I’m sitting on a draft of about 1200 words devoted to my feelings regarding Mike Seeger, scrambled together shortly after his passing, of multiple myeloma, on August 7. But I’ll admit that there’s no way to adequately express his influence on my appreciation of traditional American music, both because the words that I did attempt ultimately left me dissatisfied and because I have no doubt that, as I amble forth with my explorations of the music of the “true vine,” as he called it, I’ll find myself on trails he blazed long before, the influence ever deepening.
So instead I’d like to share a brief, candid moment that Mike captured, perhaps unwittingly, on his tape recorder in 1982. A very rough estimation is that it accounts for less than 1/25,000th of his recorded output – and that’s meant in the capacity of a field recordist only, and not as a solo artist or a New Lost City Rambler – but for me it beautifully encapsulates who Mike was. And by “was,” I suppose I mean in the capacity of a recordist, a listener, a fan, which is how I knew the little of him I did, although, by all accounts of those who knew him thusly, also as a friend. Despite its brevity, it shows Mike Seeger as a man of humor, humility, humanity, and grace.
Last year I had the pleasure of working with Mike on an issue of his 1982 recordings of Nimrod Workman (discussed elsewhere herein). He had never planned to release them – in fact, he wrote that he had gone into the sessions with an album explicitly out of mind, instead with the intention of documenting as much of Workman’s huge repertoire as possible – but as long as the Workman family were into it, he’d be too. All he wanted, he told me, were two copies of the album, with any proceeds he would earn going to the Workmans.
While making selections for the album, I found a couple of nice interview pieces I wanted to include, but made sure to ask Mike first if he’d mind his voice being heard. As I had assumed, he said he’d be all right with that, as long as I submitted the pieces to him for approval first. He, personally, didn’t want to appear “prominent or inappropriate.” He made sure, as he did whenever I saw him make appearances publicly or in print, to deflect attention from himself and onto the principle performer or subject, or, when there wasn’t one, the greater musical, cultural, or historical context, of which he saw himself as just a student. (Why must this quality be so staggeringly rare…?)
So I was a little worried about whether he’d allow me to include this tiny bit of audio that I’m taking so long to introduce. But as he had written about how he treasured his time spent with Nimrod and Molly Workman, I hope that he was ultimately happy to have our record end with the sound of their warm leave-taking of one another, with Nim and Molly’s invitations to “come on back,” and that it recalled that time to him fondly.
That’s all it is – just the sound of farewell – but I imagine he said farewell, equally as fondly, to so many of the singers and musicians he recorded: folks he met as a fellow singer and musician, but from whom he departed as a friend. I didn’t know Mike well enough to call him a friend; instead I knew him primarily through his music – and therein, primarily that which he recorded – so it makes sense to say my own farewell to him through the voices of Nimrod and Molly Workman, who last brought Mike and me together, to whom and for which I’ll always be grateful.