fri 14/05/2021

Singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger: still in the vanguard of her musical dynasty | reviews, news & interviews

Singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger: still in the vanguard of her musical dynasty

Singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger: still in the vanguard of her musical dynasty

A member of America's great musical clan, Peggy Seeger has been a fixture on the British folk scene for more than 60 years

'I can’t afford to be a purist because I’m not the real thing myself'Vicki Sharp Photography

If American music has a royal family, it’s surely the Seeger clan. Charles, the patriarch, the composer, musicologist and teacher who could be said to have invented ethnomusicology, married first to Constance de Clyver Edson, a violinist and teacher.

If American music has a royal family, it’s surely the Seeger clan. Charles, the patriarch, the composer, musicologist and teacher who could be said to have invented ethnomusicology, married first to Constance de Clyver Edson, a violinist and teacher. That union gave us Pete Seeger, known to generations the world over for the songs “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. Charles's second family, with pianist and modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, included Mike and Peggy, singers and multi-instrumentalists who, like Pete, made vast contributions to the great urban folk revival that began in the late 1950s in both the United States and Britain.

And it was to Britain that Peggy, a Radcliffe College dropout, came in 1956, aged just 21. She’d been on the road in Europe with her banjo – the instrument Pete had made it his business to reinvent for a new generation – and crossed the Channel at the summons of folk-song collector Alan Lomax, to audition for a group that he hoped would be Britain’s answer to The Weavers, the American quartet which took songs such as “Goodnight, Irene”, “Midnight Special” and “Wimoweh” into the charts. That didn’t work out, but sitting in was folk singer and actor Ewan MacColl. He was 20 years Seeger’s senior and had an already-complicated love life but they would be together for 40 years, marrying only late on. His song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, was written for and about Seeger, its royalties eventually doing much to improve what had been an impecunious lifestyle, spent criss-crossing the country collecting songs for BBC Radio’s landmark series of The Radio Ballads and performing at clubs across the land.

Peggy is now 85, with a new record she says will be her last. Still, First Farewell leaves open the possibility that it’s more just au revoir – she’ll see how she feels when she’s finished the Covid-rescheduled tour. MacColl died in 1989 and she has since been busy making music on her own, spending 16 years back in the States, a country she scarcely knew, and getting to know an extended family in which Ewan was not much interested.

“I went cold turkey from London down in Asheville, North Carolina, which is known for songs and stories and dancing and tradition,” Seeger reflects over the inevitable Zoom from her home in Iffley, where she’s active in the campaign to save the last few remaining green fields from development. “I loved it but they had no need of a feminist, activist singer down there… they were probably glad when I was gone!

"I’m a second-hand singer. They’re all people who learned it right from the word go at their granny’s knee. They were part of the tradition, whereas I had learned it from books and records… and I had a classical musical education which affected the way I sing folk songs and still does. I’m not the real thing.” A modest assertion, and in Britain she certainly was “the real thing”. These days she thinks of herself as “a resource, and increasingly as a museum for songs".

A “museum” maybe, but Seeger cuts a trim, youthful figure in casual-chic, her silver hair casually cropped. Arthritis has made guitar and banjo difficult, and on the new album she mostly plays piano. Sons Neill and Calum (pictured right) and daughter-in-law Kate St John play everything else. She has co-written songs with each of them. It’s the first album they’ve done together, though the boys have long been used to sharing the stage with their mother. It was recorded in 2019, with a tour planned for 2020. And then, of course, came “events”. She’s now busy promoting it, “35 interviews in six weeks, sometimes two a day. Almost all the interviewers have been women.”

Seeger, who wrote “Gonna Be An Engineer” some 50 years ago, has always been a feminist and while appearances suggest that MacColl was a typically dominant male, she denies it was the case. “He was an old-fashioned man, and I was an old-fashioned woman at the time. I did cooking, shopping, managing the house, taking the kids to their dental appointments, school, and he did almost nothing in the house. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote, and he encouraged me endlessly with music but most of all I was exhausted with running this crazy household… Ewan helped with the housework when it was totally necessary, but his idea of housework was running a Hoover around.” The times they have a-changed,” to paraphrase Bob Dylan, whom MacColl famously dismissed as “a youth of mediocre talent” when he sang at their Singers Club in London.

Seeger’s story is remarkable, and it connects to so many other remarkable stories. Her childhood family home mixed high art and low art – classical music and folk music, all of it in her DNA. Ruth Crawford Seeger died tragically young, so we can only guess at what she might have achieved, but she was the first woman composer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. The most significant of her works date from the early 1930s when the family was in New York, Crawford Seeger at the New School: her String Quartet is audacious. But she also worked with John and Alan Lomax when they were collecting folk songs for the Library of Congress, transcribing and arranging, and composing Rissolty, Rossolty – An American Fantasy for Orchestra. She taught piano, her pupils including six-year-old Peggy, who made her mark on the family’s brand-new Steinway all too literally, by carving her name.

“She taught me to play with the piano – not necessarily play. She had little games. She set stories where I had to be the voice of the little girl, or the mouse, tinkling away on the top keys with one or two fingers,” Seeger recalls. “Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and I come down and start doing that, just let my fingers go where they want to. It’s fascinating. I can do it for hours and bore everyone to tears except myself. I think if we taught more things in the beginning stages as fun rather than discipline people would get a different idea of what learning and education is.”

She was “very good, practising four or five hours a day. I loved Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Bartok, Debussy, but what I lacked was the nerve to play in front of other people… like Kirsty”, MacColl’s daughter from his second marriage. “She was absolutely brilliant but she shook live a leaf when she got up in front of people.” Folk music, learned by ear, presented no such fears.

So, Seeger knew the Lomaxes as a child, and figures such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie passed through the house, the roles and interests of both Charles and Pete coinciding in folk music. Elsabeth Cotten was a fixture, and it was from her that Peggy (and Mike) learned “Freight Train”, which Libba (as she was known) played left-handed on the Seeger family’s right-handed guitar. Years later, Seeger sang the song at the Breadbasket, a club on London’s Cleveland Street. “I have a snapshot in my head of Charles McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, sitting at my feet with their guitars, following. And I taught it to them. Then I went to China and when I came back they had copyrighted it and were collecting the royalties and had taken it to the top of the charts. We had to take them to court to get the money – I wasn’t claiming it, it was for Libba Cotten.”

Less judgmental than her late husband as to what is, and is not, “folk music”, Seeger is energised by its current broad sweep while worrying that “the plainness and simplicity” of much traditional music has disappeared. “The music of this country was unaccompanied for so long… The songs had a pulse and a heartbeat of their own and some of the renditions of folk music have rather too much accompaniment for my taste. But then I can’t afford to be a purist because I’m not the real thing myself”.

She is impressed by much of what she’s heard in the folk clubs – “and some of the best singers are ones whose names I can’t remember”. Some have described First Farewell as a folk album, “but there’s no folk song on it. There are a couple of songs that sound as if they might be – verse and chorus kind of stuff. I try not to venture into definitions of folk music! ‘Singer-songwriter’ covers a multitude of sins and I guess that’s what you call it.”

It’s a remarkable album, by turns playful and profound, its arrangements sometimes akin to art song and chanson. And it most certainly is not the album of an 85-year-old. “My voice is not what it used to be; it’s not as agile, not as pliable. I can’t go as high as I used to and I really miss some of the songs I used to sing because I can’t get through that bit in the middle that us women have,” Seeger explains. “But what I’ve discovered is the joy of singing in a lower register. From the F above middle-C to the C below middle-C, which is only an octave and a half but the feeling of it physically is quite wonderful, really it is. As for another album, I’m not sure how much further toward my boots my voice is going to go.” She hadn’t been sure she wanted to record this one, “but Calum, my second son, broached it and I dug my feet in and said no and he dug his feet in and said yes – and so it happened."

Whatever happens now, Peggy Seeger will continue to sing, and so should we all. “Remember to sing. No matter what you sing. Singing and making your voice vibrate through your body is an absolutely wonderful way of keeping your mental and physical health. Sing anything, make up something, improvise. No matter what. It’s part of what we should be doing everyday. And if you play a musical instrument, the action of the hand with the brain is what helps your memory. Music is magic.”

If you play a musical instrument, the action of the hand with the brain is what helps your memory. Music is magic

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