New Lost City Rambler uncovers the missing links

Rating: NNNNNMIKE SEEGER with KATHY REID & ARNIE NAIMAN, at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), Sunday (November 19). 8 pm..


Rating: NNNNN

MIKE SEEGER with KATHY REID & ARNIE NAIMAN, at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), Sunday (November 19). 8 pm. $18 ($16 members). 410-FOLK.the names of song collectors Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger don’t have the same cultural resonance today as, say, John, Paul, George and Ringo, yet these do-it-yourself musical anthropologists were every bit as important as the Beatles in shaping contemporary music. Without the diligent detective and documentary work of enthusiastic folklorists — who illuminate our connections to the past by retracing the evolutionary course of popular song — the early-60s blues and folk revivals never would’ve happened.

In that scenario, a folk-reared singer/songwriter like Boston’s Jess Klein wouldn’t be singing songs about little white doves at the Horseshoe Wednesday (November 22). And while Bob Dylan might still be living on a bus, it’d likely be a rusted-out school bus on cinder blocks behind a used car lot back in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Of the aforementioned archivists, the historically important contributions of Mike Seeger are the least appreciated. No doubt that’s due in part to working in the shadow of his famous folksinger-activist half-brother Pete Seeger, but it’s also because the younger Seeger is better known as the banjo-picking founder of old-timey revivalists the New Lost City Ramblers.

When Seeger wasn’t bringing the southern string-band sound to mainstream audiences across North America, he was following the hair-raising howl of long-lost pickers from the wooded hills of eastern Kentucky right through the coal-mining country of southwestern Virginia. It was there, in the summer of 63, that Seeger finally caught up with mythic banjo bluesman Dock Boggs, whose voice had the eerie ring of a collect call from the lost city of Atlantis.

For all anyone knew, the ancient soul responsible for the songs Sugar Baby and Country Blues (which surfaced on Harry Smith’s highly influential Anthology Of American Folk Music) could’ve been 100 years old at the time of recording in the late 20s, yet there was Boggs, looking no worse for some 40 years of coal-dust wear.

“He wasn’t a brilliant virtuoso of the banjo, nor voice,” explains Seeger from his homestead in Rockbridge County, Virginia, “but what he had to say through a combination of his singing and banjo playing had a certain character. He had an ability to move people.

“In southern music, and music in general, really, character counts for a lot. It’s not always what you sing, but how you sing it, that’s important. I was in West Africa recently and heard a song on the radio being played with fiddle- and banjo-like instruments where the singer sounded remarkably like Dock Boggs. There’s something very durable about the traditional music of the southern United States that speaks to us meaningfully in a timeless way.”

Since Seeger began a deeper exploration of the links that connect American folk music to its African origins, his findings have been showing up more frequently in his performances.

Along with the usual program of bloody murder ballads, forgotten field hollers, holiness hymns and a generous helping of his signature claw-hammer breakdowns, Seeger has lately been incorporating more music derived from the African-American banjo tradition. Who knows? Hiphop might be next.

“For years now, people have been trying to figure out what happened with African music and trying to pinpoint the connections to American music, even though there’s no question they exist. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“What’s made the music of the United States “American music’ is the often troubled interaction between black and white cultures. It gave us banjo music, ragtime, blues, jazz, swing, R&B, rock and roll, disco and hiphop — which, as a form of folk expression, I find really fascinating.

“Hiphop music seems to have some interesting texts, and the music itself — the way riffs are used — is wonderfully creative — although I admit I have a hard time telling the differences between the subgenres, because everything’s changing so quickly.” timp@nowtoronto.comDigging folk roots

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