Peggy Seeger – A life of music, love, and politics

1. 9. 2018 | Rubriky: Articles,Book reviews

Jean R. Freedman
University of Illinois Press

[by Ken Hunt, London] Peggy Seeger wrote an autobiographical self-portrait in song overnight between Sheffield and London in 1973. In the booklet notes to her CD, The Folkways Years 1955-1982, she clarified: “It was intended to answer those people who come up during the interval or after a concert, those who interview you on radio or want to do write-ups. It is an answer to the question about why a middle-class female from a comfortable background sings about working-class people and revolution.” In one discussion of ours – interviews have evolved into day-long or weekend-long conversations on occasion -, she expanded, “I get sick of it. God, you get sick of it! It’s like they have to hear you say what they have read already. You hear it on the radio in interviews. The interviewer asks a question and then you [did] ‘so and so and so’. The person says, ‘Oh yes, I did that.’ There’s got to be a better way of interviewing people against past events.”

Peggy Seeger: A life of music, love, and politics should help fend off inane lines of question. Jean Freedman “first met Peggy Seeger on an autumn evening in London in 1979” and hers is the first full-length biography of one of the most important, influential and eloquent musicians in folk and politically engaged song to emerge from the American and British folk scenes. A giant of the folk revival, in 1957 Seeger acted both as muse for one of the most popular and successful songs of recent times, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. By 1970 she was composing (the chords and major to minor flips merit the term composition) as well as writing one of the most truly enduring feminist anthems in Gonna Be An Engineer in 1970 (“And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need / To while away the extra time until the time to breed / And then they had the nerve to ask, what would I like to be? / I says, ‘I’m gonna be an engineer!‘”).

Positioned somewhere between authorized and approved biography, it is all the richer and informative for Seeger’s generous yet hands-off assistance. She granted, for example, access to cached private diaries that illuminate what was running through her head as events unfurled. Without implying that this was a kiss-and-tell tale, she surrendered intimate details like losing her virginity, flings, her sometimes fraught relationship with Ewan MacColl (with whom she had three children but did not marry until 1977), and the circumstances of forming her partnership with Irene Pyper-Scott, with whom she celebrated a civil partnership in 2006. She also allowed freedom to quote from revealing contemporaneous correspondence, notably with her father.

Peggy Seeger is a core member of what became North America’s First Family of Folk Music. The first generation were left-leaning liberals – the musicologist, composer and educationalist Charles Seeger (1886-1979) and his second wife, the musicologist and modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), nicknamed Dio. Both found their place and blossomed during the New Deal era. The next included Peggy, her older brother Mike, and her still older brother from her father’s first marriage, Pete Seeger. Of Pete, Freedman quotes Peggy as saying, “Other people correct me: ‘Oh, your half-brother’ . . . yeah, but he’s my brother.”

Margaret Seeger, straightaway called Peggy, was born in June 1935, the first daughter following four sons. She was the second child of Charles’s second marriage. (Charles’s oldest son by first wife, Constance, the poet Alan, author of I Have a Rendezvous with Death (about which I knew nothing), had died fighting at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.) Surprisingly, Peggy’s birthplace – Manhattan – goes unmentioned. Her father emerges as, at times, cringeworthily insensitive. She was named “after Margaret Taylor, a rich and beautiful woman he had loved in his youth”. Peggy quips, “As far as I know, my mother thought it was a hoot.” (In early 1955 this Margaret became Charles Seeger’s third wife after Dio’s death.)

The Seegers were a part of a nexus of influential individuals active on the East Coast folk music scene. Her mother taught the “bookish” Peggy to sight-read and transcribe music, skills that equipped her for later roles including arranging and writing parts for accompanists. During the 1940s into the 1950s the home was abuzz with notables including Hanns Eisler, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Alan Lomax and the older brother Pete. Even the housekeeper, Elizabeth ‘Libba’ Cotten, was a culture-changing guitarist, the composer of Freight Train, the chart-topping, copyright-contested skiffle mainstay which Peggy also recorded.

Peggy flourished in this milieu, but the political climate soured and a cold front descended. In late 1955 Peggy sailed for Europe where she enrolled at the University of Leiden. The turn of the year found her in a troupe led by a Flemish Catholic priest, Josef Ernst Vloeberghs, in ruin-strewn West Berlin. Alan Lomax, in self-imposed exile in London from McCarthyite blacklisting, made contact and on March 27, 1956 she arrived at Waterloo Station.

Her greatest life adventure was about to begin. Lomax’s plans included auditioning her for an “English Weavers, junior style” – the Weavers, among whose number was Pete Seeger, were the era’s folk music phenomenon. She passed. Already recruited for the Ramblers – a group on the cusp between skiffle and folk – was the playwright-musician known as Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), born James Henry Miller, then appearing as “the Street Singer in Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera at London’s Strand Theatre”.

Their attraction was mutual, and a “clandestine relationship” ensued. He was still married, with a small son Hamish, to his second wife Jean Newlove (the first was Joan Littlewood, the Stockwell-born theatre director, whose Theatre Workshop revolutionized British theatre). Newlove remains a shadowy figure and could have been fleshed out slightly more to the narrative’s advantage. The encounter with McColl proved the most pivotal and shaping meeting of Peggy’s life. Yet in December ;1956 she crossed the Atlantic again. MacColl kept in touch transatlantic telephone calls were prohibitively expensive but when he phoned on one occasion, she asked for “a short, new love song for an upcoming gig”. MacColl had composed Dirty Old Town to cover a scene change (MacColl JourneymanAn Autobiography 1990, revised 2009, 268) for Theatre Workshop’s Landscape with Chimneys (1951). (Dirty Old Town is missed out under songs in the index.) MacColl had the knack.

He wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for her. This song dared outrageously, for the times, to speak of physical intimacy. It was a song picked up on by the Canadian folksinger Bonnie Dobson. Talking in July 2018, she told me Gordon Lightfoot had admitted to nicking the song from her and teaching it to Harry Belafonte who passed it to Roberta Flack and into history. Many others sang it, including George Michael and Elvis Presley (who copped out, skipping the relationship’s progression to “the first time ever I lay with you” by repeating “the first time ever I kissed your mouth”), and it featured strongly in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me (1971). The success it brought transformed their lives and gave them time to get off the treadmill and take time to create in comfort, instead of the standard folk revival approach to making a living by live appearances especially on the nationwide folk club circuit. That one song’s royalties liberated MacColl and Seeger from the grind of touring.

Although their relationship remained tempestuous and trying, their musical bonds tightened, for example, through a series of BBC Home Service radio-ballads of extraordinary vigour broadcast from 1958 through to the 1960s. While stranded on the Continent when the Home Office “refused permission” for her to enter the UK and with a passport only valid for returning to the States, Seeger discovered she was pregnant. In January 1959 she married the Scottish folksinger Alex Campbell in Paris in order to get to London to be with MacColl. It turned out, however, that there would be two new MacColls born in 19599- Neill with Peggy and Kirsty with Newlove, with whom MacColl was still involved.

Three themes – music, love and politics – flow through this book. One facet that this biography also addresses though perhaps not sufficiently, is how Seeger was perceived. The Critics folk collective, co-led by MacColl and Seeger, was composed of MacColl adherents and acolytes, MacCollites for short. They engaged in constructive analysis (and recordings of ;such sessions exist) Marxist-style a former member, Brian Pearson, clarifies that this meant, “In practice, Ewan was more equal than the rest”. It got worse, he continues: “At the time, I felt Peggy to be even more of an ultra-Orthodox MacCollite than Ewan himself. She came across at times as rather severe and dogmatic and was fiercely protective of him and the ‘party line'” The Critics imploded rancorously, with a splinter group driven to “liberating” equipment in 1972.

It has to be said, MacColl and Seeger lived in a bubble of their ;own devising you could say they were blinkered. For many, that perception only really changed with her post-MacColl recordings and concerts. The trilogy of Heading For Home (2003), Love Call Me Home (2005) and Bring Me Home (2008), all covered in fine detail, shine. After MacColl’s death, Freedman quotes an insensitive “agent who seemed unfamiliar with Peggy’s work [.] who referred to her as a “remnant of a dead duo”.” Adversity made her stronger. She wore her erudition more lightly. She wrote a new generation of songs, sometimes with her sons Neill or Calum, often drawing on her life. “Everything Changes’, the last song belonging to that trilogy, lends its name to the biography’s penultimate chapter. She sings,

That was then

 Now it’s now

Everything changes

Somehow.” It takes guts to write something seemingly so simple.

Freedman’s Peggy SeegerA life of music, love, and politics is an even-handed and exemplary model of thorough research. Faber published Seeger’s autobiography in 2018. While writing it Peggy deadpanned drolly telling me her working title was First Time EverBack End of a Horse. She dumped the hind end. For far too long Seeger was perceived as the junior partner in one of the folk revival’s greatest partnerships. Now there are two major accounts of her music, loves and politics.

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