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Mike Seeger Cleared Paths, Showed Us The Way

Mike Seeger, whose love for traditional songs and tunes inspired many other musicians — including Bob Dylan — to look for the rural roots of American music, died of cancer Friday night at his home in Lexington, Va. He was 75.

I knew Mike Seeger for 30 years. We played together informally and professionally, shared a love of learning from old-timers, recorded one album together and appeared on each other's albums. More than all that, we were friends. But Mike, nearly 20 years my senior, was also a matchless guide, advocate and mentor in ways that I could never be for him.

Mike was an adventurer who wanted nothing more than to share his discoveries. He cut new paths and cleared old ones that had grown over. He found overlooked musical treasures, polished them off a little and wondered at them. Then he called to the rest of us, "Hey, come down here with me! You've got to hear this!"

And so it was that Mike sought out undiscovered or disappeared musicians in the towns and countrysides of southwest Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina — all over the South. One of them was banjo player and singer Dock Boggs, who had recorded haunting banjo songs and tunes decades before, and then slipped into obscurity and a life of physical labor as the Great Depression pulled millions of people into poverty.

In the early 1960s, Mike became the first to record Dock in several decades. He took him out to play and helped him find a new enthusiasm for life. He brought dozens of other older, traditional musicians to the stage, either on his own or with his group, the New Lost City Ramblers. Feeling they merited far more recognition than they were getting, he organized tours — some of them abroad — for these rural Southern players.

Mike constantly pushed young people forward, too. He wanted us to learn, to play and to document what we heard. I met Mike around 1980 at the home of the great fiddler and banjoist Tommy Jarrell outside Mount Airy, N.C. We talked a little, started playing and quickly fell in together. It was as though I'd found a longtime musical friend I didn't know I had.

Mike and I later traveled and recorded together with some of the old-timers. For a couple of years, we were in a three-person band he started. It was one of the most astounding musical experiences of my life. Playing with Mike was freeing. He saw and heard things others didn't. His view was broad. He was constantly ready to try new instrumental combinations or new approaches to singing, all of it rooted in the traditions he cherished.

And that was just part of it. Every time I turned my attention his way, it seemed he'd had another idea or was starting a new project. One year, it was a video documentary on traditional Southern step dancing, such as flatfooting and clogging. Another time, it was a teaching video on the guitar styles of Maybelle Carter, one of the first country music artists to record — and of course, someone Mike had known.

One day he called me and asked what I thought about the idea of starting a music festival in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, to be run by and for musicians. I told him I thought it was great. He launched the festival near his home in 1986, and in typical style, stepped back and handed it over to the community. He believed in community. The Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival is still going today.

The moment I met him, he started changing my life. He did the same with thousands of others — they tell me all the time. And they tell me of Mike's modesty, his humble approach. We all saw him at parties and jam sessions — not taking the lead, as he certainly could have, but listening to others, or picking up a background instrument. As my friend and fellow musician David Winston said to me days ago, that humility and generosity were the gift of life.

He was a star, but a quiet, faintly flickering one. My feeling is that the best tribute we can pay is to try to follow his example.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As a newscaster and reporter for NPR, Paul Brown handles an ever-changing combination of on-air, reporting, editing and producing tasks with skills he developed over 30 years working in radio and print journalism.