Monday, August 3, 2009

Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger

I've been thinking about Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger in tandem for the past couple of weeks. Both folkorists were in hospice care, waiting for the end; Sandy died Saturday and Mike's time isn't long. Each was attracted to folk music early on, and both recorded albums for Folkways in the 1950s. But since then their paths diverged.

Mike had a career as a musician, solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers, and as an independent folklorist who located, interviewed, learned music from, and in many cases produced record albums of traditional musicians who at one time had made commercial recordings: Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, and others, including Lesley Riddle who did not record commercially but who gave his songs to A.P. Carter of The Carter Family. Mike is a half-brother to folksinger Pete Seeger and a son of the musicologist Charles Seeger; therefore an uncle to the ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger. His path was different from theirs as well, one that took the music that he found into himself, and that resulted in performances for the general public, whether the concerts of the New Lost City Ramblers, or with Alice Gerrard, or the lecture-demonstrations such as the one he gave at my university a year and a half ago to help our string band celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Toward the end of his life he made a number of instructional videotapes in which he passed on his knowledge of traditional guitar and banjo playing, which was more than just skills and techniques: it was an approach to understanding the history of this music and its complex cultural background, particularly the interchange among black and white musicians that resulted in what we now call "old-time music" and identify chiefly with the roots music of the upland South from the minstrel era to about World War II.

Mike was, above all, a musician. He didn't write very much; writing must not have been nearly as natural an expression for him as music was. He wasn't a talker, either; he would converse with you but his words were plain, thoughtful, and few. (His half-brother Pete has these same tendencies, magnified.) As a musician he didn't strive for virtuosity, but he was a master musician nevertheless, on guitar, banjo, and fiddle; I'm sure he could also play the mandolin but I don't recall him doing so. He delved deeply into traditional musical styles, took them into his playing and was able to demonstrate them at a high level of competence and to show the important differences among musical techniques on the same instrument. Whereas many in the generations of musical revivalists since the 1950s have drifted restlessly from one ethnic musical tradition to another, moving (say) from old-time music to bluegrass to Irish traditional music and then to eastern European music, constantly searching for something new before plumbing the depths of what was at hand, Mike went deeper and deeper into one tradition, old-time music, to the point where he had, by dint of a lifelong combination of learning and playing, taken into himself something of the history of the development of that music, and could bring it out in performance, imagining himself into the musical persona of a rural Georgia fiddler in the 1920s, or a blackfaced minstrel banjo player of the 1850s, or an African American banjo player from the early 1800s.

Sandy Ives took the academic path, but it was not a conventional academic path. His first interest was literature, and he got a job in the English department at the University of Maine in the 1950s; but soon he was enrolled in the folklore PhD program at Indiana University and got his degree after a year of residence there. Back at UMaine he began to focus on teaching and researching and writing about folklore, notably concentrating on the oral traditions in song and story of the state of Maine and nearby Maritime Provinces. He focused on a few long-dead men who had left an important legacy in the oral traditions of poetry, music, and stories: Larry Gorman, Joe Scott, George Magoon and Wilbur Day; and he wrote books about all three of them based on his fieldwork with people who remembered these men, sang their songs and told stories about them. His books were published by academic presses, well reviewed, and loved by the folklorists who read them--not many, although when you think of the number of people he touched in his life as a professor for more than 40 years at UMaine, and as a fieldworker who was known throughout the state, his influence becomes far larger than what he was able to achieve through his books, though these books will be his lasting academic legacy, and I believe thatJoe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker is one of the most important books about traditional music written in the 20th century. In it he goes against his early training in literature (and mine, be it said) and makes a case, largely implicit, that the popular poetry of songwriters and poets like Joe Scott deserves the appreciation of the cultural historian, and that this popular poetry operates on the basis of a cultural aesthetic that deserves understanding on its own terms.

Sandy didn't continue to pursue a career as a folksinger, but he would gladly sing a song or tell a story in company, the way they used to do a hundred years ago; and he was good at it. His public lectures tended to deal with local Maine traditions, and he was a master of the kind of interpretation that I describe as the peeling of the onion, going deeper and deeper and revealing one layer of meaning beneath another, ever more satisfying to realize how much is there. He taught generations of students who will never forget him, he built up the folklife center at UMaine (now, ironically, endangered in the face of massive university budget cuts), and retired to complete several more book projects. In his few last years he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, and whether it was this or whatever else it was, it took a terrible physical toll as he was unable to take much nourishment and grew very frail. His mind may have lost the unimportant details of daily life--where did I put those keys?--but almost to the end he was still the wonderful conversationalist he always was, holding "high converse" with me about folklore, fishing, and the sport of tennis for a couple of hours when I visited him and his wife Bobbie in their home only a few weeks before he died.

Two different paths, but maybe not so different after all.


  1. Sandy Ives was my folklore teacher in the fall of 1966. His inspiration led me to an English teaching career that spanned 37 years on the college and high school levels during which time I taught folklore classes. Because of his influence I became interested in home brewing, fly fishing, and instrument making. Sandy urged me to write my grandfather's biography, to celebrate the uncommon gems found in common folk. What a fine friend and mentor. I will miss him.

  2. Sandy was an amazing professor, for both my husband and I. He left indelible marks on both our lives and will be remembered forever. We are both sad that he has passed.