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Passin' On 'Old-Time'

Artist-in-residence Seeger plays the quills (pan pipes) while keeping rhythm with a homemade percussion instrument. By Tim Jones.

Artist-in-residence Seeger plays the quills (pan pipes) while keeping rhythm with a homemade percussion instrument. By Tim Jones.

Mike Seeger makes 'traditional' music accessible

Maybe it’s the sound of 60 out-of-tune stringed instruments smashing sharps and flats into the classroom’s walls that makes the atmosphere so chaotic. But with every bend, twist and strum, the air vibrates a little cleaner, and the young musicians behind the strings move closer to that perfect blend of pitch and tone.

Mike Seeger seems to have found this harmony already. In fact, it seems as though he found it long ago and has been at peace ever since. Nearly motionless, he stands amidst the hectic din, his own harmony unshaken. He moves only to lean his small, gentle frame on the backrest of his chair. It is this pace, calm and slow, that separates him from the anxious hustle around him, although his thick, wispy gray hair and his bright red plaid flannel shirt also help identify him in a room full of college students.

Hear Mike Seeger play
> Guitar
> Gord Banjo
> Steel Banjo
> Fiddle
His eyes fill with quiet excitement as he surveys the aspiring musicians, sensing their energy and enthusiasm for the same kind of music that brings Seeger his unique harmony. The sheer number of students packed into the Ewell Hall practice room armed with their instruments—guitars, fiddles, mandolins, dulcimers, basses—speaks volumes to the universal appeal of this “old-time music” Seeger is at William and Mary to share.

Old-time, as the name implies, is the antithesis of the modern, digitized pop music that defines much of today’s music scene, laden with remastered loops, hooks and beats. Old-time is roots music, or music of True Vine, as Seeger calls it, which was played originally by American Southerners. It has survived from its origins only through the efforts of committed preservationists such as Seeger, who have learned the songs and styles firsthand and now are dedicated to passing on every nuance to future generations. Seeger credits those before him—his teachers—for keeping old-time on the minds of musicians, but he adds that the music itself is largely responsible for its own proliferation.

“It’s accessible,” he says. “You can play it yourself and do it as a pastime, have a great time with it, or get very good at it and become a virtuoso. The music is very practical for all different users.”

Or, as is Seeger’s experience, you can devote your life to playing, researching, recording and preserving not just one aspect or particular instrument but the entire landscape of old-time’s history, heritage and tools. All this to keep the songs, stories, values and traditions alive.

Even in his capacity as teacher, Seeger’s inner student shines through. The group of eager young musicians launches into a 60-strong rendition of the “Worried Man” song, and Seeger’s serene smile broadens, his foot begins to stomp, and his voice joins the chorus. This song is teaching the teacher.

“I just love this music,” Seeger says, “And for me it’s a matter of passing it on, because I truly believe that the more a person knows about old-time music, the richer his or her life will be.”

When the students’ rendition concludes, Seeger rises slowly and assumes his role as the music department’s Class of 1939 Artist-in-Residence, and he begins to plant the seeds of roots music at William and Mary. He uses this performance workshop—one half of the course he is teaching—to introduce sounds used in traditional music the same way he was introduced to them.

“I asked Elizabeth Cotton if she would teach me how to play, and she said, ‘No, I can’t teach you, but I will show you,’” Seeger says. “I think that’s the best way to learn—to steal a little bit, watch a lot, and listen even more. Listen, and then try it, listen again, try it some more, and never ever stop listening.”

This philosophy guides Seeger’s teaching. Though he claims what he does is “about average” on each instrument, the awestruck faces offer a different impression as they watch him glide from mouth harp to banjo to autoharp to dulcimer to harmonica to guitar to fiddle. His voice, singing, adapts to each instrument to reveal the raw soul of Southern music. Between songs, Seeger proposes workshops for smaller groups interested in learning ballad singing, claw-hammer banjo style and ragtime finger picking, among other tricks of the trade: He assures the hesitant all things simply take practice to learn.

Seeger’s examples alone create better musicians, evident when the group returns to its “Worried Man” song. The new, evolved version resonates a bit tighter, a bit clearer, and a lot more soulful. Seeger’s advice to watch, listen and try certainly did not fall on deaf ears.

But, as he said, once isn’t enough. Listen more, try it some more, and never stop listening. So in his lectures—the second half of his course, “Virginia Music: Tidewater to Appalachia”—Seeger plays recordings of old-time music to continue cultivating the seeds he has planted.

“Old-time music has a lot of stories, lessons and values that are with us today,” Seeger says. “Some of these old ballads are hundreds of years old and have been passed on to thousands of people. It’s a way to develop value in a democratic society.”

Again, every student falls silent—listening, after all, is the best way to learn. As the raw notes of an unaccompanied version of “Amazing Grace” fill the room, Seeger bows his head and breathes the music. At the song’s end, he raises his head again, offers a bit of history, and plays another track. This one, too, and the next, and the next, provoke the same reaction in Seeger. He is entranced. The students experience the same effect.

“Every time I listen to these songs, I am almost brought to tears,” Seeger admits. “They never grow old.” As the class ends, Seeger’s lesson is not over. It’s as if the lecture, although necessary and worthwhile, just didn’t have the level of accessibility Seeger is used to providing. So, instead of waiting for the next performance workshop, Seeger offers to stay an extra hour to chat with students. About 15 hang back.

In his familiar pose, leaning casually on the edge of the stage, wool scarf draped loosely over the shoulders of his plaid shirt, Seeger talks with students about the Galax Fiddlers Festival, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and old-time radio programs. He listens to the student responses. After only a few weeks as the artist-in-residence, Mike Seeger, the five-time Grammy nominated, internationally renowned folk musician, is already a friendly, approachable face on campus. He lingers as students begin to filter out for their next classes, his face still filled with joy. It is clear that what brings him peace is this kind of community—one where the values and spirit of old-time are received with open arms, and Seeger is sure he is passing on a pure, unadulterated love of old-time music to those who will do the same.

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