A folksinger is a guy who lies in bed all day and goes out at night to sing songs about work.”
That piece of drollness, though attributed by Sing Out! magazine to Peggy Seeger (“Not one of mine,” she says modestly), certainly does not apply to her personally. Her 50-plus year career in folk music, including 22 solo albums, dozens of performances on collaborative albums, more than 200 penned songs, and an infinite list of live performances, hardly puts her into the slacker category.
Peggy Seeger comes to Rider University’s Gill Chapel on Friday, March 30 at 8 p.m., as part of what is billed as her last American tour. This free concert is a joint presentation of the Princeton Folk Music Society and the university.
In folk music circles, Peggy Seeger’s name looms as large as her half-brother Pete and big brother Mike. The Seegers reign with the Guthries as the first families of Americana. Charles Seeger, the patriarch, was an ethno-musicologist and Peggy’s mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a avant-garde composer and the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship Award for music. She also was a foremost transcriber of American field recordings, and was instrumental in developing her stepson Pete’s interest in folk music, as well as Peggy’s and Mike’s.
Speaking on the phone from her home in England, Peggy is pleased that her mother’s place in music history has become more prominent in recent years.
“I think a lot of that is due to the feminist movement,” she says. “The feminist movement is always looking for women who have been marginalized or ignored, and that’s what happened to her in her lifetime. There was a program on the BBC in which the commentator actually said that if she had not been a woman, she would have been regarded as the main composer of modernist music of the 20th century. The real tragedy was that she died so early, at 53. Her 1950s compositions show a wonderful maturity from her work with folk music.”
Growing up in that musical household was a great gift. Peggy learned to transcribe music by age 11, studied guitar and piano, and traveled the world. Eventually, she mastered the five-string banjo, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer, and English concertina. She attended Radcliffe College, and then in 1955 she hitchhiked around Europe and went to Russia and China. “I was one of a delegation invited to China, but only 40 went because Christian Herter (then Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration) scared the life out of us. They threatened jail, no bail, lifetime bankruptcy, ruining the family.
Most everybody pulled out, but my father said, ‘Just go. It’s the chance of a lifetime.’ I only wish I had been older, instead of a wet-behind-the-ears American kid.”
The political climate in America being unwholesome for her (brother Pete had already been blacklisted), she ended up in England, where she married the singer/songwriter/playwright/political activist Ewan MacColl (see sidebar). It was for Peggy that he wrote his most famous song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Together, they developed the Radio Ballad form, which Peggy’s bio describes as “a tapestry of field recordings of speech and sound effects melded with new songs in the folk idiom.” They also collaborated on 14 folk albums, ran a political theater show, and formed a record company. Peggy also found time to start a new folk magazine. And all this while they raised their three children: Kitty, Neill, and Calum. Her sons have been playing music since their teens, and have backed up their mother on many albums.
Ewan MacColl died in 1989, but Peggy’s story was far from over. In 1994 she moved to Asheville, NC, where she lived until 2006, when she began teaching at Northeastern University in Boston. “I taught songwriting for two wonderful years,” she says. “I absolutely adored it, but it was a lot of work, correcting papers and giving reading lists. It interfered heavily with touring.”
Peggy moved back to England in 2010. “I’m 77, and I’ve lived 37 and a half years in England, so you do the math,” she says. “I feel I grew up in England from the age of 24 to the age of 60. That’s why I came back, because it feels like home. And the children and grandchildren are here.”
But not her wife. Peggy married Irene Pyper-Scott in England in 2006. Pyper-Scott lives in New Zealand. Says Peggy, “We’re still married; two different ways of life.” Although she contributed an essay to a volume “Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World,” Peggy eschews labels. “I’m not bisexual, I just happen to love a woman; I loved a man.”
Peggy maintains a schedule that would shame someone half her age. She continues to write and record. In the last four years, she has released two solo albums and one collaboration, “Fly Down Little Bird,” with her brother Mike who died in 2009. Her latest effort, “Peggy Seeger Live,” has just been released. It’s a combination of old and new songs, and her voice is as clear and warm as it was when she recorded her most famous song, “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” in 1969. She sings it on this album, along with folk standards like “Sally Goodin” and “Mountaineer’s Courtship.” But Peggy isn’t stuck in the past by any means.
“I published a songbook in 1998 that has 150 songs, and I’ve written about 70 songs since then. My latest one, written with my son Calum, is about the Titanic, since this is the ship’s centenary. It’s comparing the stupidity of the Titanic with our ships of state –– they keep going down, and keep doing silly things.”
It is hard to imagine that this will be the last time we in America will get to hear the treasure that is Peggy Seeger, but she is adamant on that point.
“It’s not age,” she is quick to point out. “Nothing bothers me about getting over here; nothing bothers me with driving. It’s fighting the airlines. It’s battling to get an instrument on board, landing somewhere and having to yank everything onto a shuttle bus and the shuttle bus drops you miles away from the car is, and you’ve got a banjo, a guitar, a heavy suitcase, and a wheeled briefcase and you have to get yourself around. And the last time I did that I said ‘No more.’”
It’s an unusual speech for Peggy, who is anything but a complainer. Her more characteristic mantra is more like this:
“I was unbelievably lucky. I had two parents who gave me a classical education. I had older brothers who shared and who taught me. I’ve had two wonderful life partners, one of each sex. Just tremendous luck. I’ve been lucky all my life, and I still am.”
The last song on Peggy Seeger Live is her own “Everything Changes”, and the last line is, “Mama, it’s late, please call me home.” Just not too soon, we hope.
Peggy Seeger, Princeton Folk Music Society, Gill Chapel, Rider University, Lawrenceville 0848. Concert featuring Pete Seeger’s half sister. Note unusual location and free admission. 8 p.m. 609-799-0944. www.princetonfolk.org.
#b#What Brought Peggy Seeger To London?#/b#
The United States’ hostility toward left-leaning politics didn’t drive Peggy Seeger to London voluntarily. Having traveled to Moscow and China against the State Department’s wishes, Seeger was told that her U.S. passport would be revoked if she returned to the U.S., so instead she headed to Europe.
In 1956 she was singing and playing the banjo in London when Ewan MacColl saw her and fell in love. One problem: MacColl was married at the time, to Jean Newlove, whom he promptly left to be with Seeger.
But Seeger soon had a problem of her own: in 1958 her permit to work in the United Kingdom expired and she faced deportation. Seeger and MacColl’s solution was a marriage of convenience –– between Seeger and folk singer and friend Alex Campbell –– in Paris on January 24, 1959, that allowed Seeger to gain British citizenship and remain in the country. At the time of the ceremony, Seeger was seven months pregnant with MacColl’s baby.
Seeger returned to London the following day and settled down with MacColl, whom she finally married in 1977 after his divorce from Newlove.