Mike Seeger Interview
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From approximately the late 1960s through the mid 90s Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz was a radio host on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. On March 30th, 1986 he had Mike Seeger on as his guest. This interview comes from a cassette of that show.
Mike played a show the night before at the Julia Morgan center in Berkeley, CA. This is the cover of the program for that show and one in Sacramento, CA.
Chris Strachwitz…: I have a very interesting guest in the studio. He played a wonderful performance last night at the Julia Morgan Center here in Berkeley of old time, really of traditional music of all kinds. Mike Seeger, welcome to KPFA.
Mike Seeger: Thank you. Chris.
Chris Strachwitz: You’ve been traveling and playing for a long time now. You feel like almost a veteran, like the people that you started out listening to, or?
Mike Seeger: Well, a little bit like that. Yeah, because I’ve known so many musicians that aren’t playing anymore, but as I’ve gotten more and more familiar with this kind of music, I feel like I’m feeling at home with it and kind of experimenting some with it too, which is a great deal of fun. It puts a whole new perspective on the music for me now.
Chris Strachwitz: You were telling me that you’re not only performing now, you’re also getting into producing festivals or programs yourself. What’s this latest project that you got cooked up?
Mike Seeger: Well, I must say that it’s quite a new idea for me to be an entrepreneur, and I guess that’s what I’m doing, but cooperatively with a bunch of other musicians, I’m arranging a convention, Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Convention, which is basically a festival get together where musicians just get together and play, but also there’s a bunch of musicians that we’re inviting to play. And putting the accent on some of the younger musicians from basically urban areas, who are playing the old time string music.
Mike Seeger: One of our programs on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon will be following the evolution of the urban string bands from the New Lost City Ramblers to Alan Jabbour’s Fiddle Tunes to Mac Benford’s new group, the Uncles, and the modern group, the Horseflies; the Tompkins County Horseflies. Mac Benford is calling it a celebration of the second golden age of string band music, which I think is a neat way of looking at it. And then there’ll be good dancing there. Actually, it’s a combination of some of the fiddler’s conventions that have existed for years and a folk festival.
Chris Strachwitz: I’d like to tell people once again where it is and what the dates are going to be, because I think there are people who might even go all the way back east for this. Sounds like an intriguing project.
Mike Seeger: Well, it’s September 12th through 14th. The 12th will be a dance with a few local bands and callers, and then all day on Saturday the 13th of September and 14th of September, a Sunday, through about 6:00 PM. And there’ll be acres of old time music of good old time music. In fact, some of the best music of course exists, and the kind of ad hoc groups that will be playing throughout the place.
Chris Strachwitz: Even in the parking lots and so on.
Mike Seeger: Well, yes, the parking lots and there’s a bunch of covered pavilions and a little barn. There’s a front porch for an old house that people are going to be able to play on. Modern facilities, which is nice. In fact, the main performance area is covered. It makes a problem for sitting on the concrete floor and producing sound in a tin roof building, even though it’s open on the sides. But I think it’ll be good. So folks can come.
Chris Strachwitz: And what is the name of the place again where it’s going-
Mike Seeger: It’s in Buena Vista, Virginia, which is near Roanoke. It’s near my hometown of Lexington. Buena Vista is spelled Buena Vista and it’s in the town park, which is the Glen Maury Park.
Chris Strachwitz: If people want more information as to when and what, can they write to you? Do you have an address that’s easy to-
Mike Seeger: Yes, it’s going to be advertised in Bluegrass Unlimited for one thing, so it won’t be a total secret, but you can write to box 883, Buena Vista, that’s B-U-E-N-A; Vista, V-I-S-T-A, Virginia. I don’t remember the zip code. And we’ll be able to send out flyer and also some background information on what actually will be done.
Chris Strachwitz: So just write to Old Time Festival-
Mike Seeger: Well, no. The name of the festival or the convention is the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Convention.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s a little longwinded.
Mike Seeger: I know.
Chris Strachwitz: I could just write to Mike Seeger, box what?
Mike Seeger: Well, actually, I’m having a friend or somebody helped me with all that, mailing out all the information.
Chris Strachwitz: I’m going to get that box number again.
Mike Seeger: Box 883.
Chris Strachwitz: 883 in Buena Vista, Virginia.
Mike Seeger: Yes, and you should write to the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Convention though just to make sure.
Chris Strachwitz: Why did you decide to do this?
Mike Seeger: Well, this is patterned a little bit after Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, which has been the gathering of urban people playing this kind of music. And when that was established about 12 or 13 years ago also as a cooperative effort between a local mountain music enthusiasts group and ourselves, we were hoping that other festivals like that would be established, and none were. And so this is the second. The idea also is to put a little bit more emphasis on the younger musicians, that is anywhere from myself to younger, and dance, and for also it’ll be different in that it’s a Southern convention as well.
Chris Strachwitz: And is it also perhaps due to the fact that some of the popular bluegrass festivals really don’t present any other kind of music except strictly blue grass, don’t they?
Mike Seeger: That is true, and that’s one reason that Brandywine was established to start with. The Brandywine Festival and I mean, I really do like traditional bluegrass especially. And then some of the more far out type of bluegrass like Tony Trishka and Fleck and so forth. But I think it’s important to have specialized events like this that will give a certain feeling and identity that is all gathered around the music and the social life that exists around old time fiddle music, especially.
Chris Strachwitz: Mike Seeger visiting Berkeley, and I’m going to talk some more with you because you’ve got all kinds of projects going. Let’s turn out a little bit of music to give people a taste of what you sounded like. This is way back in, when was this?
Mike Seeger: I have no idea when this cut was actually recorded. It probably says in the liner notes but sometime in the, oh, late 60’s, early 70’s.
Chris Strachwitz: It’s definitely with one of the most famous groups that you were with before you went solo; the New Lost City Ramblers.
Mike Seeger: Yes.
Chris Strachwitz: Mike Seeger.
Mike Seeger: The name of this song is, I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost like Having You Here. And it’s a real to life story. After you will hear this shrunken banjo and the expanded six string banjo and the spoon playing, Mr. Schwartz, you’ll have no doubt about this song. The meaning of it. You only have to tune forks. You don’t have to tune spoons. Thank you very much. All right. Five, and a four, and a one, and a two.
Mike Seeger: (music)
Chris Strachwitz: The New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger.
Mike Seeger: It’s amazing what amuses people.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, you guys do tune a lot.
Mike Seeger: Well, yes, and in that case you see, that was a banjo-mandolin and it had gone out of tune between the time we came on stage and the time we played the tune, and I thought that that was a good thing to put on a record. The whole thing, the way it actually happened.
Chris Strachwitz: That was from a record on Flying Fish of some concert performances of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Mike Seeger: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: I thought you guys were actually able to make a living with that, but.
Mike Seeger: No. During the entire time that the Ramblers played, I worked at least half the time as a soloist. Tracy, had a farm that he, kind of a subsistence type of farm. And so I was definitely playing solo music, although at that time it seemed like I played more like the old time records than I do now. I guess, I kind of treated the old time music as a score, which I think is okay.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, since then you have developed more your own style or… I mean, it’s definitely Mike Seeger rather than.
Mike Seeger: I change everything now. Almost everything, I change one way or another. Beyond the fact that I am a different person and of course, that was always reflected. You could always tell who it was singing.
Chris Strachwitz: If any of you have comments when we play some more music, the only number that I can really answer if you want to talk to Mike Seeger later on in the program, 848-4425; 848-4425 is the only number that I can answer, but I don’t think I can take calls on the air. Actually, I’m not quite qualified for that. You were also telling me, Mike, that you’ve been working on a, I’m not sure how financially rewarding any of this is, but you are also involved in producing a video program devoted to, what was it?
Mike Seeger: To Mountain dance. And I call it mountain step dancing just to differentiate it from figure dancing. You know like square dancing. It’s a dance that people do either solo or in just bunches of people of keeping time to the music. Moving your body to the music, making sounds in time to the music. Kind of almost like drumming. It’s a type of dancing called flat foot, bucking wing, hoe downing.
Chris Strachwitz: But it’s basically solo dancing. Is it?
Mike Seeger: Oh yes, you don’t do it in teams. Although some teams in the late 20’s, early 30’s, the Soco Gap Team from Western North Carolina was one of the first. They would get together and do figures while everybody would be doing what they call freestyle. That is doing a different step in time to the music. Now, over the past 20 years, you’ve got groups that are basically choreographed and doing the same steps together, and they call that precision clogging where everybody is doing pretty much the same move together, and they do figures while they’re doing step dancing. You see that a lot on television.
Chris Strachwitz: But it was never really social dancing as far as like people dance to polkas and waltzes, and things like that.
Mike Seeger: Not couple dancing.
Chris Strachwitz: Not couple dancing.
Mike Seeger: No, you, well some people do that now, but it wasn’t much done that way then, except in these clog groups where you would have a partner, but it’s not close dancing. You couldn’t hardly do it because especially freestyle, you’re moving your body just a little bit different, and it’s pretty vigorous.
Chris Strachwitz: I’m just kind of curious. I know most of the old time musicians that I’ve ever met, especially blue grass people, they’ve never played for couple dancing, but on the other hand you do see old pictures, when people did do couple dancing to mountain music in, let’s say, the middle of the last century and so on. Do you know anything about it? Did they do couple dancing and that faded out or what happened?
Mike Seeger: To old time music, as far as I know, the only kinds of thing you did were bucking wing and various different types of flat foot, hoe downing, or jigging, and this was basically a solo thing. Both men and women did it, but you don’t do it relating to a partner of the opposite sex. You do it relating to perhaps another dancer sometimes, but not in a couple way, or relating to the musician. Sometimes you’re looking at the musician while you’re doing it and dancing to the music. A lone banjo quite often or a fiddle.
Chris Strachwitz: I was told, especially in Europe when what was later to be known as the wicked waltz was introduced, by Strauss, that people, that was the first time they really did close dancing, and it was considered absolutely outrageous. Is there anything, is that connected? I guess the waltz never caught on there except in-
Mike Seeger: Well, that’s later than what I’m talking about. And it’s a difference side of country dancing. Couple dancing is something, as far as I know, which was not a mountain type of dancing, and it was an urban thing. Just as the guitar came in, so did couple dancing. Just as the guitar and the mandolin, things that would play slower music, which would, and waltzes. You see, the waltz wasn’t played much in the deep mountain areas. That was more of an urban phenomenon and was thought to be new in the early part of this century.
Mike Seeger: So, some of the more accomplished fiddlers and ones who wanted to be more new time-y, like Eck Robertson, or Clark Kessinger, or people like that would play those kinds of tunes. Now we call that old time music, but I’m talking about old time, real old time, backwoods-
Chris Strachwitz: Last century, huh?
Mike Seeger: Yes. Last century music.
Mike Seeger: Well, this video tape is a documentary of about 20 different dancers. All of them have different styles. Just virtually everybody has a different style who does this kind of dancing, and it’s basically arranged like an LP. You visit with one dancer, they’ll dance, they’ll talk for a couple of minutes, maybe a story or a description of what they’re doing. Then maybe dance again, and then you fade to black, and you go on and visit another dancer in another community, or in just a place. And it’s an attempt to show to people who are out of the region how the old time dance, which is something that’s fed into modern day clogging, how it exists, just like old time music. But you don’t ever get a chance to see these dancers much out of the region.
Chris Strachwitz: Mike Seeger. Why don’t we turn a little bit more music loose. This is an extraordinary sound that I’ve always been haunted by. This is a Mike Seeger special. I think this blending of the violin with the harmonica, or did you hear this from somebody else?
Mike Seeger: Well, the way that this got started as well as I can remember, was Maria Muldaur and I played some music together in the mid to late 60’s. And she suggested I think doing this song with the harmonica and the fiddle, which we did as a duet. And somehow a year or two later, I started, in fact, two or three weeks before this recording was made, I decided to try to play the two together and it worked.
Chris Strachwitz: Extrordinary sound, Mike Seeger.
Chris Strachwitz: (music)
Chris Strachwitz: Mike Seeger all by his lonesome playing two instruments. How did you get into that? I think, oh, that’s what we talked briefly about.
Mike Seeger: Well, it is partly what I said, but also I was very much impressed by a recording I heard of Waylon Jennings once where they played a harmonica and electric guitar together. I love the sound of a harmonica in unison with another sustained instrument, and there’s a few others that I love to try to play with those two instruments. That’s a neat combination.
Chris Strachwitz: Unfortunately you’re not going to be appearing in the immediate Bay area anymore. You were in Sacramento last night here in Berkeley, or are you doing any more?
Mike Seeger: This is it for this year.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, that’s a shame. I was wish we… Anyway, folks look for him next year.
Mike Seeger: I come out about once a year. I try to, and I think I will next year.
Mike Seeger: (music)
Chris Strachwitz: Short numbers. Mike Seeger and your sister Peggy. She’s been in England for a long time, hasn’t she?
Mike Seeger: Yes. Since from the late, well, about 1957 I think.
Chris Strachwitz: Was Berry Olivia, one of the first people to bring her over here to perform or was that just here on the West Coast? Because that’s the first time I ever heard them.
Mike Seeger: Probably the first on the West Coast because she played I think one of the first folk song concerts that Izzy Young put on in New York in the 50’s, and she did play at the Gate of Horn in Chicago I think shortly after that.
Chris Strachwitz: But you’re going to be back East by then or?
Mike Seeger: Oh yes. We’re going to get together in May. They’re playing Philadelphia and I’m driving up to Philadelphia to see them. We don’t get a chance to visit very much now that she lives in… Well, I don’t go to to England as often now as I used to. I used to go there touring quite a bit.
Chris Strachwitz: Besides all your performances that you are doing, trying to eke out an existence, I guess, you obviously still are taking out time to do research on rather esoteric things besides the dance tape that you’re working on. You also tell me you’re trying to edit some recordings as well or?
Mike Seeger: Yeah. I’m going to dub some of my, that is copy, some of my earliest field recordings from the 50’s. I’ve got to the place where I want to go back and well, makes sure that they’ll survive for one thing, because they’re getting brittle. And then I’m going to go through them and try to pick out about an album or two of things that I think people might like to hear that have never been released before. And I hope that some of the bluegrass groups that I recorded at the country music parks back then, some of them will agree to the use of those tapes. Doubt that Bill Monroe will, but it’ll be something like the Stanley Series that you’ve just picked up there because I recorded those.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, I think I’d like to play one. It’s really extraordinary. One question I have, the sound is very good considering you obviously just had one mic up there or something?
Mike Seeger: Yes. Considering that I had one omnidirectional Electro-Voice 635, and I was recording on lack of the state of art Magna Chord at the time, at three and three quarters, half track.
Chris Strachwitz: Really.
Mike Seeger: That was the amazing thing.
Chris Strachwitz: That is. And the only unfortunate part is I guess you were so concerned with preserving tape that you cut it off almost before the end of the song.
Mike Seeger: Yeah, I just… I tell you.
Chris Strachwitz: We’ve all done things like that.
Mike Seeger: Oh yes, I feel so terrible about that. I learned about it within a few months that I could probably afford the tape. But in those days, when a reel of tape costs $2 or $3 and I was getting paid a dollar an hour with taxes taken out of it, that was a lot of money. And I just barely had the money to pay for my car to get to it and the gasoline and my friends didn’t have that. They’d come along in my car. So, I tell you, it was tight in those days.
Chris Strachwitz: Do you still have a chance to go out into the… Well, since you live in Virginia you don’t have to go all that far. But do you ever have the opportunity to go out in the mountains and visit some people that invite you up, or that have some friends who play old time things that you’ve never heard of, or something kind of?
Mike Seeger: It’s not as much now as it used to be, Chris, for a variety of reasons. But if I do go out now, I tend to take a video recorder with me, and I tend to go after dance because that’s what nobody else has done. Nobody but nobody has been documenting mountain step dancing, and even though I have a lowly VHS home recorder and camera, it’s more than has been done before, and it’s a little bit like when I went back to these parks and recorded the Stanley Brothers in 1955, and the quality is about as good. But I’m letting the recorder run on a little longer.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, good. How did you get into this dance? Was Alan Lomax in any way involved in that? Because I know he’s a maniac for documenting dance.
Mike Seeger: In no way. I like a lot of the insights that he has. And of course, he’s the most influential collector that’s been on my music through those early Library of Congress recordings that he and his dad and then he and his wife made. But it was strictly by going to, hanging out with country people who I’d see dance. I mean, Hazel and I would be jamming at one of her in-laws or not in-laws, one of her family’s house, just a house party, you know? Playing bluegrass, and somebody who’d be listening would get up and start dancing. That’s the way this dance is done, you see.
Mike Seeger: They’d get up and do a couple of steps and I’d be intrigued to watch. It’s beautiful. Nobody… Just somebody be walking along the street practically, but dancing.
Chris Strachwitz: I’m just curious, I’ve seen a lot of that kind of solo dancing in black sanctified churches. Do you ever see it in white, what they call holiness churches?
Mike Seeger: I have to admit that I haven’t been in that many. I’m sure it exists some, but I think that my own feeling is that dancing exists more in black churches than in white churches. What few I’ve seen. Because I have been on Capitol Hill in Washington where there was an electric black group playing electric music and people were dancing. The whole congregation was basically doing the flat foot, variations of.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s what struck me as so intriguing. When I was at this church that Reverend Overstreet in Phoenix, this was almost 20 years ago, but still, the Charleston was long out of date and women would get possessed and just get up there and Charleston like I’d never seen before anywhere. It was really extraordinary. All solo dances, and-
Mike Seeger: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great joy.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. It’s obviously a marvelous outlet for your frustrations and energy.
Mike Seeger: It’s an outlet for joy, too. You have to call it joy.
Chris Strachwitz: Another little selection, I think we got queued up. Mike, this is again from one of your Mercury Records. Those are perhaps technically the best recorded, aren’t they, of all your-
Mike Seeger: I guess so. Well, actually I recorded this myself on my Nagra, and I was the engineer, and they really didn’t want to do any songs over again. And we caught this one, and this was with the original Highwoods String Band close to the first times that they were playing. Recorded in somebody’s house while we were doing all the usual recreational things.
Chris Strachwitz: I’ll be darned. I had assumed that this was on a major label. This was all studio recording, but that’s not so.
Mike Seeger: Mm-mm (negative). I couldn’t get them into a studio and it would have cost so much that I would not have been able to do it.
Chris Strachwitz: Who’s playing with you on this one?
Mike Seeger: This is the Highwoods String Band with me playing second banjo to Mac. You can hardly even hear me, but you’re going to hear them good, and that’s what counts.
Chris Strachwitz: All right. Let’s do it.
Chris Strachwitz: (music)
Chris Strachwitz: Oh boy, they sure jump on that.
Mike Seeger: Well, you see, you could hear the birds singing and over the stage. I was there at that performance in what, ’56, of the Stanley Brothers, and it was an exciting performance. Bluegrass was a very exciting, breathless almost music in those years, and I think Chubby Anthony had just joined them for one thing, and they were in a somewhat competitive position with the other band which had Scott Stoneman in it. Those two fiddlers were very much in a competitive position that day, so it was exciting time.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s a recording that has just recently been released on a record of no label. It’s simply called Stanley Series.
Mike Seeger: It’s a subscription series of just Stanley Brothers park recordings that Gary Reed is putting out. And he contacts us recorders, and Ralph Stanley of course. And it’s all legal and proper and everything.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, good. So I’m glad Ralph is getting a little change there.
Mike Seeger: Carter and Ralph both.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, well, I guess their respective estates. Mike Seeger, it’s been a real pleasure having you here. I wish we could talk some more about all your projects. You seem to keep busily involved in traditional American music of all kinds. You also, I don’t know if we have a few minutes to talk about the revival of the Newport Folk Festival. Is that going to happen or is it going to be just a kind of a folky dokie thing.
Mike Seeger: Well, the board of directors made up of mostly performers has been revived, so to speak. That whole idea of running a festival with performers choosing the performers has been revived, and they’re going through the planning stages now. A new board is being phased in, if that’s the proper way, and I think it’s going to be an interesting, if somewhat limited festival. It’s not going to be like the old Newport Festivals quite. But I think in future years it’ll become more exciting again.
Chris Strachwitz: I hope it will because I mean George Wein is the active producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is certainly to my way of looking at it, a masterpiece in dealing with regional music.
Mike Seeger: He’s a great festival person.
Chris Strachwitz: And he seems-
Mike Seeger: I hate to use the word promoter, but he’s a person who really is out for the music, and I really have highest respect for him and his productions.
Chris Strachwitz: And he seems to get involved with people who go out there and locate performers. At least he did in the case of New Orleans, so I would think that hopefully he will perhaps take a more active role in the Newport thing. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to let performers decide, if the performers are only popular stars, but-
Mike Seeger: Well, no, it’s a wide variety of performers. I think that George and ourselves, we learned a lot from one another, and I think that the exciting years of Newport were the ones that were run by the board of performers. It was an incredible time ’60 through what, ’70, when it had to stop because of the riots, the crazies. It’s an exciting thing. It really is.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, maybe we’ll see it come back.
Mike Seeger: I really appreciate programs like this, by the way, Chris. I wished that we had more programs like this all across the country.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, it’s been a delight. I’m sure it’s happening everywhere. I mean, there’s different radio stations. Even San Antonio here is getting a public station now, finally, maybe. Anyway, folks see you in a couple of weeks. My name is Chris Strachwitz. We’ll go out with a little music by Mike Seeger.
Mike Seeger: And David Ray.
Chris Strachwitz: Thank you.
Chris Strachwitz: (music)