While writing for Northern Virginia magazine in 2007 I believe, an idea for a series of interviews occurred to me. The music industry was, at that time, at a peak of the shift from industry to DIY success. Why not, I suggested, talk with five Virginia artists, all at different levels of their career and all who had taken different paths. I thought the contrast would reflect an interesting light on the way music was shifting.
When looking for a Grammy-winning artist to headline, I discovered Mike Seeger. Brother of Pete Seeger and son of two musicologists who archived traditional Appalachian music for the Works Project during the Depression along with Alan Lomax. A musician and archivist himself for the Library of Congress, he had also been instrumental in the popularization of American Folk music. Working in the early 60s to bring traditional artists from Appalachia and other rural areas together with regularly performing urban artists. He was revolutionary. He was so revolutionary in fact that Dylan credits him in ‘Chronicles’ with inspiring him to write his own songs.
He had just won a Grammy for his album, ‘True Vine’, which had the beautiful concept of American Roots music as a vine running through the country which all other forms of music are branches springing off of. His number, to my surprise, was immediately findable on the Internet. Not completely sure I’d actually get the Mike Seeger I was looking for, I gave it a shot and dialed. To my delight it was him and we set up an interview. I then spent about 2 weeks doing nothing but giving myself a crash course in American musicology, from the English traditions of the first arrivals to the present.
I wrote about 200 pages of notes at the time that I wish beyond imagining that I still had. It was a fascinating journey. I learned that murder ballads and many other folk songs had been not only a source of entertainment but of news in the British Isles. Wandering minstrels doubled as a sort of roving reporter, spreading news to a largely illiterate population from town to town. Songs were, of course, somewhat easier to remember and easier to catch people’s attention with than walking around delivering speeches about the events would have been. As time went on, song sheets were also printed and sold.
Popular ballads were often used to describe more than one event, with some detail just changed on a situation by situation basis. A murder in Ireland, for example, could match in general detail a murder in England a century later. Since people were already familiar with the tune and hook of Ballad A, the writer would simply change it around a little and present it as Ballad B. Later songs were co-written over the ages in different ways. John Henry, for example, was sung on chain gangs and railroad crews all over the country, with workers adding their own lines and experiences from place to place. So, what you have with many of these is not just an enduring, ageless song but a text that had given a voice to the illiterate voiceless, a very unique sort of record.
I had written songs ever since I could play three chords but thought, if I could be the most ideal songwriting version of myself I could imagine at that point, that I would like to write like Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter – haunting, poetic songs rooted in a grim fairy tale like history. Since Dylan credited Seeger with his doing so, I decided the best way to go about meeting my seemingly impossible goal would be to talk with Mr. Seeger about songs myself. And so I did. I still cannot completely believe doing that was as simple as looking up a number on line and picking up a phone but it was. That’s just the sort of person Mr. Seeger was.
Not only did I learn a near encyclopedia of fascinating history behind folk songs that had endured from 1100 to Bob Dylan but also the fascinating history of some of the artists who had preserved them. Not the least interesting of these were the Seeger’s themselves. From Mike’s tales of growing up with parents who let him stay home when Pete brought bandmates Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie over because he’d “learn more from them than he would in school” to Pete Seeger’s fearless testimony before a severely career disrupting McCarthy Committee. I was surprised to read that the early folk festivals, far from the peaceful, blissful, psychedelic hippie fests we now imagine, were often hit with extreme violence; often the result of hostile police and racist vendettas.
The tapestry of amazing history I encountered is not describable in one article and would be hard to cover fully in even a hundred. It included the odd fact that Old Time music, which is in part a preservation of the music first brought over by settlers from the British Isles, passed down without written music, had survived in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It’s a singularly odd little enclave, settled by deserters from the Revolutionary War who wanted to ensure they were never found.
Not long after talking with Mr. Seeger, a death in the family took me just a few miles away from the Barrens. While visiting a music hall built to commemorate and showcase the traditions, I was invited to explore their archives. There I found an outline written by Mr. Seeger proposing a program for the area schools in the 60s. The program brought traditional artists in multiple disciplines into the classrooms. I later discovered it was the foundation for the still popular ‘Foxfire’ series of books.
Working in after-school arts programs in the inner city schools myself at the time, I brought the outline to my program director. We soon implemented something similar in my classes, which allowed me to travel freely back and forth to both Appalachia and New York for field studies in musicology, incorporating what I learned in the classroom. During this time I wrote songs, features and developed more and more as an artist as I had the opportunity to learn and sometimes spend extended periods of time with some of todays leading artists, from Old Time to Americana with some Rock and Roll in between.
All of this was, of course, inspired by both my talks with Mr. Seeger and my desire to figure out how on earth Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan, (my conclusion to that was he just did because that’s who he is and I, without intending to, became Lonesome Liz somewhere along the way – I suppose because that’s who I am. Even with a pre-determined concept, focus and genre, I don’t think you can pre-determine as an artist what your art will be. It develops and evolves as you do. Very much like Mr. Seeger’s vine theory of music itself except, in this case, the artist is the root and the works of art the branches.
Here is video (by Lonesome Liz in an Outlaw Amish barn) of Seeger-inspired/discussed tunes:
Hear more of the songs on my ReverbNation page: http://www.reverbnation.com/
Mike Seeger photo courtesy of Mike Seeger
Lonesome Liz is an Outlaw Country and Blues singer/songwriter, dubbed ‘The female Robert Johnson’ by ‘Southern Fried Magazine’. Her performances and multi-media productions have included Drive-by Truckers artist Wes Freed, Jesco the Dancing Outlaw and others. Also a writer for GratefulWeb.net and ‘Fine Art Magazine’ she lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she strives daily to save Country Music from itself… one cowboy at a time. You can also find her on ReverbNation , YouTube and Twitter. Choose your own adventure.
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