Music of Michael Miles, spirit of Pete Seeger

Banjoist teaching so others can also gain from the master

Musician and teacher Michael Miles teaches students at the Seward School to play the banjo with homemade instruments. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

Michael Miles opened a thick envelope filled with sheets of paper and said, "Here, have a look at these."

Near the top of the pile was a copy of a typewritten letter that he received in November 1988: "Only today I was able to get to listen to your tape of clawhammer banjo duets, and I hasten to write again to let you know it is one of the most beautiful tapes I ever listened to in all my 70 years. It is enough to make me want to start learning how to play the banjo all over again."

The person who wrote that letter never did "learn to play the banjo all over again." He was already pretty good. Pete Seeger was at that time the most famous banjo player on the planet: member of The Weavers, social activist, environmentalist and famous for such songs as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." His letter literally changed Miles' life. He was a banjo player, too, and four years into what would be a 14-year tenure as the program director and teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music; in that time the number of students there grew from 200 to more than 4,000. He remains an active member of the faculty.

Miles and Seeger kept up a lively correspondence (letters typed and handwritten, and postcards) for more than 20 years, and would eventually meet and play music together. The relationship ended for keeps on Jan. 27 this year, when Seeger died at 94.

"It's hard to be sad about someone who dies at 94," says Miles. "The week before he had been chopping wood, and he died in his sleep. That's a good way to go.

"But his letters changed my world entirely. His ongoing encouragement, his advice about music and life, and his good cheer really helped steer the course of my music, my thinking and my life."

Miles then tells a story about his father dying when he was 22 years old. His mother gave each of the five children $500 from the life insurance money and told them, "buy something in honor of your father."

Miles, who had been playing rock guitar, bought a banjo with the money and played it through college and postgraduate work in England and at Northeastern Illinois University, where he earned a master's degree in music performance and pedagogy.

He has since then fashioned a fine and rewarding banjo career, ever exploring new musical forms, challenging his own talent and audiences' definitions of what a banjo can do (milesmusic.org). In addition to his work at Old Town, he has composed music, made CDs, produced shows both musical and theatrical, and traveled the world to teach. He has played in such places as the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institution, the Ravinia Festival and Harris Theatre, American University in Beirut and the Royal Opera Theatre in Marrakesh, Morocco.

"I kept hearing from Pete, and I was acutely aware of his age. My mother and Pete were both born in the same year," he said. "A few months after her passing last year I started talking to the (Old Town) school about doing something in honor of Pete's 95th. Then he died. He would have been 95 on this May 3."

"Something" is Old Town's celebration of Seeger's life and legacy (oldtownschool.org/seeger). A couple of events have already taken place — workshops and a dedication of a Pete Seeger Room — but the meat and potatoes come this week, beginning Friday with a family "barn dance," a screening of the film "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," a family banjo-making class and a singalong featuring Old Town's first teacher, Frank Hamilton; Saturday with an open jam session and two more workshops with Hamilton; and Sunday with a concert for children.

Miles will hold forth Saturday night in the main theater with his one-man show titled "From Senegal to Seeger — Stories of the American Banjo," which incorporates the songs and written words of Seeger and a host of others, including Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie and Johann Sebastian Bach — yes, Bach. In the show, Miles performs on seven banjos, playing music that spans 300 years, and charts the transformation of the banjo from an African instrument to what he calls "the quintessential expression of the American voice."

Also on exhibit at the school will be many of the letters Seeger wrote to Miles, arranged by topic (the accompanying descriptions are mine when appropriate). Among them are Encouragement and Advice, Definition of Folk Music, Long Neck Banjo & Pete's First Book (the instrument was Seeger's invention; Miles helped edit the book), Handwritten Music, The Magic Banjo (the title of one of Miles' productions) and Closing Letter.

 But none of this closes the book on the Seeger-Miles relationship. In addition to his many ongoing projects, Miles is working on a book/CD package for the Hal Leonard Publishing Company on Seeger's works. He is also deeply involved, as was Seeger, in spreading the message and joy of music.

"What he did for me, he did for a lot of people," says Miles. "He changed the Earth, changed how people think. He is the person who taught Martin Luther King the words to 'We Shall Overcome.' He was always trying to empower people through music."

So is Miles. In the accompanying photo he is teaching (as part of a Ravinia-funded effort) first-, second- and third-graders at Seward School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. He visits two other grammar schools, teaching four classes and some 120 kids every week.

"Subsidized" because public schools are all but bereft of music and many other arts. As much as we are all for air conditioning, the lack of arts and culture in some schools is shameful.

Seward, which has no music instruction, had no money for instruments. So, with some empty yogurt containers, wood, screws and string, Miles helped the children create their own banjos.

"It's been a blast," he says. "When I walk in the classrooms I finally know what it's like to be a big man on campus. And the kids really take to it. You can see and feel the passion."

Miles, too, is passionate, a gifted storyteller and as quick with a smile as he is with a tune. He is 60 years old but seems, in all ways, a decade younger. He lives on the North Side with his wife, Nina Newhouser.

Plowing through the Seeger letters with him, it is easy to understand where he gets some of his soulful and sunny outlook. Though Seeger often signed his letters to Miles with "Hastily, Pete," there are others that carry a potent message (or a fine ending for this story): "All for now, keep on playing …"

"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribune.com

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