<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>THE SEEGER FAMILY DISCOVERS THE FOLK</b> <p> <p> When Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley stepped into the broadcast booth of Washington, DC's WASH-FM radio station on the Sunday evening of May 25, 1958, they had only played together for about half an hour. One of the numbers the nameless trio performed that night was a mountain dance tune called "Colored Aristocracy." Mike, who led the piece on fiddle, explained this was an old tune "from way back in the hills of West Virginia" that was recorded at the Arthurdale Folk Festival by an obscure fiddle band known as the Rich Family. Time did not permit him to recount how his father, Charles Seeger, had made the recording for the Library of Congress (LOC) in 1936 while working for the federal Resettlement Administration. "Colored Aristocracy" was one of the many field recordings made by Mike's father and the Lomaxes that turned up in the Seeger family home during his childhood. As an eight-year-old, Mike had been mesmerized by the swinging fiddles of Sanford and Elmer Rich that jumped off the scratchy aluminum disk recording. Years later he dubbed the Rich Family disk onto quarter-inch tape, learned the main fiddle line, and hastily rearranged the tune with John and Tom before going on the air that evening. <p> The Seeger-Cohen-Paley trio that broadcast on WASH-FM was something of an anomaly for the urban folk music scene in 1958. By that time the revival had splintered among old-guard proponents of topical songs, younger singer-songwriters, ballad singers often trained in classical technique, small ensembles performing popular arrangements of folk material, and a fledgling contingent of bluegrass enthusiasts. A raucous fiddle, banjo, and guitar trio that played and sang in a rough style reminiscent of southern mountain string bands was indeed a rarity in city circles. John and Tom had come to the music primarily through the reissue of commercial hillbilly and blues records and LOC field recordings that had become available to the public in the early postwar years. Mike, on the other hand, had grown up with field recordings like "Colored Aristocracy" in his home. He and his sisters, Peggy, Penny, and Barbara, were quite possibly the only children in urban America who were literally reared on folk music field recordings during the 1930s and 1940s. What other youngsters gathered together regularly with family and friends to sing traditional American folk songs from books their parents had helped compile? Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger's intense involvement with American folk music during the first twenty years of Mike's life shaped not only his own musical sensibilities but those of the nascent folk revival that would eventually make possible the emergence of a group like the New Lost City Ramblers. <p> Michael Seeger was born in New York City on August 15, 1933. His parents were both musicians, although at the time of his birth neither had shown much inclination for folk music. His father, Charles Seeger, was born in 1886 into a monied New England family that traced its lineage back to the Mayflower. Charles, against his father's wishes, insisted on studying music when he enrolled in Harvard in 1904. After graduation he completed three years of postgraduate work in Germany and then returned to the States, where in 1911 he was hired by the University of California at Berkeley. There he taught music theory and composition, conducted orchestras and accompanied singers, and struggled to incorporate the revolutionary ideas of early-twentieth-century moderns like Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky into his own compositions. One of his students, the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy Henry Cowell, would become a leader of the American ultramodernist movement that Charles and Ruth would eventually be associated with. <p> Following his dismissal from Berkeley in 1918 over his outspoken opposition to World War I, Charles and his first wife, the classically trained violinist Constance Edson Seeger, relocated to New York. In 1919, shortly after their move east, Constance gave birth to their third son, Peter, who would grow up to be the leading figure of the postwar folk music revival. Meanwhile, Charles immersed himself in New York's music scene, teaching at the Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard) and the New School. Growing increasingly discontented with conventional classical music, he was drawn into New York's modernist movement and labored to refine his own compositional theories based on dissonant counterpoint. In 1929, two years after his divorce from Constance, he agreed to take on a promising composition student, twenty-nine-year-old Ruth Crawford. Student and teacher became husband and wife in 1932, at the height of Ruth's own compositional career. <p> Dismayed by the atrocities of the Depression, Charles and Ruth gravitated toward socialist politics. Charles helped organize the Composer's Collective in 1932, a leftist organization dedicated to composing "people's music" that would foster progressive social change. He composed a number of political songs and wrote criticism for the communist Daily Worker under the pseudonym Carl Sands. Despite his interest in music that supposedly reflected the ethos of the common man, he remained skeptical of the value of folk music as a foundation for revolutionary art, noting in 1934 that many folk tunes were "complacent, melancholy, defeatist." <p> Charles's attitude toward folk music would soon be radically transformed. In late 1935 he and Ruth, along with their two-year-old son, Mike, and their infant daughter, Peggy, relocated to Washington, where Charles took a position with the New Deal's Resettlement Administration. Charged with finding ways of bringing music to Depression-ravaged rural communities, he quickly realized that, contrary to the views held by many of his academic colleagues and modernist associates, American folk music was neither dead nor limited to the archaic survivals of Elizabethan ballads or African work songs. As he visited small communities throughout the American South he discovered that folk music and dance were quite alive and well, woven deeply into the social fabric of contemporary rural society. He soon joined progressive New Deal colleagues Alan Lomax and Benjamin Botkin as an outspoken advocate for the collection of rural folk music and its dissemination to a broad American public. Charles, Ruth, Lomax, and Botkin began to develop what historian Jerrold Hirsch identified as a "cultural strategy" aimed at using folklore toward the "promotion of a new and more expansive vision of American nationality that would be inclusive and democratic rather than elusive and coercive." <p> Charles served as deputy director of the federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1938 through 1941 and as chief of the music division of the Pan American Union from 1941 through 1953 before returning to academia with a position at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles. His contributions to the fields of musicology and ethnomusicology were vast, and his prolific writing on American folk music helped reshape the way scholars approached the subject. He was one of the first established figures in musicology to recognize the intrinsic aesthetic value of folk music itself instead of viewing it simply as inspirational grist for the composer's mill. But even more importantly he became an early and persuasive voice for shifting the focus of folk music scholarship away from the structural and literary analysis of antiquated texts and toward the study of folk music style as practiced by tradition bearers whose performances had been captured on tape. He was also one of the first to stress the dynamic and processual nature of folk music, arguing that in twentieth-century America oral traditions did not exist in isolation from written and mediated expressions. In the modern world musical idioms were interconnected, and he envisioned a highwaylike continuum along which so-called folk, popular, and fine art expressions traveled. The mid-century folk music revival, which he famously characterized as "an American shotgun wedding of oral (folk) and written (fine and popular art) idioms," was an ideal arena in which the three forms met and mingled. While rural folk migrants were adopting city ways, urban folksingers were discovering rural traditions. Charles urged city people, including his own family, to listen to "the voices of authentic folk singers" on record, to sing folk songs to their children, and to participate in making folk music themselves. Yet he maintained a somewhat ambivalent stance toward the postwar revival itself. Charles chastised rural singers who modified their singing and instrumental styles solely to please urban audiences and disparaged urban singers who affected nasal twangs while questioning their ability to completely embrace rural music styles, quipping, "Inheritance always shows." <p> Mike's mother, Ruth Crawford, followed a similar trajectory in her journey from high art to folk music. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1901. Following the family's move to Jacksonville, Florida, she began piano lessons and demonstrated such promise that she accepted a job offer at a local music school on graduation from high school. Two years later, after earning a reputation as a brilliant performer, she moved to Chicago to attend the American Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano and composition. <p> In Chicago Ruth's talents blossomed, and by 1924 she was teaching piano and harmony at the conservatory. Although her musical training was centered on Western classical and romantic traditions, she came in contact with individuals who opened her up to the possibilities of alternative ways of viewing the world and composing music. Her piano instructor and mentor, Dejane Herz, introduced her to the mystical aesthetic philosophy of Theosophy, which championed the intuitive, spiritual nature of existence. The works of radical composers Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar challenged her to rethink the tonal, harmonic, and structural conventions of Western classical music and introduced her to new ideas about dissonance and experimental forms. <p> While in Chicago Ruth was befriended by the great American poet Carl Sandburg, who welcomed her into his family as an "informal unadopted daughter" after she began giving piano lessons to his own daughters. She became an admirer of Sandburg's populist vision of art and culture and contributed piano arrangements for four folk songs to his classic 1927 collection, <i>The American Song-bag</i>. Ruth's work with Sandburg marked her initial efforts to notate folk music, an activity that would consume her latter years. <p> In the fall of 1929, following a summer at the MacDowell Colony, Ruth relocated to New York, where she joined a growing movement of ultramodernist composers that included Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and Marc Blitzstein. After a year of study with her future husband, Charles Seeger, she was granted, at the urging of Cowell, a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition to study in Berlin, the first to be awarded to a woman. Her compositions of this period exemplified the ultramodernist impulse to replace conventional harmonic consonance, diatonic tonality, and sonata-form structures with dissonant counterpoint, radically independent polyphonic textures, and irregular rhythmic patterns. Her Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930), Diaphonic Suites nos. 1-4 (1930), and the much celebrated String Quartet 1931 have been hailed as influential works that "anticipated and enabled the achievements of subsequent generations of American Composers." Her Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg (1930-32) and her 1932 music settings of H. T. Tsiang's radical texts "Sacco, Vanzetti" and "Chinaman, Laundryman" united her interest in leftist politics with her modernist inclinations. <p> After moving to Washington and giving birth to her second and third daughters, Barbara (1937) and Penny (1943), the pressures of raising a family and supplementing Charles's income through teaching piano forced Ruth to curtail her composing. But Charles's work through the Resettlement Administration programs opened up a new musical world for her, ushering in a phase of her life devoted to studying, transcribing, publishing, and teaching folk music. In 1937 she compiled Twenty-two American Folk Tunes, a collection of piano arrangements of southern ballads, play-party tunes, and African American songs that she hoped would "acquaint the piano student with at least a small part of the traditional (i.e., 'folk') music of his own country." That same year she would begin work as the transcriber of John and Alan Lomax's field recordings, a project that eventually resulted in the 1941 publication of the Lomax folk song collection Our Singing Country. The proposed preface to the Lomax volume, published in 2001 as <i>"The Music of American Folk Song" and Selected Other Writings on American Folk Music</i>, revealed Crawford's struggles to squeeze the sounds of performance-centered folk music into the language of Western music notation as well as her keen observations regarding folk song structure and performance style. An unexpected by-product of the Lomax transcribing project were the hundreds of LOC field recordings that made their way into the Seeger home, where they delighted the ears of Mike and his sisters. <p> Ruth built on the success of the Lomax project, going on to compile her own collections of children's folk material in <i>American Folk Songs for Children</i> (1948), <i>Animal Folk Songs for Children</i> (1950), and <i>American Folk Songs for Christmas</i> (1953), each including song arrangements for voice and piano accompaniment. The volumes played an immense role in introducing youngsters of the postwar generation to a breadth of American folk songs, leading cultural historian Robert Cantwell to characterize them as "master texts of the expanding folk revival." <p> Toward the end of her life Ruth sought to unite her interests in folk music with her earlier passion for modernist composition. Tragically, she only produced one complete piece, her 1952 Suite for Wind Quartet, before succumbing to cancer in 1953. Although her dream of merging modern and traditional idioms in composition eluded her, she is remembered as a leading composer of ultramodern music and a pioneering scholar, innovative teacher, and successful popularizer of American folk music. <p> The Seeger home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where the family moved in 1938, was by all accounts overflowing with music. Mike recollected that Ruth and Charles refused to allow a radio in the house because they believed "you should make your own music." His parents "played 'Get Along Home Cindy' on the piano to get us to go to bed at night. They played European piano music and southern folk songs for us as we danced a circle around the couch and family desk in the middle of our huge living room. Singing was always around the house, and by the time I was five or so I knew all the words to 'Barbara Allen.'" <p> Learning ballads was apparently great fun for five-year-old Mike, but two years later he discovered the unusual sound recordings that his parents were beginning to collect: <p> When I was around seven, I was given the great honor of being allowed to use the variable-speed record player that my mother used for folk song transcription.... I couldn't use it on her desk, so I sat on the floor with it. I sharpened the cactus needle we used to play the two hundred or so aluminum field recordings that made up the largest part of our family record collection and listened to Jimmie Strothers, Leadbelly, and the Ward Family of Galax, Virginia. I also listened to our very few commercial recordings, which included Dock Boggs's "Pretty Polly," Gid Tanner's "Fiddler's Convention in Georgia" (I almost wore it out), and artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Fats Waller, Norman Phelps and the Virginia Rounders, Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit"), Meade Lux Lewis, Sidney Bechet, Josh White, and Winifred Christie playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. <p> <p> By the time the Seeger family moved to Kirk Street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 1944, eleven-year-old Mike was steeped in a variety of musical traditions, ranging from his mother's classical European piano repertoire to the jazz and folk music he listened to on disc. But Mike's enthusiasm for music was not matched by any interest in formal musical instruction. At the age of six, when his mother attempted to sit him down at the piano, he rebelled: "I couldn't stand the idea of practicing and wouldn't do it. Perhaps I was already absorbing my parents' new devotion to traditional music and the informal ways one can pick it up." Mike did learn to strum the autoharp to accompany songs during the family song sessions, but he had no other lessons during his elementary and junior high days in Silver Spring and Chevy Chase or at the Woodstock Country School in Vermont, where he was sent for high school. His one musical experience at Woodstock was winning a talent contest his senior year singing a folk song, probably "Goodnight Irene," to the accompaniment of autoharp. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>GONE TO THE COUNTRY </b> by <b>RAY ALLEN</b> Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.