Mike Seeger, Singer and Music Historian, Dies at 75
By BEN SISARIO
Mike Seeger, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who played an important role in the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Friday at his home in Lexington, Va. He was 75.
The cause was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, said his wife, Alexia Smith.
Although a quieter voice on the national stage than his politically outspoken, older half-brother, Pete, Mike Seeger was a significant force in spreading the music of preindustrial America during an increasingly consumerist era. In 1958 he helped found the New Lost City Ramblers, whose repertory came from the 1920s and ’30s, and in his career he recorded or produced dozens of albums of what he called the “true vine” of American music, the mix of British and African traditions and topical storytelling that took root in the South.
Mr. Seeger’s dedication had a strong effect on the young Bob Dylan, who wrote fondly of him in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One.” Although only eight years his junior, Mr. Dylan called Mr. Seeger a father figure — for helping the under-age Mr. Dylan with his paperwork — and rhapsodized about him as the embodiment of a folk-star persona.
“Mike was unprecedented,” Mr. Dylan wrote, adding: “As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart. He was the romantic, egalitarian and revolutionary type all at once.”
But Mr. Seeger made his mark less as a star than as a careful, steady student of his beloved Southern music. He was born in New York to a prominent musical family. His father, Charles Seeger, was a well-known ethnomusicologist, and his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer and folk-song collector. Besides Pete, Mr. Seeger’s sister Peggy also became a noted singer.
The intellectual pursuit of folk music was part of Mike Seeger’s life from an early age. At 5 he made a recording of the old British folk ballad “Barbara Allen,” his wife said in an interview on Sunday.
Mr. Seeger played banjo, guitar, autoharp and other instruments, which he learned from old records and in some cases from the musicians who played on them. A dogged researcher, he sought out musicians who had been lost for decades and introduced them to an eager (and young) new audience. One was Dock Boggs, a banjo player from western Virginia whose records were prized by folklorists. Mr. Seeger brought him to the American Folk Festival in Asheville, N.C., in 1963.
Mr. Seeger’s most recent album was “Early Southern Guitar Sounds” (Smithsonian Folkways), in 2007, and he played autoharp on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Grammy Award-winning album “Raising Sand” (Rounder), also released in 2007. In his career Mr. Seeger was nominated for six Grammys.
In addition to his wife, his half-brother Pete, of Beacon, N.Y., and his sister Peggy, of Boston, Mr. Seeger is survived by three sons, Kim, of Tivoli, N.Y., Chris, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Jeremy, of Belmont, Mass.; four stepchildren, Cory Foster of Ithaca, N.Y., Jenny Foster of Rockville, Md., Joel Foster of Silver Spring, Md., and Jesse Foster of Washington; another sister, Barbara Perfect of Henderson, Nev.; another half-brother, John Seeger of Bridgewater, Conn.; and 13 grandchildren and step-grandchildren.