and the Devil himself...

and the Devil himself...
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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mike Seeger, Levon Helm: My Long, Strange Americana Trip

photo by Keith Garvin

Part I... From Seeger's 'True Vine' to Levon's 'Dirt Farmer...

The above photo, which has always been my, (and seems most others) favorite, was taken in a town I called 'Flatpick Kentucky'. It was shot, (and I was somehow not), by the son of Bert Garvin. Bert Garvin was Bill Monroe's first banjo player. They'd met up in Flatpick and well, they did what most everyone there did, they picked. They did it not only because their talent compelled them but to escape the mines, the railroad, the oil company, the nuclear plant. Music helped some escape daily, a few for good. (You can read about my first encounter with them here at GratefulWeb. I met them covering the Appalachian String Festival for the magazine.)

Bert could have been one of those people who got out for good. Mr. Monroe begged him, he said, to go to Nashville. "If you aren't the best banjo picker there when we arrive", he told him, "I'll see to it that you are in short order." A child with cerebral palsy at home, Garvin couldn't do it. He stayed in Flatpick, worked for the railroad, and eventually became near deaf. "I've I'da known Bill Monroe was going to be Bill Monroe", Garvin said, "I'dve gone to Nashville." 

How did I wind up in Flatpick with Bert's rifle and my own banjo, (to my delight he'd agreed to teach me)? Well, it began, as did, indeed a great deal of the popularization of folk that led to the Americana genre, with Mike Seeger. For those of you who don't know, he's the brother of Pete and, like him played a heavy hand the first Roots revival. In fact, he's the guy who filmed Jesco's dad, D. Ray White, (check out my videos with Jesco at my YouTube channel). His film, of course, started that 'Legend of D. Ray White' that Hank III made famous.  As if that didn't all substantially help shape the genre, (in many, many of it's now multi-faceted manifestations) , Dylan credits Seeger with inspiring him to write his own songs.

Writing for Northern Virginia Magazine at the time, I suggested a series looking at how technology and resultant DIY movement were shifting the industry. I'd find 5 Virginia artists, from Grammy winners to emerging, who illustrated this. I suppose, in a way, I was forming the idea for this piece and this time - or maybe I just listened very closely to what they said and proceeded to do the same. Either way, I somehow went from ... well, let me just finish telling you the story.

Researching Virginia artists, I discovered Mr. Seeger. To my surprise, the Google search turned up his phone number. Can't possibly be the same Mike Seeger, I thought to myself. I then thought to myself what the heck and picked up the phone and called to find out. Sure enough it was. 

So began what neither of us knew would be his last interview. (You can read it here and here). Northern Virginia Magazine then bailed on publishing it, though he'd just won his Grammy for True Vine that year. By coincidence, GratefulWeb needed writers to cover an Old Time festival nearby. I wrote them and said I wasn't sure I could make it to the festival but I sure would love if they'd publish these interviews with Mr. Seeger. Of course, they did, as you'll discover above.

Having a good story idea wasn't the only reason I wanted to talk with Mr. Seeger. Dylan has always been what inspired me to write. Reading the Chronicles, I discovered it was Seeger who'd done the same for Dylan. Well heck, I thought, if you want to write songs like Bob Dylan start where he did. As I talked with Mr. Seeger, I began taking traditional songs and writing my own based on them. I then not only interviewed him but had the opportunity to discuss my music with him. While he and Joan Baez were at the Newport Folk Festival, I even got a note from her about one of them, to my continuing surprise.

Not long after our interviews, I found myself in South Jersey and discovered. I looked around to see if there might be something I could write about. To my delight, Soozie Tyrell, Springsteen's Seeger Sessions fiddler and E Street Band member, was playing at the Stone Pony. (The legendary venue that launched Springsteen, Bon Jovi and others). So, of course, I went. From there, I returned to Appalachia to learn banjo from Bert, (and to have that amazing photo taken).

Many interesting things happened in Jersey. Learning that Old Time music had been preserved in the Pine Barrens, as it had in Appalachia, I made a trip to Albert Hall, where the traditions are maintained. When looking through their archive, I found the original  outline of Mike Seeger's program for schools that launched the 'Foxfire' series, which is still in print. An arts teacher at the time, I used it to implement something similar in inner city schools. Yet another, unexpected way Mr. Seeger changed not only my life, but in this instance the lives of hundreds of children too. 

But it was at the Stone Pony that my life began to not only change but revolutionize.  I was invited to spend the weekend with them, (in the oceanfront hotel Johnny Cash once owned a floor of) and what a weekend it was. There was not only Soozie Tyrell but more bands than I can now recall to count (it was Labor Day weekend), a coastal hurricane that prevented what would have been a certain visit from Springsteen and, to top it all off, there was the moment I met a member of the Levon Helm Band.

It was Saturday night. Soozie was going to play soon and no was was yet 100% positive Springsteen wouldn't be there, (he often is). Everyone running the Pony, and I who had been keeping pace up to then, was exhausted. The promotions directer and I were in the office and the national tour manager rushed in, (for the 100th time that night at a break neck pace), saying:

"So and so broke a string and his other guitar is in the car and he wants to know if he can go and get it but it's going to slow down the set and then so and so doesn't go on until time x and then so and so till time y and etc etc..." I turned, looked at him and said, "If he can't play with 5 strings what's he doing on stage at the Stone Pony? He does realize that Soozie is going to go up there and play with 1 string - you know.... Seeger Sessions, Appalachian instruments..." "She's right!" The house promoter said. "Tell him no."

I heard laughter behind me, turned and in the hall bands were using to go from trailer to stage were 3  who I assumed were roadies. "See!" I said, "The Men in Black concur!" They continued to laugh and I approached them and continued my tangent. "WHO are you?!" They asked. "I'm a writer for GratefulWeb that just interviewed Mike Seeger." I replied. I then recounted some of my adventures in Americana up to that point. When they took the stage with Soozie I realized Brian (who had just started playing with Helm), Paul Ossala of the Saturday Night Live Band, and more - the world's top musicians who play with pretty much everyone you can think of.  

I then travelled to Appalachia and there met Jeff Walburn, who was soon traveling to Nashvile for   the Americana Roots Association conference week. He was going not only with the Garvins but Michael O'Neill, (who is, of course, part of the upcoming showcase I'm in this year). Learning that O'Neill  had played and co-written with Bob Weir he was a perfect interview for the GratefulWeb series by this time in progress. You can read our first talk here.

When I got home, after many more adventures, I talked with Brian and our conversations about music, including my own, have continued, (as have my talks with Mike and the Garvins), over the years. The 'Dirt Farmer' Grammy, (the first award given in the Americana genre), was soon to be won, though they didn't know it yet. Our interview, which recounts some tales from his fascinating life and some additional details of my adventures in Asbury Park, is here.

I caught up with The Levon Helm Band again, I believe when the Grammy had just been won. At that time, the documentary, "Ain't In it For My Health" was being filmed and I was entertained by tales of what that was like, what the tour had been like... got to fully see from the inside out the vast tapestry of talent that made up the new 'Band'. They were going from there to Nashville for the AMA conference week and suggested I go also so that I could continue to write about it plus more. I declined but found myself caught up immediately in a wave of coincidence, (which had and has been a steady theme throughout my adventures)...

...this story continues on to Woodstock, to the Deaths of Mr. Seeger and Mr. Helm on down to the upcoming AMA conference week. You can read about it... in the next installment of our Americana Music series. Coming very, very soon.





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