THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
The American Interview: Peggy Seeger
She’s often been described as “the half sister of folk musician, songwriter and activist of Pete Seeger”. Or as “the wife of folk musician, songwriter and activist Ewan MacColl”. But don’t define her by her men. Her own life and career stand on their own merits. Here’s our interview with folk musician, songwriter and activist, Peggy Seeger.
The American’s interviews usually start with some history about the subject’s background back in the States, and their family, before talking about their career, but that seems impossible with you, Peggy. They’re all intertwined.
That’s true, kind of. People often say we’re a musical family but there are 110 of us. The musical ones probably number about a dozen, and maybe only about six did it for a living. Let me think about what the great-grandchildren are doing ...one makes dulcimers, there are a two rock musicians. Others play informally. There were my brothers Pete and Mike, my sister Penny, my mother and father of course.
Your mother - Ruth Crawford Seeger, known as Dio - was a classical composer?
Yes, and every now and then people contact me about her. For example in Brighton on November 17th they’re playing one of her pieces and they asked if I’d like to go down and hear it played – you bet I would! [It’s part of Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers at St George’s Church, Brighton; find details at musicofourtime.co.uk]. She died before she – or anybody – realized how good she was. She died very young, at 53. Every time I mention it my heart hurts. Anybody with that amount of potential! And that amount of musical knowledge - she had the classical, and the folk. And I suspect she had been a flapper in her time, before she met my father who straightened her out [laughs]. Her music is very strange and modernistic. Some of it is quite uncomfortable to listen to. But she really understood folk music. It was through her composing that she got together with my father, but it didn’t bring in money, he called it ‘music for musicians’ and felt that it didn’t have public appeal. It was the time of the Great Depression. He got a job with WPA [the Works Progress Administration, the largest agency of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal]. There was a wonderful book about him and that project. He traveled around the States collecting folk music. The idea was to show people how wonderful their own music was, and that they should ‘stay home and do it’ - they didn’t need to go traipsing across the prairies looking for something when they had it there. It was part of tying people to their own land.
So there was a sociological reason for it, not just collecting old songs for the sake of it?
Oh yes! And that’s how the Library of Congress Archives started, and my father was a major part of it. When he got together with my mother in 1929 they were dead poor, he was coaching her in modern music, very out there. They were trying to create an ‘American sound’, and in actual fact an American sound was to be found in folk music, not in what a few classical composers were trying to create. He opted out of that before she did, to make a living. As a composer he was a bit wishy-washy, my mother was the real smart one. She was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed her just enough money to go to Europe to study but not enough for food and clothing, which ruined her health.
Pete was born in 1919, and when he was 18 or so he was at Harvard. But after two years he left to go on the road with Woody Guthrie. I was at Radcliffe, the female college with Harvard, and I left after two years to go to Holland ‘cos the money ran out.
You and Pete don’t come from a log cabin up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. How did you come to be such authentic folk musicians?
Hmmm, if you ask one of the ‘authentic’ people they’d say no, I’m not. And there are also people from the Appalachians who disdain singing folk songs, who went to pop and jazz, because they felt it was low class music. So often the influence of what comes from outside swamps what you have yourself. I do it to try to keep it alive, I’m middle class, singing working class music. People ask me why, and it’s because in America there’s not a whole lot of working class people singing this music. They’re ‘hard times songs’, they weren’t written by rich landowners or aristocracy, they were by people who lived hard. When I sing songs I learned as a child, I remember really well the sound of the person who sang it.
What drew you and Pete and your other siblings to play folk music?
In 1921, my father decided he needed to build a rickety trailer and take his wife and three little children, Charles, John and little Pete, ages 7, 5 and 2, down to the South to play classical music to the ‘unlettered hinds’ in the mountains. What you see and hear at those young ages makes a huge impression on you – it was the same for me when my mother transcribed recordings, putting folk songs she and my father collected for the Library of Congress onto paper – I heard the actual people singing, I didn’t get it from books, so it’s possible I’m more authentic than Peter, Paul and Mary, who learned their songs from Pete Seeger, who learned a lot of his from various middle class people who went down to the South in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and from books. I don’t think he heard a lot from the recordings, I really don’t. Pete sang a lot of folk songs when I was a kid, but he stopped when he started making up songs himself.
Your home attracted a lot of interesting visitors – people like John and Alan Lomax [who recorded folk and blues songs in the field for the Library of Congress], Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott...
Woody and Leadbelly only visited once that I remember, and I don’t remember either of them having their guitar out, but Alan Lomax turned up with a lot of songs, and Pete did – he’d play them for us when we were little kids. He held me in his arms when I was 6 months old, and now I’m holding babies in my arms whose grandparents I held when they were babies. That’s mindblowing!
So, I heard the so-called lowest form of music to the so-called high class music. The stuff in the middle, I didn’t hear. I didn’t go to the dances as I didn’t like the games, they were misogynistic, and I didn’t have a radio.
If you hadn’t had that grounding, what might your life have been like?
I can’t imagine that happening. But my sister Barbara, when she read my autobiography [First Time Ever] said, ‘Did we grow up in the same house? We remember things so differently. She calls herself ‘the white sheep of the family’ which is really lovely.
Folk songs can and do evolve over time, but in your memoir you explain how some people get very upset if you change a word, or a chord, or even one note.
That was my brother Mike. Take English folk music. For centuries it was sung unaccompanied. Accompanying it was probably the biggest thing that happened, because immediately you latch it into rhythm singing instead of pulse singing. Instruments give it a rhythm, and they also dictate the harmonies. Sometimes you’d have a melody that doesn’t fit the harmony, so they’d change a note in the tune. And some people don’t really listen to what the melody really is, they’ll hear it a couple of times then sing it. They move it to their own comfort zone. You only have to hear what’s become of ‘First Time Ever’. [sigh] That’s not the tune Ewan wrote. There’s only one line in common with what he wrote.
The first time you heard ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ was over a transatlantic phone call, wasn’t it?
Yes, and it was pretty tinny.
Ewan wrote it for you, didn’t he?
Well, that’s what he said. I’d certainly never heard him sing it before.
And is it true that he never sang it again, after you did?
To my knowledge. But he sang it to me in the January or February of 1957 when I was in Chicago. It was six months before I came back to England so I can’t believe he wouldn’t have sung it somewhere else. He was singing on radio and in clubs, so somewhere there may be a recording of Ewan MacColl singing ‘First Time Ever’. I would love to hear it. It would have been unaccompanied, and it would probably would have been achingly passionate.
Did the way that Roberta Flack sang it offend Ewan, or you?
No, but we couldn’t figure out why it had been levelled out. It’s quite intricate, the way Ewan wrote it. It’s bird singing, and it’s kind of been changed to molasses singing. Both are valid for the singer who does it but we thought it had lost its ‘specialness’. Roberta milks it - but she milks it well. We didn’t like it when we first heard it, but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s sure better than the ways a lot of people do it. And I collect the royalties, so that’s nice [laughs].
Do people still get upset about changes to folk songs nowadays?
Well I do. I don’t know if Martin Carthy or Norma Waterson do, they don’t speak ill of anybody. I try not to – I can do it, but generally it’s in private. But our music, Anglo-American music, is based on words and melody, and when you have harmony and rhythm that completely swamps the song, I get angry. I’m an educated, classical musician, so I’m bound to change things, I can’t help it. I don’t want to be an imitator, but I sing in the folk idiom well, I think. I can tell when people are really concentrating on what they’re singing rather than pushing their own ego. I know what it is to push your own ego, because I’ve done it... but generally on my own songs, not on the folk songs.
You play a lot of instruments including guitar, banjo, piano, dulcimer. When you’re writing your own songs, does the song demand a particular instrument?
Usually when I move into a new song I find out what instrument it wants to go with. I’m most at home at the piano. There’s no favorite, they do different things.
Most people would call everything you do ‘folk’ but to you folk music is the original material?
Oh yes, I like to keep them separate. People ask me what I sing, and I say American traditional songs, songs that I make up myself, and songs that other people have made up.
Would you say that Scottish and Irish music survived better than English?
Yes, that’s because they were colonized and they resented the English. Keeping their own music was part of that, of keeping their culture. When I first came to England in 1956 everybody here, including Ewan, was singing American songs. That’s what skiffle was – they were all trying to be American. It was terribly funny to me. All these songs that I grew up with being sung with Cockney vowels at top speed and no understanding of where they came from. After I came here permanently in 1959 Ewan and I started the Singers Club with Alan Lomax and we had a policy that everyone sang songs from their own culture.
We haven’t talked about how you and Ewan met. You had adventures in Europe including helping save a ‘little flock’ of children from an orphanage in post-war Berlin, and I believe you were going to travel to Finland but some friends told you it would be even colder there. What did they call England?
It was more ‘why nottish’.
Then everything changed when you met Ewan?
Yes, but everyone thinks we were a great romantic love couple, and we weren’t. A romantic love couple is when both are head over heels in love with each other and it works. I loved him, indeed I did, but he was infatuated as well as love. Infatuation dies at a point and there were possibly times in our thirty years together that he wished to hell he could get out. [laughs]. And I was very obstreperous. But the older man feels good having a young woman on his arm, and I kept myself well, I looked good, I didn’t go to overweight and I always looked a bit younger than my age, which he liked. We fitted together well, the music was absolutely fabulous and the life was fabulous. It wasn’t a great love affair though, it was a great working twosome, and we had three lovely children.
Ewan had been married twice before, hadn’t he?
The first time was for convenience, so that Joan Littlewood and he could get a visa to go to Russia. That didn’t work out but they found themselves married. He was a serial romanticist, he loved being in love and I think he loved Jean Newlove, his second wife. She was a lovely dancer and she was really good looking and had her own dance company. When I met them they’d been married about ten years and she had let herself go to seed although she was only 31. Ewan was 41, and I was 21. There had already been infidelities on both sides. He didn’t have a chance to be unfaithful with me though, we were together 24/7. Ours was a very fruitful relationship and I miss him every day, even though I have a lovely relationship now.
You’ve made the decision not to record any more albums, although you’re still touring and singing live. Why’s that?
I’ve always had a ‘character’ voice, it’s not a sweet natural voice like Joan Baez. But I don’t think it’s good enough now. I love singing and talking to an audience though, and answering their questions.
Some voices seem to go to your head, making you think about things. Some go to the heart, more emotional. But some do something different, going straight to your soul.
That’s when the mind and heart are working together.
On some of your songs you do that, connecting with the listener directly, like Billie Holiday.
Wow. It’s the highest compliment you can get, that somebody has the feeling that they can think and feel at the same time. I guess it’s because I get so much from other people’s lives. I sometimes use the actual words of people, like Jimmy Massey who left the Marines when he couldn’t put up with what he was asked to do in Iraq. When I wrote his song it helped him.
One last question: what’s the best thing about being Peggy Seeger?
Oh, what a question! Do you mean what I’m most grateful for?
It could be that. What comes first into your head?
Oh dear, that’s a weird one. You could ask what’s the worst thing, that might be easier to answer. I suppose the best thing is that I’ve been privileged from the time I was born. I was born into a functional family. My parents were interesting. My childhood was peaceful and free. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate, there have been no horrible things that have happened to me that I haven’t done myself. I don’t know what ‘being Peggy Seeger’ is, I mean I don’t know how to be anybody else. On the whole I’m a happy person and if I was told I was going to die tomorrow I could be peaceful.
You can read more of Peggy’s stories about traveling around Europe as a young woman, going out on the road in America on a tiny scooter, and a life driven by love, politics and music in her wonderfully entertaining, candid book, First Time Ever: A Memoir, out now in paperback, published by Faber & Faber.
You can purchase the book and First Time Ever: Songs From A Memoir, the double CD that accompanies it with songs chosen by Peggy, at her website, www.peggyseeger.com
Also see Peggy on tour this Fall, with stops at Kelso (November 9), Edinburgh (November 10), Milngavie (November 11), Lewes (November 29) and Bath (November 30). See Peggy's website for more details.