September 1, 2009
For the most part, snow accumulated wherever it fell around Park City back then. And, oftentimes, it was known to stay there a spell. To be sure, it would get shoved aside somewhat, but "snow removal," as we now know it, had yet to evolve.
So on that early winter evening when John and Irene Ullman drove Mike Seeger and Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten up Park City’s Main Street for a historic one-night-only performance at "The Handlebar," the parking space we sort of reserved for them directly in front of Phil Thalman’s watering hole featured a good six inches of the white stuff.
Although Main Street isn’t steep by any stretch, that night, when coupled with the recent snowfall, the resultant angle-of-repose initially proved too difficult on which to park. Following a few failed efforts, the Ullman vehicle ended up favoring the perpendicular much more than the parallel and stuck well out into the street.
Seeger hopped out of the back seat and, quickly assessing the situation, had John throw it into reverse and let out the clutch. As the vehicle spun more or less in place, we pushed the backend uphill, causing it to swing toward the curb and settle perfectly into place.
And that is how I remember Mike Seeger, as a musical spirit who caused things to settle perfectly into place. Certainly the ’60s folk-music revival would have been much more disjointed without him. As much as anyone, he kept the traditional music circle unbroken, spreading the faith as a member of The New Lost City Ramblers and through solo recordings.
When word arrived last month from ex-Parkite Nick Snow that Mike had passed away at his home in Virginia, memories of that very special night on Main Street came flooding back. Nick was an astute observer of the Park City scene in those days and publisher of our first alternative newspaper, The Mountain Flower.
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The younger half-brother of the more well-known Pete Seeger, Mike became a legendary multi-instrumentalist, historian, and collector but, almost more importantly, a conduit for the music of Elizabeth Cotten. Her nickname "Libba" came from the manner in which a Seeger youngster pronounced her name.
Seeger’s parents were musicologists and, through happenstance, Libba came to work and live in their household where her musical gifts were first discovered and then nurtured.
Growing up in rural North Carolina, she had learned to play the guitar by turning it upside-down and playing it left handed. Her truly singular picking style, which involved playing the treble strings with her thumb and the bass strings with her other fingers, had no better showcase than her classic song "Freight Train," which she wrote when she was 12 years old.
One of the more astounding things about her quite extraordinary career in music is that she put her guitar aside for more than 40 years, only to pick it up again once she moved in with the Seegers. Mike began recording her in 1952, produced her first album in 1957, and began touring with her in 1960.
And that brings us to Mike booking Libba for a 1974 concert at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where they could hook up and stay with their longtime friends, the Ullmans. It was John and Irene, who had been performing as a blues duo up at The Handlebar, who hatched the idea to bring Libba to Main Street as long as she was in the neighborhood.
Worked for us! Phil could print flyers and distribute them locally and I could pass them out in Salt Lake and talk it up on my radio show at KMOR. The Ullmans would handle transportation, Phil would sling beers, and I would collect the two-dollar cover charge at the door.
The show went flawlessly with nary a peep from a full house of usually rowdy Park City saloon folk as Libba worked her way through a 30-song set-list featuring "Freight Train," "Shake Sugaree," "Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie," and a few duets with Mike.
Something about Libba’s dignity demanded utmost respect. And this behavior from the normally rambunctious would also carry over to after the show when everyone lined up just to share her aura. One local known for shooting out windows with shotgun blasts actually genuflected before her.
Libba was then a couple of months shy of her 80th birthday and would go on to win a Grammy a decade later. She passed away in 1987 and now Mike Seeger has joined her. Two better road buddies would be hard to imagine.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.