Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 10:23 UK

Folk singer Mike Seeger dies, 75

Mike and Peggy Seeger
Mike often played and recorded with his sister, Peggy

Folk musician and historian Mike Seeger has died at the age of 75.

Brother of the equally influential Peggy, Seeger founded the New Lost City Ramblers, the group credited with sparking the 60s folk boom.

Over a 50-year career, his love of traditional songs inspired many other musicians, including Bob Dylan, to trace the roots of American folk music.

Seeger's wife, Alexia Smith, said he had died of cancer on Friday night at their home in Lexington, Virginia.

Seeger was born in New York City and raised near Washington, DC, in a musical family - his mother was a composer and his father an ethnomusicologist.

"Exciting people were always dropping in," Peggy later told Folkways Magazine. "Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, John Jacob Niles, Bess Hawes, Henry and Sidney Cowell, John and Alan Lomax".

Bob Dylan
What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes
Bob Dylan

The siblings' older half-brother, folk legend Pete Seeger, was also a regular visitor.

Mike picked up his first instrument, the autoharp, aged 12 and went on to become accomplished on the banjo, mandolin, harmonica, cello, viola and guitar.

He rose to fame during New York's 1950s folk revival era, forming the traditional music group New Lost City Ramblers in 1958 with John Cohen and Tom Paley.

In his 2004 book, Chronicles, Bob Dylan attributed his decision to start writing original material to Seeger's live performances. "I was so absorbed in listening to him I wasn't even aware of myself," wrote the star.

"Sometimes you know things have to change ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door, and your head has to go into a different place. Mike Seeger had that effect on me.

"He played on all the various planes, the full index of the old-time styles, [and] he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes."

During his career, Seeger recorded more than 40 albums, gaining six Grammy nominations. He recently contributed to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's award-winning Raising Sand album.

His last solo record was released in 2007 on Smithsonian Folkways and was titled Early Southern Guitar Sounds.

'Living library'

The musician was also a keen historian of folk music, seeking out undiscovered or forgotten songs and musicians.

He began collecting material on a tape recorder when he was 20, starting with the Seeger family's maid, Elizabeth Cotten, a self-taught guitarist.

Other musicians he rescued from obscurity included Ernest "Pop" Stoneman and renowned banjo player Dock Boggs, who had fallen into poverty after the Great Depression.

The New Lost City Ramblers were formed with the explicit intention of resurrecting this music "as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies, and television had begun to homogenize out diverse regional folkways".

As source material, they used old 78rpm discs, archives from the Library of Congress and Seeger's own recordings.

Over the years, the musician was variously branded a "living library" of folk music and a "one-man folk festival".

He continued to play live until last month, when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma - a cancer affecting the blood's plasma cells.

After 10 days in hospital, he decided to forgo treatment and return home, his wife told local newspaper the Roanoke Times.

"He did not want to undergo arduous treatments with a totally uncertain future," she said. "He was very clear what he wanted. He was at peace. It was good for me to see that."

He is survived by his wife of 14 years, Alexia, two ex-wives, three sons from his first marriage, four stepchildren, two sisters, two half brothers and 13 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be planned for a future date, his wife said.

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