Saturday, 15 August 2009

Marking the passing of three greats

I was dismayed to return from holiday to news of the deaths of a number of people I admired greatly.
Mike Seeger was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. His older half-brother Pete was already playing banjo. Mike and his younger sister Peggy learned from the string of influential visitors to the house - John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. Mike became an accomplished musician, playing banjo, guitar, fiddle amongst others.
Mike became involved in locating and recording traditional musicians. He was responsible for Elizabeth Cotten's debut recordings. She may not have been difficult to track down (she was working as the family nanny), but he also sought out and learned from musicians like Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, the Stoneman Family, and others. He channelled what he learned about their music into his own performance. (Jeff Todd Titon has some nice comments on Mike Seeger's musical abilities here).
He was hugely influential on the course of the Folk Revival of the 1950s/'60s. The New Lost City Ramblers (formed in 1958 with John Cohen and Tom Paley) played a big role in demonstrating that this music did not have to be sanitized to reach an audience. He continued studying and learning traditional American musics. He never wrote much, but made every performance a practical demonstration of his thorough-going understanding of the music.
By contrast Edward D. Ives, known universally as Sandy, was an academic folklorist and fieldworker. He wrote a series of important monographs on poet/songsters, and the transmission of their songs into local oral tradition. In these he sought to understand the complex networks of local relationships and traditions, and how these find aesthetic reflection.
If that all sounds grimly academic - it isn't. His books are hugely readable, and show on the page the qualities that made him such an effective and brilliant communicator in the field. His book Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978) begins with a poignant account of being contacted by a Welfare Department. Sandy's Christmas card to an informant, Herby Rice, was 'the only coherent piece of paper the man possessed' (p.xxvii). It is unsurprising that his guides to fieldwork remain so valuable and useful.
I was introduced to Sandy Ives' work by Dr Julia C. Bishop when I was a postgraduate student at Sheffield. Julia was also employed part-time on the James Madison Carpenter collection, to which end she shared desk-space at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. One of her great delights in this was that Stanley Robertson, who has died aged 69, was in the office next door.
Stanley was a gentle and intelligent man, conscious and proud of the immense Scottish Traveller traditions he was carrying. He had a huge repertoire of ballads, and was an outstanding storyteller. (There are several CD releases of his material). He was also an able piper. He was courteous and generous with his time at Aberdeen, even if he could be very funny about academic studies of his traditions: 'They tell me what it is that I'm doing; it's very interesting'. He was a marvellous writer, publishing plays as well as collections of his stories.
He was also, in his quietly determined way, an intransigent opponent of prejudice against Travellers. It was this championing of the enormous cultural wealth of Travellers that had brought him to Aberdeen University. Ian Olson has written a fine obituary in the Scotsman, with more information.
I only saw Stanley perform once. I remember him telling a ghost story, and being helplessly entranced by his narration. I remember specific details, and the astonishing uncanny atmosphere he created through his absolute narrative mastery. He described a specific type of rain, and simply recalling the hand movement he used is enough to explain it all again to me. He was a very great man.


  1. Thanks for including Stanley - my little tribute is set to appear in Facts&Fiction storytelling magazine, edited by Pete Castle. Stanley was a one-off and we are the poorer for his passing.

  2. There's a nice tribute to Stanley in the latest English Dance & Song (Autumn 2009) by Derek Schofield, editor of ED&S. It also features some comments from Sam Lee, who spent a lot of time learning songs from Stanley.