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This article by Richard J. Skelly
was prepared for the March 13, 2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Seeger Family Songbook
Now recognized in folk music circles around the world
as one of the premier feminist singer-songwriters, Peggy Seeger,
to Pete, says she didn’t start out that way. She fell into the
camp by accident, she says, on the strength of her song, "I’m
Gonna Be An Engineer," which she wrote in 1970.
At 66, Seeger is well preserved, judging by the photo on the cover
of one of her recent CDs, "Period Pieces: Women’s Songs For Men
and Women." When I tell her this, she laughs and says that’s
her mother, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, used to say.
In a phone call from her son Calum’s house outside London last week,
Seeger kept shooting out these one-liners, never laughing at her own
quick wit. She was in England on a promotional tour for the
songbook written by her late husband, Ewan MacColl (Oak Publications).
Her own songbook and MacColl’s are meant to go together as a pair,
she says, though his weighs four pounds while hers only weighs in
at only three-and-a-half.
For an example of her humor, consider how she describes meeting
when she was just 21 years old.
"It was March 25th, 1956, at 10:30 in the morning," she says.
"Poor man, he never really had a chance, did he? He was 40, but
he told me he was 39, and I was 21, and he was at the age for an older
man to fall in love with a younger woman."
After all, it was Seeger who inspired MacColl to write one of the
great love songs of all time, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your
Face." The song became a huge hit for Roberta Flack in the early
1970s. Others who recorded the song with varying degrees of success
through the years include Elvis Presley, Englebert Humperdinck, Joan
Collins, Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion, and George Michael.
"The irony is that not one of them sings the first line as Ewan
made it," says Seeger, and she proceeds to sing the introduction
over the phone from London. Ask her after the show, and she’ll sing
it for you, too.
With MacColl and others, Seeger has recorded nearly
100 albums of traditional and self-penned folk songs. Her professional
career, such as it is in folk music, is now in its sixth decade.
Peggy Seeger was born in New York and grew up in Washington, D.C.
Her older half brother Pete was the child of Charles Seeger, an
and Constance. When her father remarried, this time to Ruth Crawford,
they had four children: Peggy, Mike, Barbara, and Penny Seeger. Peggy
was born in New York and raised in Washington, D.C. Peggy began
piano at age 6, guitar at 13, banjo at 15, autoharp at 23 or 24,
then, when I was pregnant with my second child at 28, I took up the
English concertina. Then I took up the dulcimer. I took them up kind
of one at a time," she says.
"I began making money from music when I was at college, 18 and
19. I didn’t really want to be a musician for a living, and like a
lot of college kids, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I
I didn’t want to be a musician because I felt that sometimes people
who do what they love for a living, they lose the love of it."
She then pauses for a moment to think. "But I haven’t. I haven’t
lost the love of it."
Growing up, she took her earliest inspiration from Pete and her
Ruth Crawford Seeger, whose classical compositions were, sadly,
recognized only posthumously.
"There was hardly anything happening around D.C., but folksingers
dropped in, people like Jean Ritchie, Bess Lomax, Alan Lomax, Woody
Guthrie, Leadbelly, John Jacob Niles, Guy Carawan and later, Jack
Elliott," she says. "We were kind of a posting station between
the south and New York," she says. Legendary blues and folk singer
Elizabeth Cotten worked as a maid in the Seeger household. Her father
brought Cotten’s music to the attention of Lomax, who helped launch
a career that lasted well into her 80s. Cotten died in 1987.
It was while Peggy Seeger was at Radcliffe in the early ’50s that
she became a "Pete Seeger wannabe," she says, "because
essentially it was the folk scene there that got my self-confidence
going and started me off as a musician. I led the singing every Friday
night for two years at the International House on campus." Midway
through her sophomore year, she dropped out.
"I wanted to major in music, but you weren’t allowed to take many
courses in your major until your junior year. The first course I had
to take was music appreciation and I yawned my way through that
I’m not boasting, I literally knew it all, I was brought up by two
classical musicians," she says, "and I was given good music
theory and harmony and all that stuff by the time I was 10. But I
took a course in harmony my second year at Radcliffe and I just adored
After dropping out of college, the young Seeger headed first for her
older brother’s house and then headed for Europe in 1954.
"I ended up in Denmark in the cold of March, when I got a phone
call from Alan Lomax, who was in England at the time, and said they
needed a female who could play the banjo on a TV version of `Dark
Of The Moon.’ And I took that long trip around by ship and went to
England, and that’s when I met Ewan MacColl."
Seeger was MacColl’s second wife, and they worked together for 30
years. They lived in Beckenham, a London suburb, and had three
all talented musicians. When MacColl developed cardiac problems in
1979, she cared for him until his death in 1989. She was heart-broken
to realize she couldn’t get much work around England without him
the bill. And every place she did find a gig, she recalled the time
she’d spent in that part of England with him. She realized the best
thing for her would be to go back to America. Her brother Mike, who
lives in Virginia, recommended Asheville, North Carolina. She lives
there with her partner, Irene Scott, when she’s not on the road.
Seeger says she developed into a `feminist’ singer-songwriter quite
by accident and feels she’s had a great career thanks to the path
her older brother Peter forged in the world of folk music.
"The feminist thing started for me in 1970," she explains,
when she and husband MacColl were working on a dramatic work to be
performed in a large pub in London.
"Ewan and I used to do this every year, it was a contemporary
drama documentary about the year’s news events. In 1970, it happened
to be `The Year of the Woman,’" she recalls. "Women were being
celebrated and Ewan didn’t have time to write a song to go with the
skit he was writing. So I sat down and wrote a song, `Gonna Be An
Engineer,’ and it rolled out as if I had been a lifelong feminist.
"Nothing in the song I thought had ever applied to me, but then
the feminists began to get hold of me and they began inviting me to
their events and their festivals and concerts and I found I had no
songs to go with it," she says.
In the 1970s, Seeger began doing research on women in
folk song, and was amazed to find out how much she didn’t know. That
gave rise to "Period Pieces: Women’s Songs for Men and Women,"
an excellent 1998 anthology that includes her other songs from a
point of view, like "Nine Month Blues." "Reclaim The
"R.S.I.," and "Woman On Wheels."
She developed her singing presentation into a lecture as well. Since
moving to Asheville in 1994, Seeger has traveled around the United
States her three-hour lecture on women in folk song and performing,
sometimes both on the same night.
"I didn’t lecture much in England, Ewan did the talking, because
he was very good at it, and I was lazy, I let him. But I absorbed
more than I thought I did," she says.
"The lecture that I got my hands on and started thinking about
was looking at the folk songs and the ways women are portrayed in
them, and I was horrified to think about how the women were
murdered, raped, sold away, talked about disparagingly, and came off
as not very clever, or if they did come off as clever, every single
song where women were the center of the action, it involved men, love,
children, and family."
"And maybe this is not such a bad thing, maybe this is the way
the world should be, if we all stayed home and minded the kitchen
hearth, maybe we wouldn’t have so many wars," she says, as an
Seeger also sings songs about every subject under the sun: animals,
murder, hormones, children, ecology, peace mongering, and smoking,
among them. She is the embodiment of a topical singer-songwriter.
She calls herself "a song maker" and she travels with a tape
deck, a rhyming dictionary, and a thesaurus. As she does, she exudes
the same child-like sense of wonder about the world and the energy
of her brother Pete.
"One of the most recent topical songs I’ve written is about
Crowe, a woman from Northampton who is 82, 4 foot 11, who has been
a peace activist all her life," she says. "I read about her
and thought I’d love to write a song about her." She spent four
or five hours talking with Crowe and went ahead. "That song ended
up being nearly nine minutes long, but that’s just one way of writing
Seeger acknowledges that there are two songs she cannot leave the
stage without singing. One is "I’m Gonna Be An Engineer,"
her song about a girl who wants to grow up and make a career out of
that famously male-dominated occupation; the other is the "Ballad
of Spring Hill" about Nova Scotia miners.
When I suggest she’s as much of a master at reading her audiences
as is her older brother Pete, Seeger disagrees. "I’ve had an easy
road, you know, I started with a name that was made for me by my big
brother," she says. "But you do get a sense of the audience
even before you get on stage.
"It’s a contract you enter into with the people that come to the
concert: You think, I don’t know what they want, but I want to enjoy
myself, I’ll see if this one pleases them. One of the things I’ve
learned is to start out with laughter, or, if not laughter, to make
them feel very deeply at the beginning. In other words, feel something
enough to make them respond viscerally. Once you do that, it opens
up channels," she adds.
— Richard J. Skelly
Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, 609-799-0944. The legendary
folkster. $12 at the door. Friday, March 15, 8:15 p.m.
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