Friday, September 6, 2013
Great PBS special on tonight about the history of the banjo, narrated by Steve Martin, who sneaks in a performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the end. Steve and the Rangers, as you might remember, perform one of my absolute favorite modern bluegrass tunes, "Atheists Don't Have No Songs."
In addition to some really wonderful old footage and songs, from banjo players that predate the great Earl Scruggs by decades, the filmmaker interviewed Pete Seeger's brother, Mike Seeger, pretty extensively. Mike Seeger came to the University of Virginia back in 1972 to do a folk music workshop. It was, sadly, rather poorly attended...but I was there. I was very, very into making jug band music at the time.
Mike Seeger is one of the gentlest souls I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He taught me how to correctly play the jaw harp (the instrument known in less politically correct nomenclature as the Jew's Harp) and turned me on to the blacksmith in Williamsburg, VA, who makes the finest harps in the known world. I still have mine, and I still play it. Mike also taught us a few old, old Appalachian songs and gave me a great tip, which I share with you now: if you're going to play the washboard as a rhythm instrument, don't waste your time with a modern one made of zinc or tin. Take the time to hunt down a vintage washboard that was made out of pressed glass. You'll be amazed at how much richer the sound is with a glass washboard than you get with a tin board. Sadly mine was lost in one of our interstate moves -- a whole box of stuff, including the washboard, a couple of tambourines, and an 18th Century fife -- vanished into the limbo where odd socks and moving boxes go. One of these days I'll get around to hunting down a new washboard.
It was really great to see Mike in this special. He is still sharing his knowledge and his music, only now, instead of hunting down old mentors to learn their music, Mike has become himself an old mentor. Bless you, Mike, and thank you for the gifts you gave me.
(Mike Seeger as I met him in the early 1970's--)
(--and Mike Seeger today.)