Articles from the 1997 Festival of American Folklife
|Crusaders for Old-time Music
by Mike Seeger
Although my parents raised me in the suburbs less than ten miles from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., they reared me on Southern traditional music. I still remember the joy, as a child, of singing with them and listening to wondrous field recordings made by the pioneer collectors of the thirties, especially John and Alan Lomax, and, in my teens, learning to play the banjo - sometimes playing for twelve hours a day. I never questioned the value of the music and the close-by people who valued it: my parents, my brother Pete, the Lomaxes, and most of all the musicians and singers who made it, many of whom I later met and became friends with. I've come to have great respect for those long gone who created, used, and shaped this valuable heritage. So I emulate them all: I want to sing and play and collect with an eye toward seeing this music continue and adapt and stay fresh.
I was also reared with a perhaps unrealistic contempt for the domination of American musical life by media commercialism. The most unrealistic thing about my playing early American rural music may be that I've been doing it for a living for over thirty-five years. I remain noncommercial musically as well as in the marketplace.
When the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR) started in 1958, John Cohen, Tom Paley, and I were all aware of the previous plateaus of the "revival," from the Almanacs to the Weavers and the then very recent (1958) success of the Kingston Trio. We were also aware of the situation of old-time Southern music in the South: those who played it were old, many others were musically inactive, and the young were playing bluegrass, various other forms of commercial country music, or rockabilly. Enjoyable as those other styles were and still are to me, the older repertoire and variety of sounds are for me much richer in every way and inspire further exploration and individual expression.
Our initial intent was to just play the music we liked, the music we heard on Library of Congress field recordings and on commercial 78 rpm discs recorded in the late twenties and early thirties. Something about that body of music resonated in us, and we wanted to be true to those traditions. We wanted to avoid the urban political issues which seemed to overshadow the music, instead to let the fun, the irony, the stories - what we perceived as the best of the traditional songs and sounds - speak for themselves, and certainly to allow the rural working class, sometimes newly urbanized, to voice its own social and political concerns through their songs.
This was a new idea then, and we got people's attention. We tried to evolve a program that would present the music we loved with respect, to audiences totally unfamiliar with it or biased against it. We wanted to share our urban advantage with our mentors, so we actively promoted the idea of presenting traditional musicians everywhere we went. We developed a mission. Younger musicians were attracted to our music, our presentation, and advocacy. Some of them played informally, and others eventually became professional rock 'n' roll or bluegrass musicians. Our efforts were part of the "folk song revival" of the early sixties, but our music never fit into that world. Musical and political blacklists helped to assure our noncommerciality.
In the late sixties it seemed that our revival had been killed by rock 'n' roll, but it had merely become less visible. A true revival, a renewal, was to burst forth in the seventies with a younger generation of musicians, largely inspired by the Highwoods String Band. Their music was more casual and social than ours, more based on rhythmic fiddle tunes than a representative repertoire of Southern rural music. House parties and events such as the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention and Galax Fiddlers Convention became focal points for gatherings of musicians to party, visit, and make music. Furthermore, Southerners - encouraged by this new musical energy - began regaining some of their regional heritage, which was already being crowded out by radio and TV.
Now, in the late nineties, there are probably a few thousand people nationwide playing traditional Southern music, and it often occupies a place in their lives similar to the one the music used to hold when it was mostly rural. The music remains, as it nearly always has been, noncommercial. We musicians are not subsistence farmers any more, though; we're computer programmers, carpenters, teachers, and health-care workers. In these affluent and unsettled times we have the luxury, the responsibility, of choice - of lifestyle, of music, of community, of livelihood. That is a big difference now.
This musical community has made its choices and will certainly be playing and evolving this music for a long time to come. We've helped the music make the jump into the modern world, where it will survive and thrive.
Mike Seeger, who makes his home in Rockbridge County, Virginia, has devoted his life to singing and playing Southern traditional mountain music on a variety of instruments and to producing documentaries and concert presentations of traditional musicians, singers, and dancers. His recordings are primarily on Rounder and Smithsonian Folkways.