Mike Seeger on Flatpicking and the Carter Family
[btw, before I forget: lame-ass tho’ this is, I’ve got an original, never-before-seen pic of Mike Seeger–Elon Feiner took it sometime last Century–and I’ll post it as soon as I find it (if I do find it). Sorry.]
I can’t honestly say I knew Mike Seeger, the highly regarded musician/folklorist who passed away last week at the age of 75. I’ve been in several rooms, big and small, and had one interesting exchange with him, but to say I knew him would go against even my low standards for name dropping. I’ll recount the exchange for you in a minute. But first it’s time for encomia.
He broadened my musical horizons at a point in my career when Bluegrass alone was no longer able to sustain them. I suspect he did this in some form or another for many, many participants in the folk music renaissance of the 1960‘s. He was a critical contributor to the continental shift American music made in that decade.
My first, and most telling, impression he had on me was as a founding member in the New Lost City Ramblers, an Old Timey music preservation and performance trio that formed in the late ‘Fifties and played well on into the ‘60’s.
It was his and his partners’, John Cohen, Tom Paley, and, later, Tracy Schwarz, faithful but unslavish replication of American roots music that turned me on when Bluegrass seemed to limit my musical options as a roots music perfomer myself.
It was not so much individual performers who might have been lost to archives-only existences, but whole musical forms that hadn’t been in my mental repertoire before Mike and his partners put them there. I’m talking about country blues and songster music, finger picking, jug bands, banjo-fiddle duets, frailing and clawhammer banjo, Cajun, Gospel, and, eventually, my own mentor and hero, yes, Doc Watson, q.v. many posts in this blog.
On the way to doing this for me and, I expect, countless others, Mike and his partners brought me Charley Monroe, Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Roscoe Holcombe, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Boggs and many other pickers and singers I would not have heard of but for them.
Over the years in the ‘Sixties, I saw Mike play and sing and talk about American folk music prob. a half dozen times, and always learned something, heard something that took me into roots music side-streets and broadened and strengthened my own stuff. And that he was a skilled instrumentalist on a number of instruments made me want to keep working on my own chops, sometimes madly. He proved that white, urban, middle classers could learn and play the old music competently.
And whatever I say for myself, btw, about Mike and the music he made by himself and with others, is probably true in some measure for many performers from the era, e.g., Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Jerry Kaukkonen, Janis Joplin, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kweskin Jug Band and, of course, my own one-album wonder of a band, Evergreen Blueshoes.
Now, about this exchange between Mike and myself:
It came at a workshop on Carter Family style accompaniment/ bass-string lead technique he was giving at one of the UCLA folk music festivals they had in the ‘60’s, I don’t remember what year.
My question went something like this: let’s say that Mother Maybelle Carter invented a strumming technique that became the sound of country guitar from that time forward. How come she did it on a pop/jazz-style, arch-top guitar (read: weak bass frequency) with her thumb and index finger, and everyone who copied her did it with a flatpick on a flattop guitar? Everybody. How did that happen?
“To put it a little more concretely,” I droned on, “if she played a 4/4 bar with a thumb-index finger stroke of four thumb-brush-brush units, how did everyone afterward come to do it with a flatpick? It’s not an obvious substitution to make.
“To put it another w—“
“Ah, I think we get it, uh—what’d you say your name was? Al?—Al,” Mike said, with the “uh huh” of someone who’s been asked this before, “and it’s a good question. I’m guessing you’re a Bluegrass guitarist, right?”
I said I guessed I was.
“Well, the short answer to your question,” he said, “is I don’t know. And I’ve thought about it myself. I think you’re right to credit the Carter Family with at least recording and broadcasting that guitar style from El Paso to Saskatchewan on XERB radio, if they didn’t actually invent it.
“I know of many Southern white guitar players, recording artists and regular front porch pickers, who said they heard that style of playing on their records or on the radio in the late ‘20’s and ‘30’s. If any country music act took a regional music genre and nationalized it, so to speak, it was the Carter Family. So, yeah, there’s a good chance she inspired many guitarists to take up that kind of full rhythm sound we associate with them.
“As far as how or why it migrated from thumb and finger to flatpick, I can’t say. There’s nothing inevitable about that; both styles, to me, are counter-intuitive, compared to, say, bossa nova or flamenco.
“Maybe they thought using a flatpick was more uptown than your fingers. They saw pictures of Nick Lucas or Lonnie Johnson, saw they were using picks, or saw a Nick Lucas pick, and decided that’s what they needed to get them out of the hills and into the cities. And onto records.
“They weren’t trying to preserve the old ways like we are, you know. They wanted to make a living; if they got famous doing it, all the better. I mean, Jimmy Rogers made everybody think they could play guitar and sing.
“And I wonder if that had anything to do with Mother Maybelle playing an arch-top guitar with no bass to speak of but lots of carrying power—percussiveness—like they needed in big bands in those days. Maybe that was her idea of uptown. How the hell should I know, Al? Just kidding.
”Obviously, I don’t know. It’s sort of like why is it called Madison Square Garden? It’s not on Madison, it’s not square and it’s not a garden. (You like that? I just came up with that). End of the day, it just is. Like the anomaly of Carter Family finger-style strumming turning into flatpicking.
“One more thing, Al, and the rest of you. I’ve always found it interesting that even though we’ve come to associate Bluegrass, or, let’s say, aggressive-style guitar picking with the flatpick, two of the founding fathers of Bluegrass, Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley, made their livings and their marks on music playing a kind of relaxed Carter Family style, I think with thumb picks and fingers. I don’t know, I’m just saying.
“And here there’s also the obvious name connection, too. Lester Flatt… flat pick? Carter Stanley…Carter Family? Coincidence? I don’t think so.”
Me: “But, don’t you—“
Mike: “Next question, please.”
So, for me, I got on the air at a Q&A with Mike Seeger at a UCLA folk festival, that’s gotta be worth 20 points on a Bluegrass score-sheet. Plus, I got some feedback that my roots music ruminations were not entirely irrelevant and that I hadn’t yet abused enough substances to qualify for wet-braindom.
Net-net, I had a fairly meaty moment with someone in my field I deeply respected, and, in fact, was more than a little intimidated by. Mike Seeger was the best of the best in the performance and caretaking of American roots music.