Mike Seeger is arguably the most important reference point in the history of old-time music. He learned from the old masters, and he encouraged others to go to them to learn the music. Because he combined masterful performance with support for the music tradition, Mike Seeger is one of those most responsible for continuing southern old-time music into our age. His biography is an important contribution to folklore scholarship.
As an author and musician, Bill C. Malone is an important chronicler of country music. His breadth of knowledge gives him a unique background for writing Seeger’s biography. Curiously, to use Malone’s word, he at first viewed Seeger as an “interloper,” a northern guy who did not quite have the right to perform the old-time music Malone viewed as part of his cultural inheritance as a native southerner. But he finally came around to the notion that as Seeger’s musicolo-gist parents played old-time music constantly in the house, Seeger also grew up with the music. Moreover, Malone had used Seeger’s research in his own scholarship. Once Malone reflected on Seeger’s long-term connections with old-time music, he began to recognize Seeger’s performances of old-time music as authentic. It was not exactly the same sort of authenticity as Malone’s, but it seemed credible. This acceptance was quite possibly the crucial determination that Malone needed to write the book.
It is not possible to delve into any facet of country music without colliding with the authenticity issue. To Seeger, authenticity lay in absorbing and maintaining the styles of the True Vine musicians he emulated. It was a bold stance. To some, the weight of Mike Seeger’s contributions could not make up for the fact he was neither southern nor rural. Regardless of differences about what constitutes folk or old-time music, in the real world, the power of Seeger’s contributions shushed arguments. The traditional music world also had been gradually accepting the idea that family and geographic origins are not as crucial cultural determinants as they used to be. Non-southerners may choose southern music, and southerners born into old-time music families may follow some other calling.
Malone’s treatment of Mike’s upbringing is rich in detail and could be a blueprint for telling the story of an individual’s entrance into a musical career. Thousands of singular untold stories parallel Mike’s narrative of urban kids who play old-time music. In Mike’s case, the Seeger family would listen to a variety of recordings and sing folksongs together. As Mike was preparing to leave home, his older half-brother Peter was already making a name for himself as a folk music performer. When it came time for Mike to decide on a career, he responded to the sounds that had been filling his ears since birth.
Seeger’s family also had some differences from the upbringing of the typical folk enthusiast. Mike’s mother, Ruth, transcribed folk music and compiled folksong books. Father Charles taught musicology at several institutions of higher learning. Charles made documentary recordings of folk music using the bulky and balky technology available during the WPA era. It’s clear that Mike’s interest in documentation came from his parents. However, Malone also shows how Mike developed his skills with the tape recorder by combining in-depth interviews with old-time performers such as Dock Boggs and crafting first-rate recordings of traditional music.
Folklorists know that starting in the 1920s, radio beamed old-time music into new locations. However, there is little detailed ethno-graphic information regarding how radio influenced local people. Malone wisely includes information about Mike’s youthful radio listening, an important part of his development as a musician. The Seeger family finally purchased a radio in 1945, enabling Mike to join the ranks of middle-class kids who listened to roots radio broadcasts hosted by knowledgeable disc jockeys. The combination of...