I've been out of town the last few days — at a funeral, coincidentally — so you presumably knew before I did that Mike Seeger has died.
I don't see a heck of a lot on the web that seems to capture Seeger's significance, and it may take a long time before his true importance is widely and well understood. Maybe Bill C. Malone's rumored biography will advance that project.
I like quoting what Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, says about Mike — not only to borrow Dylan's clout, but because nobody else has expressed it so vividly, before or since. Buy Chronicles and read it.
Only in Dylan's writing about Mike do I really recognize the guy I encountered — maybe only Bob and I saw it, but I bet a lot of people have the same feeling.
Here's a small sample of the thirteen-page ode dramatizing the impact Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:
Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.
He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.
The main thing I want to add tonight (because it might otherwise go unsaid) is how much I admired Mike's ethics as an intellect.
He understood that trying to understand and explain things is difficult, and carries an ethical burden. You OUGHT to be careful and humble in drawing conclusions, and you SHOULD get your facts right. Be mindful of what you know to be the case, and what you don't.
When he spoke, and when he wrote his liner notes, you could hear his great care in selecting words that said exactly what he knew, nothing less and nothing more. I respected that in him.
Here's a round-up of selected previous writings about Mike Seeger.