Consider the parallel course American music has run next to American politics. The handiest example is the 1960s, when music and politics raged, clashed and crashed, creating sparks that both united and divided us.
Music and politics also met up in the 1930s, and that coalescing did nothing less than identify what being an American meant.
Those were different times. The distinguished country music scholar Bill Malone walks us through them in his engaging new book, Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey (University of North Carolina Press, $30). Locals know the Tulane University professor emeritus, and Madison transplant, from his Wednesday morning WORT radio show, Back to the Country. Scholars and students know him from his book Country Music, U.S.A., the most comprehensive account of the form to date.
In Music from the True Vine, Malone's massive research ties together the poetry and the policy of a rough stretch in American history. The book reveals how the federal government, and its engagement with Southern musicians, black and white, created a political and artistic wave that swelled behind the power of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. And it shows how two generations of a family found themselves in the center of it all.
It's no surprise that the road to these American music discoveries leads to the Seeger family. What may surprise some is that Malone has chosen Pete Seeger's half-brother Mike to be our tour guide. For every 10 people who know of Pete's work, there are 20 who have never heard of Mike. Yet Mike Seeger was a prolific musicologist, a teacher and student, a prodigious instrumentalist.
Malone first introduces us to Seeger's parents, Charles and Ruth, whose bohemian associations and intellectual pursuits would have made Gertrude Stein blush. Classically trained, Charles Seeger taught at various universities and music schools, including Juilliard. Originally involved with classical avant-garde, he and his pianist wife were drawn to rural folk music, along with fellow members of the political left - including a far more powerful couple.
In the early 1930s, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt began to notice folk music and attend string band concerts. By the end of the decade, Charles was planning folk music events for the White House, including a square dance for the visiting king and queen of England with music provided by the self-taught "Minstrel of Appalachia," Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Malone takes us to the Washington, D.C., of the 1930s, which was a magnet for intellectuals along with politicians. Charles got a job working in the New Deal's Resettlement Administration, where he was charged with identifying music, folklore, plays and handicrafts as resources that "might defuse social tensions and promote harmonious relationships and a feeling of common identity."
Into this work Mike Seeger was born and raised. As if grabbing a relay baton from his parents, he ran with it - but not before first learning the very music his parents were gathering for archives. Visits from his older half-brother Pete, with his long-neck banjo and "big stomping feet," hooked Mike on the banjo.
By the 1950s, Mike was performing bluegrass with various bands, including the Pike County Boys, which featured Hazel Dickens on bass. As Malone recounts, Mike was not only performing bluegrass and country music at the time but, like a stenographer, carrying on his parents' work of recording and documenting it. Mike captured the first recordings of what would commonly become known as the rolling, Earl Scruggs style of banjo picking.
Seeger's most popular band, the New Lost City Ramblers, played old-time songs for young, urban listeners, and the chapter about the group ties together Seeger's student/teacher/performer persona. It's a trip to a magical artistic moment in America, the musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac's wildest dream.
Mike Seeger's label for this potent form of music is the title of the book, Music from the True Vine. He died in 2009. Malone and Seeger's conversations continued all the way to the end, and the talk seems to have been important to Seeger. According to Seeger's wife, one day during his final weeks, Mike asked something aloud: "I wonder if Bill Malone has any more questions."
Malone's work is an important tribute to a rare musician, an entertainer who cared more for the glory of the song than for anything else.