Author: Martin, George

Freight and Salvage History; Remembering Mike Seeger; $40 for a thumb pick!?

Back in August the San Francisco Chronicle did a nice Sunday piece on the about-to-open brand new Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley. This past Sunday the Datebook section had a letter from Gallivan Burwell of New Orleans, the very first musician to play the original Freight, back in 1968.

Here’s an excerpt:

“I was the first Freight performer on the stage of the original site on the evening it opened (summer 1968). The girl who was supposed to perform didn’t show and Nancy [Owen], the owner, called me only because one of the guys who helped build the place had my phone number and said I was good. I was 17 and had arrived from Miami about a month earlier. I thought I was on my way to the Big Time, folk-style.

“I continued to play the Freight for the next 30 years, mostly on Songwriter and Hoot nights, even when I was leading bands (Edge City, Lynx, the Gray Cats) in the Bay Area and Sonoma County. [Chronicle pop music critic Joel] Selvin wrote Edge City up when we backed up David La Flamme at the Orphanage -- same night the Wailers played the Matrix up the street -- on his first post-Beautiful Day comeback (‘LaFlamme Back With an Edge’ -- 1973, I think)...

“I’ve been in New Orleans since 1999, training dogs for a living and still playing basket houses; the arc of my 41-year career. The Big Time, folk-style, indeed.”


When I got out of college in the summer of 1963 I immediately went to work at the Richmond Independent, a newspaper that doesn’t exist anymore. That summer Barry Olivier organized the first UC Berkeley Folk Festival, and I snagged a press pass. I had been playing banjo for about three years at the time, but having grown up in a small town where there were no banjos or banjo players, I was trying to approximate the sounds I heard on the radio by using a flat pick.

I’m relying on memory here, but I believe Mike Seeger was at that festival with the New Lost City Ramblers. I do recall going to a banjo workshop where he was the first person I got to see up close and personal do Scruggs picking. I got as close as possible and stared as hard as I could trying to see what he was doing, and to remember what I saw. It took a couple of years more for me to start playing in a way that sounded anything like Earl Scruggs, but I’ll never forget watching Seeger, who died August 7 of cancer, that day in Berkeley.

The October issue of Banjo Newsletter has several touching reminisces of Seeger by people he influenced who now, in turn, have become major influences on banjo players everywhere. Here is part of the column from Bob Carlin, who performs, teaches and writes instructional material for clawhammer banjo players:

“I was driving down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when word of Mike Seeger’s passing came over the radio. With his emotions barely under control, Mike’s friend and musical compatriot Paul Brown gave his farewell over National Public Radio to this musician who meant so much to everyone playing old time banjo styles...

“Mike Seeger’s music first came into my life during my youth in the 1960s. Like many other banjoists of my generation, I borrowed his record albums on Folkways Records from the local public library. Either with the New Lost City Ramblers or on his own, Mike held forth on those black vinyl records with their austere thick black covers and booklets detailing the music within. I later added Seeger’s solo albums on Mercury and Vanguard, and his recordings with then wife Alice Gerrard for Greenhays and Arhoolie, among others, to my growing collection.

“Mike appeared as part of the Strange Creek Singers when the group appeared at our local folk music society, and I even recorded the concert for later study. My brother returned from Oberlin College with rescued New Lost City Ramblers concert tapes found in a closet, which added to my musical education...”

“After years as a member of Seeger’s audience, I finally got to meet Mike and even began somewhat of a friendship with him. We often visited at festivals or at his home in Lexington, Virginia, and sometimes shared the stage in banjo workshops and when we were both performing with the late John Hartford.

“Like Hartford, Mike often followed extreme regimes of exercise and diet. One month Mike was macrobiotic, several months later he had turned micro-biotic, and the next time I saw him he was eating only red meat...

“Mike had a really dry sense of humor, which often made him seem more serious than he actually was. A diagnosis of cancer after John was actively battling a similar disease prompted Mike and I to have several discussions about Seeger’s own life expectancy. Mike told me, with the modern treatments he was receiving he would probably live out his normal life span, but, just wouldn’t leave as pretty a corpse!”

From Eric Weissberg (banjo player best known for the “Dueling Banjos” theme for the movie “Deliverance):

“My contacts with Mike mostly took place when we were both pretty young (I’ll be 70 this Sunday and Mike was five years older). Mike and Ralph Rinzler came to Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side, where I was living with my parents and still in high school. They had gotten the task of recording/producing an album for Folkways that was to be titled “American Banjo in Scruggs Style,” and were going around the country taping banjo pickers.

“I was a pretty good picker among the few in NYC. They set up their equipment and we started recording. They backed me up on mandolin [Seeger] and guitar [Rinzler]. I think we recorded two tunes. I believe the album is still available through Smithsonian Folkways...”

“Our next contact was five years later when Mike called to tell me that Gibson had begun remanufacturing the Flat Top Tone Rings like the one in Earl’s banjo. He had gotten the first two production ones, but as he needed only one, he offered me #2. I sure did, and got it from him for the princely sum of $40. I promptly installed it in my rather odd Gibson where it still is after more than half a century.”

And Berkeley’s own Jody Stecher wrote:

“Were it not for Mike Seeger so many lives would have been musically impoverished. He brought beautiful forgotten songs to light, and forgotten musicians of enormous worth found new audiences through Mike’s efforts. The LPs and CDs he produced were the door to a lifetime of involvement in both old time and bluegrass for so many people, and Mike’s classic and insightful liner notes to these recordings illuminated what lay beyond the doorway with exceptional clarity. The breadth and depth of Mike’s own music were equally substantial. He was very good on stage of course, but I had the good fortune to hear him play at home when he was relaxed and thought no one was listening, and I have to say I’ve never heard better banjo picking. I’m talking about sweet toned, hair-raising, bone-rattling music at 3 a.m., stuff that his public music only hinted at.

The curse of the banjo player is that the damn things come apart so easily. We are always trying a new bridge, or a new tailpiece, or different strings, or even tone rings and wooden rims.

Recently a new brand of thumb pick, “Blue Chip Picks,” have shown up on the market. The company makes flat picks, too. Each pick costs $40, yet professional musicians are lining up to buy them and the message boards at are full of unsolicited testimonials.

On their web site they have Chris Thile, Adam Steffe, Rhonda Vincent, Mike Marshall, and Wayne Benson, among others endorsing them.

So naturally I sent in my $40. I picked the JD Crowe model, which has a slightly shorter blade. The blade is described as a very high quality, self-lubricating composite. It is neatly riveted to a stainless steel semi-loop that holds it tight to the thumb.

The blade glides over the strings very smoothly and the entire pick seems lighter than a plastic pick. Plus the clampy part is very close to the thumb s
Posted:  10/8/2009

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