INTERVIEW: Peggy Seeger | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Seeger family’s songs and social philosophies have been making folk music history for over 100 years. Peggy Seeger is a formidable woman whose wry humour and unflinching fervour are a force to be reckoned with. Her career spans seven decades and her unyielding zeal to the causes she so passionately pursues, from civil and women’s rights to eco-activism and international disarmament, is truly tangible.

The legendary performer is lauded for her ability to initiate change through her music and her ardent assiduity is driven by a determination that positively pulsates.

At 86 years old, Peggy is touring the UK once again and she’ll be performing at Gosforth Civic Theatre on Thursday 10th March. She previously recorded here with Birtley’s coal-mining family, the Elliots, in 1961. She admits: “I was gobsmacked to first hear a North East accent. It was like a kind of music. When I am touring, I see all kinds of old friends coming up to the signing table. This is my First Farewell tour and I am performing with my son Calum who at 59 has released his first ever album, About Time. I absolutely love it!”

Peggy’s life is so fascinating and remarkable it has been documented and discussed for decades, including in her memoir First Time Ever. “I had an extraordinary upbringing. If I am in any way unique, I was brought up with two parameters – classical and folk. Classical is the music of the elite. In the middle are other styles of which I know very little. But then you have folk – the music of the working class. I am not a folk singer. I inform my music with my classical. I am heavy on words and melody and light on harmony and rhythm.”

Peggy plays the five-string banjo, guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, autoharp, English concertina and piano. “At six I began to learn the piano from my mother. Unfortunately, it’s about all I can manage to play these days as my fingers are crippled with arthritis and after years of writing my memoir, I can no longer play how I want to.”

Peggy’s latest album First Farewell features a witty final track about getting younger by the hour called Gotta Get Home By Midnight. It features Peggy’s nimble guitar fingerpicking and whilst chatting Peggy effortlessly begins to play the piano, so although her struggle is real it is not evident to the listener.

I am not writing so many protest songs these days. We are up against a brick wall. We have a government who is getting away with lies and more lies. Instead, we must focus our energy all over the country on helping each other do things that the government is refusing to do

The Seeger household throughout Peggy’s childhood was brimming with folk musicians such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and John Jacob Niles. She says: “My father, Charles, became part of what were almost Dickensian communities where he recorded folk songs. He helped to develop a huge archive.”

Although Peggy lost her mother at 18 years old, she proudly states: “My mother was amazing.” Ruth Seeger translated many of the songs for the pioneering folklorists, John and Alan Lomax. Together they preserved roots music and put the Archive of American Folk Song on the map. Peggy says: “I remember listening to the lyrics they brought back with them – murder ballads, songs about men who had murdered their lovers and chain-gang songs. We played 16” records made of aluminium with a needle made from an actual thorn and we were there in the corner whilst they were working.”

The ‘we’ she is referring to are her brothers, Mike Seeger, an accomplished musician and prominent folklorist and half-brother, Pete Seeger, without whom the folk revival of the 1960s is inconceivable. It is no surprise that Peggy remains a persistent political activist. She was born during The Great Depression when folk music began to become enmeshed with social activism, and Communism was viewed as a possible better system against a backdrop of severe economic hardship and inequality. By the 1950s, left-leaning singers’ lives became difficult because of the influence of McCarthyism and Peggy took a trip to the 1957 Moscow Festival of World Democratic Youth before travelling on to China. The US revoked Peggy’s passport but Peggy says: “The US did keep trying to get me to come back.”

Peggy first came to the UK in the 1950’s and it was here she began her infamous affair with folk singer and songwriter, Ewan MacColl. He was a political polemicist, wrote many left-wing songs and made 40 albums with Peggy. They were key players in the English folk music revival and were married until his death in 1989. To say Peggy speaks her mind is an understatement but her intentions are truthful, concerned and genuine. She sings about the issues that trouble the world and says: My songs are very different from each other. You have to keep ringing the changes.”

The First Farewell album is powerful, personal and political and Peggy’s recent single, The Invisible Woman, spotlights the way in which society marginalises its older generations. Peggy explains: “I have written 200 songs and they are published in the Peggy Seeger Song Book. There is a warts and all version but the publishers took out all the warts!”

Peggy amuses herself in the fact that innuendo and inference encourage audiences to listen more to lyrics. “I like to introduce the song in a way that entices audiences. People sit on the fence. A song title such as Lubrication on my latest album is a way of getting people to listen to a song. For many it has sexual connotations but then it turns out I’m talking about tectonic plates,” she laughs before adding: “You can also get audiences with an ear worm. Even if they don’t know what it’s about, entice them with a catchy tune.”

Many of Peggy’s songs became anthems for women’s rights including I’m Gonna Be An Engineer and Carry Greenham Home, but she explains: “I am not writing so many protest songs these days. We are up against a brick wall. We have a government who is getting away with lies and more lies. Instead, we must focus our energy all over the country on helping each other do things that the government is refusing to do.”

One thing for sure is that Peggy Seeger continues to live a life less ordinary, with more chapters to be written and more political fights to be won.

Peggy Seeger and Calum MacColl play Gosforth Civic Theatre, Newcastle on Thursday 10th March.


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