charles was a noted folklorist and his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a music scholar and avant garde composer.

Mike was a self-taught musician, but the likes of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, John and Alan Lomax were frequent visitors to the Seeger household. Elizabeth Cotten, for which the"Cotten-picking"technique is named, worked in the household as well. one of the first traditional folk music audio tape collections Mike made was of Elizabeth Cotten. In 1958, at age 25, Mike founded the New Lost City Ramblers, he was instrumental in rescuing and reviving "old time" traditional music folkways of the South. He settled in Virginia, his spiritual music home.

I don't quite know why at the end of the concert, Mike singled me out for such a grand-glorious hug finale. I was probably shining with something like enthusiasm. Or something like love at first sight. Or because I sang all the words of Elizabeth Cotten's Freight Train with him. We held each other tight, as if for dear life, as if the world itself were coming to an end—Mike cathartically laughing and sobbing into the crook of my neck and shoulder. It was as if time itself stood still.

And then it morphed into something like a group bear hug. Mike, Bob and me, we held one other for what seemed like an eternity. The early '70s were a time of great upheaval and change, people routinely ran off with newfound lovers and soulmates, and hooked up with gurus or musicians at the drop of a hat. But when it came to things like that, I was an emotional and spiritual coward. Not like my gypsy mother who boarded the Magic Bus. Besides, he was old enough to be my father—though you wouldn't know it by looking at him.

Peggy Seeger & Lancashire-Scottish songwriter-activist, Ewan MacColl were more reserved than Mike. They didn't mingle with the crowd like long lost relations and looked at us oddly. The proscenium of fourth wall between audience and performer was firmly hammered into place. No fraternizing with the audience.

I bought an audio cassette from them and thanked Peggy for singing her Gonna Be an Engineer song. I wanted to speak with Ewan too. That night they sang many Child Ballads. Their rendition of Black is the Colour gives me goosebumps to this day. But Ewan was a chilly wind. (Few know that Ewan wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for Peggy; many of his songs recorded by Planxty, and other groups, Dirty Old Town, Sweet Thames Flow Softly, and Shoals of Herring are often mistaken for traditional songs).

I'm sure everybody at the hall was wondering what all the commotion was about onstage. People were all abuzz, wanted to know if our connection with Mike went way back. Were we long lost friends? Relatives? Or what? What can I say, it was a matter of phenotype or random pheromones? A case of mistaken identity? Maybe he thought I was my mother—an actress/custume designer, and friend of Tommy Smothers, she got around. It wouldn't have been the first time I was mistaken for her. Whatever the connection was, it was a chance meeting and some wild vines got tangled up in my heartstrings.

* * *

I had met Mike before, but I can't explain that moment—or why it profoundly affected me. Now, in 1972 or thereabouts, though he'd done amazing folk music revival with The New Lost City Ramblers, Mike wasn't exactly a household name, like his half-brother Pete Seeger (whom I've met many times). We exchanged addresses and meant to keep in touch. Newfound friends. But in the days before email, it was much harder to stay in touch.

But Mike turned me on to Sing Out, and Alan Lomax. I felt his presence whenever I sang folk songs. With renewed passion I picked up the old Martin guitar, determined to learn all of Elizabeth Cotten's Freight Train right through to the end. No matter that she strung the guitar backwards and played left handed. However, I was no real musician, a lover of folk music, yes. I was a fair (and painfully shy) singer of Old World Irish rebel songs learned from my Irish grandmother. Mike taught me to be true to the folksongs: to sing what I knew best. And to preserve the authenticity and dialect, not to succumb to the temptation to modernize or steal the songs like pop folk singers, change a few words, and then have the audacity to call them their own.

* * *

In those days, I foolishly thought that love lasted forever, and that Bob was surely the one who I would go through time with. Mike was long and lanky, he reminded me of my Irish cousins, with his unruly forelock foisted out over a smooth brow, great beak of a nose, and those gorm-grey eyes.

He sang the music, not like a showman, he surrendered himself to it. The performance was about the music, not Mike. When Mike played, music itself took center stage. Mike didn't have a great "classic" voice, he was the translator, the redactor, the incandescent transmitter of folk culture.

Mike instilled within me an enduring lifelong passion for collecting folk music. There is something profoundly intimate when you breathe in the bodyheat and the sweat of another man's labor and it rubs off on you. I knew Mike's odor mingled with the sharpness of laundry soap from his blue cambric shirt. Bob and I made our goodbyes and giddily headed up Harmony Ridge off Highway 20 into a night chock full of wavering stars, to plan our future together.

But I soon discovered that the only time that love lasts forever is when it's sampled from afar. The gods of dailiness grind down the seeds of love to a fine powder, and then one day a gentle spring wind came and blew it all away. Bob had found someone else, an ex girlfriend, to love. She was sleeping in my bed and I was out on the backroads of Cotati, broke, living out a nightmare in my VW bug. But that's another story.

* * *

And so I loved Mike from afar, with that rare unrequited troubadour love that knows not the details of domestic dailiness of dishes too long in the sink or dirty socks on the bathroom floor. A vague, if distant memory, of ideal love's chivalrous purity unencumbered by the fetters of reality. Had I been free, or braver, would I have followed that folksinger—whether a one night stand, or nothing at all? He was surely a pied piper.

At the time, I didn't know anything about Mike's personal life, whether he was married, or not. Probably not, judging by Peggy's steely glare. But I was true unto my one true love. And I was also a coward. And with regret, I distanced myself from Mike's embrace. Chalked it up to the inner workings of a young woman's flight of fancy.

* * *

I kept tabs on Mike over the years, for he was also an artist in residence, working in the schools like me. He won fellowships and awards from the same arts organizations we also applied to, including four NEA grants. One year, Mike, and the organization I teach for, California Poets in the Schools, both got Rex Foundation grants. Mike also was awarded a Guggenheim Fellow and received six Grammy nominations.

I saw Mike's west coast performances whenever I could. I may have even written to him, or, perhaps they were merely letters written in my head. Later, I looked him up on the internet but none of the photographs I found did him justice. For one fleeting instant we had looked deep into each other's eyes, saw beyond the trappings of skin, sinew and bone, age and wisdom, and I was forever changed.

Nearly 40 years later, I mourn his passing. This man I never knew. Heartsick, and wondering what might have been in another lifetime. Another crossroad. Another country.

A lyric rose to my lips: I am a poor wayfaring stranger, a-traveling through this world of woe....

And I realized that Mike is still singing, he is collecting songs in that bright land over yonder.

I apoligize for using the publicity photo of Mike sans permission as I do not know whose photo it is. Something I rarely do. I did an image search, and found nothing. But I also wanted to honor Mike this day, though it doesn't do justice to the image of Mike buried in my memory. If you know who took it, please let me know and I will photo credit—or remove it if needs be.

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