Aug 26, 2009

Another Musical Legend has Passed...

When I was serving in the Navy in the early '60's, I was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island. Newport was also the location of several festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. It was at one of the Folk Festivals, probably in 1962, that I first saw and heard Mike Seeger. He was a member of a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers.

Mike was a remarkably versatile and talented musician, skilled at playing many different instruments and in a variety of styles. He performed some real magic when playing the Autoharp and was probably one of the main reasons I took up that instrument a few years later. I bought a lot of the recordings of the New Lost City Ramblers and still know their arrangements of many early folk and traditional songs.

Mike's path and mine crossed many times over the years. I had the good fortune to take lessons from him for a week in the 1980's at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia. I got to spend some time with him during and after a concert he did in Tullahoma in the '90's. Then about four years ago, I had a conversation with him while he was performing in Murfreesboro. We talked at that time about the possibility of my working on one of his autoharps -- a beautiful instrument built by Bob Welland in Evanston, Illinois. Indeed, I learned that Mike was a long-time friend and former music colleague of my good friend Tom Morgan, of Morgan Springs, Tennessee. In fact Tom Morgan built Autoharps for both Mike Seeger and me! It's a very small world among Folk music afficianados.

Mike Seeger was a member of a very famous, creative and musical family. His uncle, Alan Seeger, who died in World War I, was fighting for the French Foreign Legion when he wrote the famous poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," that many of us read in high school:

I HAVE a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death 5
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still. 10
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep 15
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death 20
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

I had a call from Tom Morgan today advising me that Mike had passed on. He died on August 7th at his home in Lexington, Virginia. He had battled cancer for many years and had recently been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable and aggressive form of cancer. He chose hospice care rather than prolonging the fight.

Mike, I will miss the sound of your voice and your playing, but you live on in your gift of music. Enjoy the Angel Band!

A few days after I posted this item, I ran across a video of a very young Mike Seeger playing his Tom Morgan autoharp and singing. I was recently informed that this instrument still exists and is undergoing restoration for its current (and very fortunate) owner.

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