Peggy Seeger is one of those people who is impossible to describe adequately in a sentence. Songwriter, singer, musician, activist, stalwart of the British and American folk scenes, all words which may be accurate but hardly do justice to the inspiring person to whom I had the privilege of speaking.
Peggy was always surrounded by music when growing up. Her brothers, Pete and Mike, were extraordinary folk musicians. Her father, Charles, was a pioneering ethnomusicologist. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a remarkable composer of avant-garde classical music. Peggy describes how when her father used to come home from work in the evenings, Ruth would put the children to bed and play the piano for him. It was classical music in the evenings and folk music during the day, due to Ruth’s passion for notating folk music. Peggy cites folk music as having a growing influence on Ruth’s later compositions, remarking that “had she lived, her music would have been more listenable” than her more experimental earlier work.
There was never any pressure on Peggy to receive music lessons however; she only started piano lessons when she asked for them at the age of 6. The influence of classical music and the technical knowledge which came along with it are aspects of Peggy’s music making which make her work special. “I know what I’m writing,” she says, perhaps to an extent which is uncommon among songwriters.
Peggy started writing songs at the age of 23. Her explanation of what inspired her to write came in the form of two words – “Ewan MacColl”. Peggy and Ewan met in 1956, a meeting which would result in a long personal and musical partnership. One of her first songs and one of which she is particularly proud, The Ballad of Springhill, was about the terrible mining disaster that occurred in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in 1958, a verse of which was written by MacColl. The fact that some people now believe it to be a traditional song written by “the folk” is a great compliment, Peggy explains.
Peggy uses a wonderful phrase in relation to her song writing – “living at the same time as yourself.” Songs written from this perspective are songs to be used right now, songs which inspire you to “be involved” in the life around you. And something you can certainly say about Peggy Seeger is that she gets involved.
Often described an activist, Peggy has spent much of her life campaigning for change in a range of social issues. “Politics,” she says “is the science of human organisation.” As such, anything which affects community is political. Activism can therefore be thought of not only in the conventional sense of actively campaigning for change, but also encompasses the quieter things, like a mother teaching her child not to drop litter on the street. This passion for change is laid bare in many of Peggy’s songs, Song of Myself and Time to be Moving On to name two.
Peggy speaks fondly of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. While she was considered “too political” by some in the society at the time, Peggy emphasises how “[EFDSS was] intensely important … to keeping folk songs alive, songs from a culture who didn’t write things down. It’s amazing how many people in this country can stand up and sing 2-300 songs from memory.”
But the folk scene has changed a lot in recent decades. “Folk music is a much more viable discipline nowadays,” Peggy explains, citing the introduction of university degrees in folk music. There are also far more skilled players on the folk scene nowadays. It is important, however to balance the new levels of virtuosity and academic knowledge with the beautiful simplicity in which folk songs were collected. “Folk songs were made in simplicity,” says Peggy, “keep them in simplicity.” Keeping folk song simple, and keeping it portable, are two key aspects of folk music for Peggy. “Folk songs didn’t need to be plugged into the wall in the old days!”
Peggy Seeger returns to Cecil Sharp House on 15 September, joined by special guest Sam Gleaves.