Monday, August 17, 2009

Remembering Mike Seeger...

It has now been a week since I learned of the death of one of my all-time musical heroes, Mike Seeger. Mr. Seeger succumbed to cancer in his home in Lexington, Virginia on August 7th, 2009. I needn't bother with a biography of the man. Others, who knew him well, have done a much better job of eulogizing him than I ever could.

But still, I'm compelled to add a few words in observance of his passing. I first saw Mike play back in 1995, in Winfield, KS at the Walnut Valley Festival. It was my second year at the festival, and being, at the time, a complete lunatic of enthusiasm for all things bluegrass and old time, I took in every workshop I could get my hands on. I attended Mike's "Odd Instrument" workshop accompanied by a young Winfield first-timer named Betse Ellis. I remember thinking, even then, that Mike was something special. Of course, the Seeger name was legendary. But Mike was more than his famous name suggested. He had a quietness, and a regality in his demeanor that spoke volumes about him. I remember how funny he was. While Kansas fiddler/guitarist Kelly Werts demonstrated how to play the spoons, Mike, who sat next to him offered his elbows for Kelly to clack upon. This was the nature of Mike Seeger, I think. He was always willing to do what needed to be done, in order to further the music. I can't remember if Betse and I went over to meet Mike after the workshop or not. At the time, it wouldn't have been out of character whatsoever for Betse to gush all over Mike. But one thing I do know, I walked away from that workshop a huge fan, and I vowed to find out as much as I could about this interesting little man with such a huge presence.

Over the next few years, I listened to a lot of Mike's recordings- both solo, and with his old time band, The New Lost City Ramblers. I learned how to play my own instruments with no little help from Mike's instructional materials for banjo, mandolin and guitar. And I fell in love with Mike's field recordings- made available to me via a two-cd Folkways collection, "Close to Home". The more I learned about Mike Seeger, the more I wanted to meet him.

I finally got my chance in May of 2008 when Mike Seeger AND The Wilders were scheduled to appear on the "Song of the Mountain" television show in Marion, Virginia. We arrived early in the afternoon, and as we were loading in, I saw Mike carrying an armload of instruments from his car parked in a solitary bit of shade outside the theater. Out of respect, (and out of being a little bit star-struck), I avoided talking to him backstage. There were a lot of other bands on the bill, and there was a rigorous schedule in effect. So I bided my time, and hoped a more casual opportunity to talk to him would present itself. Mike appeared first on the program, and I sat transfixed in the balcony while he quietly performed his set with a calm, self confident air. He demonstrated banjo styles, sang unaccompanied, and played a tune on the quills (a type of pan pipes traditional in some areas of the African-American south). Unfortunately, I had to leave the balcony before Mike was finished in order to put on my stupid suit- our own set was now just a few minutes away... Upstairs in the dressing room, as I finished tying my tie, I saw Mike coming up the stairs carrying a gourd banjo, an old parlor guitar and a small suitcase under his arm. I opened the door for him and ask if I might help. "No," he said with a grin, "I've got it...Boy there sure are a LOT of stairs." He lugged his load into the small room that served as his dressing room, and began putting the instruments away in their cases. I thought to myself, "this is your chance", but then chickened out- rationalizing that the man should be left in peace to stow his gear.

Soon after, we were onstage making our usual racket, and I caught Mike in the corner of my eye, watching from the stage left wings. I don't know how long he was there, but I remember being a little freaked out- worried that he might not like what we were doing to "his" music.

After the show, both Mike and I were busy with our respective cd tables, and by the time I had finished packing everything up, and had changed back into my street clothes, Mike was gone. Betse called my cell phone, and asked if I wanted to grab something to eat. Since I was starving, I agreed. As we walked up the street, I saw Mike heading into a pizza restaurant with two members of a bluegrass band that had also appeared on the TV show that night. There really wasn't much else open at that hour, and the possibility that I might actually get to pay my respects to Mr. Seeger was too tempting, so we followed him inside, and selected a booth just behind where Mike and the bluegrass guys were sitting. Then Ike and Nate called, wondering where we had gone to. Betse gave them directions. The walls of the booth were quite high, and with Ike and Nate now adding to the volume, I wasn't able to hear what was being said in the booth behind. I imagined the pearls of wisdom that Mike was bestowing to his captive audience in the booth- the history, the music, the stories... Ok, I'll admit it, I was jealous. I wanted to switch booths so badly, but ultimately, I was too cowardly to make a move.

Food was served, and eaten, and we were informed that soon, the restaurant would be closing. I could hear Mike and the bluegrass guys settling their bill with the waitress, and hurried to pay ours as well. This was to be my only chance, and I didn't want to miss it. Betse and I followed Mike outside the restaurant, and I made my decisive move. "Mr. Seeger," I said as he walked down the stairs. He turned and gave me a friendly grin. Then it began, "I just wanted to tell you how much your music has always meant to me, " I blurted out. "I don't think I would be playing this music if it hadn't been for you." The embarrassing gush continued, "I just wanted you to know how much it meant to me for us to share the stage tonight." By the way Mike looked at me, you would have thought that I had just spoken to him in Swahili. His eyes darted away. He turned toward Betse and he said, "I like some of them fiddle tunes you played tonight!" Betse was taken aback. "What was the name of that one...something about a mule jumping?" And just as soon as it started, it was over. Mike was no more interested in my praise than he would have been in a tin of moldering tobacco. It was all about the music to him. And I felt bad about it too- immediately. There was so much more I could have said. I wanted to ask him about "Buck Creek Girls"- an old tune his band had recorded back in the mid 60's. I wanted to ask him about Sara and Mother Maybelle Carter. I wanted to know what it was like to hear Roscoe Holcomb singing in the same room as him. These were things I had wanted to ask him for years. I would not get another chance. As we stood on that sidewalk watching Mike walk back to his hotel, Betse tried to console me, "That was nice what you said." But it was too late. I had blown it and I knew it.

But now that Mike Seeger is gone, I don't feel quite so stupid for gushing. In my own silly way, I was able to tell him that his music was important to me, regardless of whether he really felt like listening at the time. I take consolation that I at least I took the initiative to say what I said, and that I meant it too- with all my heart.

So cheers to the life of Mike Seeger. In a time where words like "Maverick" are hurled about by politicians like so much loose change, I contend that he was a mountain of a man. His impact on me remains, and I will miss him greatly.