Obituary | Mike Seeger

Versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist at the heart of the US folk music revival

Mike Seeger, who has died aged 75, was one of the most influential voices of the generation that rediscovered American vernacular music in the 1950s and 60s and, in doing so, gave a new shape to popular music. "Sometimes you know things have to change ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door, and your head has to go into a different place," wrote Bob Dylan in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One. "Mike Seeger had that effect on me. He played on all the various planes, the full index of the old-time styles, [and] he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes."

Seeger came from a musical mandarinate: his father, Charles, was an ethnomusicologist and his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer, while his sister, Peggy, and half-brother, Pete, became significant figures in the postwar folk music revival. Mike grew up in Washington DC and began playing music aged 12 on an autoharp; by his early 20s he had added guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and other instruments.

During the mid-50s he was caught up in the swell of urban interest in southern rural music that had been generated by the epochal Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of albums compiled by the eccentric musicologist Harry Smith. Seeger was especially drawn to old-time country music and bluegrass, but for several years chiefly played the latter, with friends such as Hazel Dickens.

Then, in 1958, he and fellow enthusiasts John Cohen and Tom Paley formed a group to play the older music. The New Lost City Ramblers ignited the imaginations of a generation of musicians who, following their example, investigated recordings made in the 1920s and 30s by almost forgotten musicians such as Charlie Poole and Uncle Dave Macon, and found a vast repertory of songs, tunes and playing styles. A sheaf from this harvest of songs was gathered in The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book (1964), edited by Seeger and Cohen. Well-thumbed copies of this could be found in the guitar cases of countless folk musicians.

Between the Ramblers' engagements at campus folksong clubs, coffee houses and other folk-scene venues, including the first Newport folk festival, Seeger tracked down and taped some of the musicians from the old records, such as Ernest Stoneman, Sam and Kirk McGee and Dock Boggs, a singing banjo-player and former coalminer from south-west Virginia. Boggs's eerie fusion of old-time country music and blues fascinated Seeger and the other Ramblers, who realised before most of their contemporaries how interwoven were the histories of white and black music in the south.

The Ramblers continued to play, with occasional periods of inactivity, for the next 50 years (Paley being replaced in 1962 by Tracy Schwartz), but Seeger, always musically restless and inquisitive, formed other alliances, such as the Strange Creek Singers with Schwartz, Dickens, Lamar Grier and Alice Gerrard. He and Alice, whom he married, also worked and recorded as a duo.

As well as a score of albums with the Ramblers and several with Peggy, Mike made LPs in his own name, such as Tipple, Loom and Rail (1966), a collection of old-time songs about coal mines, cotton mills and railroads, and Music From True Vine (1972), which unpretentiously displayed his versatility: he could play well on numerous instruments – sometimes two at once, such as fiddle and harmonica – and give an accurate impression, rather than a mere imitation, of regional styles from many parts of the south.

On Second Annual Farewell Reunion (1973) and Third Annual Farewell Reunion (1994), he was joined by a procession of friends including Ry Cooder, Ewan MacColl, Ralph Stanley and Dylan, while on Fresh Oldtime String Band Music (1988) he collaborated with younger musicians who had grown up with the Ramblers' music, such as the Horseflies and the Agents of Terra.

Retrograss, a 1999 project with John Hartford and David Grisman, ingeniously recast in old-time styles songs by Chuck Berry and the Beatles.

SeegerTony served on boards and committees associated with the Newport folk festival, the Smithsonian Folklife festival, the National folk festival and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him four grants between 1975 and 1987 and, earlier this year, its Bess Lomax Hawes award for his services to the preservation of traditional music. He took his music to Africa, Japan and Australasia, as well as to Europe; his last appearance in Britain was in 2002, when the Ramblers re-formed, for a concert in London.

Lean and bony, especially in the past decade when he was contending with leukaemia, Mike came more and more to resemble the men who were his models – "the very image," as Robert Cantwell wrote in his study of the folk revival, When We Were Good (1996), "of the storied frontiersman whose music he has been all his life reinventing". If he seemed to be slowly eliding into one of those strong-jawed mountaineers in old band photographs, it was entirely appropriate, for his interpretation of the old Appalachia had been steadily refined, over decades, in understanding and authenticity.

He is survived by his third wife, Alexia, and by the three sons of his first marriage, Kim, Arley Christopher and Jeremy.

Michael Seeger, folk musician and folklorist, born 15 August 1933; died 7 August 2009


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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