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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6
32nd Annual San Diego Music Awards

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Mike Seeger

by Lou CurtissJanuary 2019

I guess the first time I met Mike Seeger was at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Up until that time country music for me was the kind of stuff I heard and saw around Southern California like Town Hall Party, Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree, and San Diego’s Smokey Rogers, etc. Folk music included a pretty wide range of stuff – from the Weavers and Oscar Brand to Ewan MacColl and the Kingston Trio. Then I saw the New Lost City Ramblers and heard the word “old-timey” connected to a kind of music I’d only heard smatterings of before. (I think I saw Cousin Emmy at a Town Hall Party show and heard Grandpa Jones, the Crook Brothers, and Stringbean on the Grand Ole Opry.)

Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley made up the first NLCR group I heard, and I saw as much of them as I could that weekend and later at a place called Pinewood Camp where I heard others who also played this kind of music (Jean Ritchie, Frank Warner, and others). But it was the NLCR that I was most impressed with and I had a chance to talk a bit with Mike and John. When I went back to Newport in 1960, I saw them again and when I came back to San Diego that year, I was bound and determined to get an old timey string band together. Unfortunately, no one I knew in San Diego played that kind of music or had even heard it. So, I took up the kinds of folksongs that were around then.

A couple of years later, when I was a student at San Diego State, I heard that the New Lost City Ramblers were going to play in town. Of course, San Diego’s right wing nut jobs were having hissy fits because the band would be performing in the Hoover High School auditorium. Of course, Mike Seeger was Pete Seeger’s brother and Pete, of course, was still in the process of being blacklisted, since he was a Communist, so the concert was held amid some picketing. We later brought the band out to San Diego State for a noontime concert, so I got to hear more of this good old-timey music and a lot of other folks did too. I think some of the rightie crowd were disappointed that they couldn’t confirm more of their suspicions (which is often the case with those folks).

Over the next few years I saw the NLCR often. They played at San Diego’s Sign of the Sun bookstore. Mike also did a solo weekend there and invited many of us to play tunes with him. In 1963, 1964, and 1965, he performed at the UCLA Folk Festivals, several times at the Ash Grove in L.A., at the Berkeley Folk Festival where I saw him, and back East again at Newport and at a Friends of Old Time Music concert in New York City. I also saw Mike with Tex Logan at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and at a place called the Second Fret.

By 1967, when I started booking festivals, Mike was a contact to help bring old timers to town. Along with playing most of the festivals himself (both the San Diego Folk Festival and its successor, the Adams Avenue Roots Festival), he has been directly responsible for helping us bring such artists as Roscoe Holcomb; Lily Mae Ledford; John Jackson; the Balfa Brothers; Napoleon Strickland and the Como Mississippi Fife and Drum Band; Cousin Emmy; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Tommy Jarrell; Nimrod Workman; Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong; the Highwoods String Band; and so many others, including his own Strange Creek Singers (with Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Lamar Grier, and Tracy Schwarz). When Mike played at a festival with old timers he knew, he’d get them to play tunes they didn’t often play. Along with Mike’s musicianship, you also get his knowledge of the genres of old-timey folk and country that he’s always been involved with.

Mike is going to be with us at the upcoming Adams Avenue Roots and Folk Festival in April. I recommend that you take in his show and, if you get a chance, thank him for the support he’s given to this festival and so many others like it over the years. Mike and his NLCR compatriots sold me an old-timey music book 48 years ago when I heard them for the first time. I know my life and career in music would be much emptier had Mike Seeger not been a part of it. I’m glad he was and still is.

For those of you who haven’t heard Mike or the New Lost City Ramblers, I should mention that there are many records and CDs (some rare, some not so rare) out there to listen to. You can buy nearly every recording the NLCR recorded on Smithsonian Folkways, for which Mike has also done solo LPs. He also recorded for a variety of other labels, including Mercury, Vanguard, Rounder, one from Japan (I forget the label name), and a couple from Europe (including one with his sister, Peggy). Mike is one of those performers you can start listening to from most anywhere in his career and always be assured of consistent quality.

I should also mention that Mike is responsible for seeing some of the best of the old timers who made records. His great recordings of Dock Boggs, Sam and Kirk McGee, and the True Vine albums on which he plays with a variety of old timers are a delight and belong in any old timey record collector’s library. Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers have amassed a collection of old-time songs on vinyl and CD, which is probably the greatest source of tunes and songs in existence. They were able to get old timey music going during the lean years when country music had turned its back on its roots by getting people playing this kind of music again. They created links with the old timers who were still around, forged links between the folk song and bluegrass communities, and over the years have continued to make converts to old time song.

At a time when the Adams Avenue Roots and Folk Festival has had to cut back on so many of the regulars who have made its reputation, it’s good that they are still interested in bringing out a musician who has meant so much to the festival over the years.

Lou Curtiss

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