Folklorist Mike Seeger Keeps Americana Singing

As a preserver of traditional folk music styles, Mike Seeger spent a good deal of time in the 1960s ranging through Virginia and North Carolina with a tape recorder, documenting America's backwoods mountain music in the hamlets from which it sprang.

But Seeger, who will play a concert of traditional folk songs Saturday night at the Forum Theater in Yorba Linda, didn't have to range anywhere to make his first recording of a significant folk artist. The musician was Elizabeth Cotten, influential folk-blues guitar stylist and author of "Freight Train," a staple of the American folk repertoire. The locale was the Seeger family home in Maryland, where Cotten used to come by every Saturday, not to play music, but to do the cooking and cleaning.

"At that time she hadn't played the guitar for 25 years. She was working as a domestic in people's houses, including ours," Seeger said by phone Tuesday. "She'd been in our house for six years before we knew that she could play."

It was the most musical of homes: Seeger's father, Charles, was a musicologist, and his mother, Ruth, was a modern composer and piano teacher. He also had a folk-singing sister, Peggy, and an older half-brother, Pete, who already had established himself as a figurehead of American folk. Gradually, Seeger said, Cotten started coming over to play music as well as to do the housework.

In 1952, when he was still a teen-ager, Seeger's father brought home a tape recorder. "(Cotten) was there, and Pete was there on a visit, and we recorded for about a half hour. I'd never used a tape recorder before."

By the late '50s, Seeger had founded his own old-time band, the New Lost City Ramblers, and in the '60s he began doubling as a folklorist devoted to seeking out undiscovered traditional players with the aim of documenting their songs and styles on records.

"I would get an idea for a concept for a record and go about recording it," he said. In all, he said, 25 of his field recordings were released in the '60s and '70s. One of his current projects is to go back over 15 years of tapes with the aim of culling several more albums.

Seeger said the musicians he sought out were both happy and puzzled that somebody would bother taking an interest in songs that weren't performance pieces, but a part of the fabric of day-to-day living.

"They were pleased that somebody younger was liking their kind of music, but they were also curious why somebody from the north would like it. Sometimes somebody just didn't want to be bothered," or would refuse to play for Seeger because he didn't have any money to offer them, other than the possibility of record royalties. "But that was the exception. Most people were real pleased."

Today, Seeger said, there is little traditional music left to be documented in the rural communities it sprang from. There are no backwoods in a media age, and traditional folk has given way to its more modern offspring, bluegrass and country and Western music.

But the original backwoods songs and styles are still alive and doing well in the cities and suburbs, Seeger said, played by a new generation of folk fans for whom it represents a chance to "be able to do for yourself in a world that's increasingly abstract."

"A lot of younger people are playing the kind of music I'm playing. All over the United States there are people playing around their homes for their own pleasure. It's not a staged music. That's not its prime function."

Seeger said one of his main reasons for bringing traditional folk to the stage is to pass it on to more people who will keep it alive at the grass-roots level.

"The object is to try to get people to play and continue to play the music. That's been my primary goal, besides making a living." Seeger plays enough instruments to clutter a front porch: fiddle, banjo, guitar, dulcimer, mandolin, autoharp, jew's-harp, panpipes and harmonica. In concert, he intersperses his music making with explanations of the styles he is playing and the sources from which they sprang.

Seeger thinks the prospects for the music's long-range preservation are good. "There is a group of people in their 30s and 40s, very committed to this kind of music, and they're having children. They'll be playing it until they die. The thing we need to do is make sure (the songs) are kept out in front of enough people so that people will hear it."

Opening for Seeger Saturday is storyteller Jackie Torrence, whose credits include tale spinning on "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt."

Mike Seeger and Jackie Torrence will perform at the Forum Theater, 4175 Fairmont Blvd., Yorba Linda, Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. Information: (714) 779-8591.

The musical lineup for the Orange County Fair in July has been announced, and it is heavy on the oldies. Paul Revere and the Raiders play July 7; Orange County surf rocker Dick Dale and his Deltones share the bill July 8 with the Ventures; Three Dog Night, July 9; another Orange County resident, Donny Osmond, on July 10; John Kay and Steppenwolf, July 11; the Spinners, July 12; the Marshall Tucker Band, July 13; David Clayton Thomas and Blood, Sweat & Tears, July 14; Mary Wells, Little Anthony and the Diamonds, July 15; Rain, a Beatles tribute band, July 16, and blues-R&B; guitarist Elvin Bishop on July 17. Shows are at 7 and 9 each evening at the Arlington Theatre on the fairgrounds, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Admission to the fair will be $4 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 12, and free for those 5 and under. For more information, call (714) 751-3247.

Safari Sam's, the progressive Huntington Beach nightclub, is not back in business, but the poetry nights it featured have made a comeback under the auspices of a new organization, Coliteris. The principals are Andy Takajian and Gil Fuhrer, a former partner in Sam's. The group will stage the fifth in its series of monthly poetry nights tonight at 7 at Mostly Underground Studios, 875C 15th St. in Costa Mesa.

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