Peggy Seeger

TrackAlbum
The House CarpenterFolk Songs Of Courting And Complaint
I Never Will MarryPeggy Seeger
The Ballad Of SpringhillThe New Briton Gazette
I'm Gonna Be An EngineerDifferent Therefore Equal
Thoughts Of TimeFrom Where I Stand
Jellon GraemeThe Folkways Years 1955-1992
Pretty SaroThe Folkways Years 1955-1992
EmilyAn Odd Collection
Everything ChangesEverything Changes
Swim To The StarEverything Changes

Peggy Seeger photo 1

 

 

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Peggy Seeger playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

The songs: I am theirs and they are mine while I’m here. I call them mine since I have nurtured them like children and brought them forth with me in time. Like my physical children, they form my core. I revel in them, tasting the words as I sing, entering earlier eras and other people’s lives.” Peggy Seeger

Like her brother Mike, Peggy Seeger grew up in an extremely musical family (for a more detailed account of the Seeger family’s background, see Peggy’s recent autobiography, “First Time Ever”, which is highly recommended as is the biography of Peggy by Jean R. Freedman). Indeed, their parents, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, had both begun their careers as classical composers. However, for a variety of reasons (both practical and political) from the mid-1930s onwards, both Seeger parents began to develop a new interest in exploring and preserving American folk music. This new-found interest also meant that they began to seek out Old Time musicians from whom they could hope to learn more about their individual styles and manner of playing. As a result, while Mike and Peggy grew up surrounded by music of all kinds, folk music was at the very centre of their upbringing. Unlike Mike, Peggy’s early immersion in that music did not lead her to become a strict traditionalist in later years. Early in her career, she identified herself as being at a midway point “between the ‘raw’ material of rural folk song and the ‘consciously polished’ material of its urban adaptation”. This meant that she was willing to sing in her own style, while at the same time maintaining a clear respect for those artists whom she had heard first singing those songs that she covered. In her autobiography, she stresses that she “didn’t try to copy” the older singers, but instead sang folk songs primarily for “the story, the makers … [and] the actual words”.

Instrumentally, she also resembled Pete far more than Mike, in that she tended to adapt the songs to her own style rather than vice versa as did the latter. Like Mike, however, over her career she became adept at a wide range of instruments including banjo, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer and concertina. Given her family background – and the inspiration provided by her older half-brother, Pete – it was hardly surprising that Peggy embarked on a music career at a very young age. She made her first album, Folk Songs Of Courting And Complaint, when she was only 19 and a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What is striking about the record now is the maturity of her playing and the fact that her voice has a ‘pure’ quality rather than the grainy and gritty character which it acquired in later years. From it, I have chosen The House Carpenter for inclusion. The song itself is a very old one (some scholars date its origins to the seventeenth century) with a strong supernatural element. It also has that dramatic and striking quality which is characteristic of the very best folk ballads. While many fine singers have recorded it (including Bob Dylan, Bert Lloyd, Joan Baez and Peter Bellamy), Seeger’s version of it remains among the very best and shows her early mastery of the art of singing long narrative ballads.

My second choice, I Never Will Marry, is a Carter Family song which they first recorded in 1933. Its origins, however, are a good deal older than this, with their song being based on a previous one, The Lover’s Lament For Her Sailor. It had first been printed more than a century earlier. Again, Peggy’s voice on this version – which comes from her 1957 album, Peggy Seeger – has a crystal purity which she rarely attained (or, perhaps, wished to attain) later in her life.

 

Peggy Seeger photo 3

A major turning point in Peggy Seeger’s life had come the year before when she had her first meeting with Ewan MacColl, He was then a key figure in the early stages of the British version of the ‘Folk Revival’. He was also considerably older than Seeger and at that stage was far more established as an artist. That meeting eventually led to an enormously productive relationship – both personal and musical – that lasted until MacColl’s death in 1989. In a sense, their partnership bridged the divide between the British and American wings of the Revival movement. Also, the combination of their individual strengths as artists (MacColl’s frequent brilliance as a songwriter and Seeger’s strengths as a singer, accompanist and arranger) helped inspire a burst of creativity on both of their parts. This burst produced both the classic Radio Ballads programmes first heard on BBC radio in 1958 and a long series of other joint albums which featured both traditional songs and their own compositions (their joint work will be considered in more detail in a later Toppermost).

Their relationship also gave a new impetus to Seeger’s own songwriting. One of the first indications of this was the classic song, The Ballad Of Springhill, which she wrote in 1958. Although MacColl added an extra verse of his own to it, to all intents and purposes the song was hers. It came to her while watching a rescue mission for miners trapped after an earthquake in the Springhill mine in Nova Scotia, Canada. Although ninety-nine miners were rescued from the pit, seventy-four others died. The song itself has a sharp political edge which was new in Seeger’s work. Indeed, the opening lines have a concise and stark quality which even she, perhaps, never equalled:

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia
Deep in the heart of the Cumberland Mine
There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie
In roads that never saw sun nor sky

Here’s the original version from Peggy and Ewan …

… while, for the sake of comparison, here is the classic version from the Dubliners:

My next choice, I’m Gonna Be An Engineer, was Seeger’s most direct engagement with the women’s movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s up to that point in her career. It was written for the 1971 Festival of Fools, which was largely organised by the Critics Group, in which both she and MacColl were key members. In its musical style, the song owes a good deal to Pete Seeger’s example, but the lyric was far more original and opened a new field for Peggy’s writing, which she has gone on to explore further in the remainder of her career. Its continuing relevance has also been shown by the ways in which the song has been adapted since to apply to other occupations. The lyric also remains notable for its sly wit and razor-sharp critique of the restricted roles which were available to women at that time. Here’s a later live performance:

Among the other key elements in Seeger’s later work are reflections on memory and the ageing process and the effects both had on her close relationships. Thoughts Of Time – the next selection – is, perhaps, her most haunting song on those themes. It was also written at a time when Ewan MacColl – who was a good deal older than Seeger – was already beginning to suffer from poor health. It is also one of the few Seeger songs to have something of a country flavour.

Along with her growing prowess as a songwriter, Peggy Seeger continued to be a first-rate interpreter of folk songs. I have chosen two of the best of her later versions of such songs for inclusion. The first, Jellon Graeme, is a Child ballad, which tells a rather brutal and bloodthirsty story about the murder of a woman. There is also a ‘revenge’ element to the song, which has an unusual twist to it at the end. The version I have chosen is a live one, which shows Peggy’s brilliance as a banjo player and her mastery of the art of singing narrative song.

The next selection, Pretty Saro, has Peggy and Ewan’s son Calum – an accomplished musician in his own right – playing tin whistle accompaniment on the track. Pretty Saro is a beautiful American ballad, which has been recorded by numerous other artists. These include Bob Dylan, who recorded a particularly good and superbly sung version for the original Self Portrait. It was, however, not included on that record and was only officially released on Another Self Portrait in the Bootleg series in 2013. Despite such heady competition, Seeger’s version has considerable merits of its own. It is a particularly striking example of the suppleness and flexibility in Seeger’s voice and her ability to inhabit the characters of the people she sings about in the songs she covers.

In my opinion, the next selection, Emily, is Seeger’s finest song. She first recorded it as an unaccompanied track on her and MacColl’s 1978 album, Hot Blast. The version I have chosen, though, is taken from her 1996 solo album, An Odd Collection. The minimalist backing in this rendition only accentuates the unsettling depiction of an abusive relationship. Seeger based the song on conversations she had with an Irish woman at a Women’s Refuge in Sydenham. This may partially account for the stark matter of fact way in which the central relationship in it is described. If so, it only adds further power to what can only be described as a stunning song.

My last two choices are taken from Seeger’s 2011 album, Everything Changes. It is, arguably, her finest solo album and was the first to be made with a dedicated group of musicians. These included her son Calum on guitar, Simon Edwards on bass and Martyn Baker on drums. The excellent quality of the album is made even more remarkable by the fact that Seeger was in her late 70s at the time it was made. The first selection, Everything Changes, is dedicated to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and is yet another fine example of Peggy’s exploration of themes relating to memory and the passage of time.

By contrast, Swim To The Star is one of the finest songs to be written about the sinking of the Titanic:

Without being heavy-handed about this, it also manages to incorporate an increasingly relevant political message. Even more remarkably, the album also revealed that more than half a century after she made her first album, Seeger remained a vital artist. She was also one whose contribution to modern folk music, while an inspiration to others, remained an unfinished project for herself. In the Seeger way, for Peggy who is still out there performing at the age of 84 there is always new music to be made and new musical paths yet to be discovered*.

 

Peggy Seeger photo 2

Peggy Seeger performing at a folk club session in the Enterprise pub,
Long Acre, London, late 1950s-early 1960s

 

*Click here for full details of the “First Farewell Tour” from Peggy Seeger and Calum MacColl around the UK and Ireland this May/June 2020.

 

 


“The Good Old Way” (BBC2 1983 Pt4) Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

 

First Time Ever

“First Time Ever: A Memoir” by Peggy Seeger (Faber & Faber, 2017)

“Peggy Seeger: A Life Of Music, Love, And Politics” by Jean R. Freedman (UIP, 2017)

Peggy Seeger official website

Peggy Seeger on Bandcamp

Peggy Seeger Discography

Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl Discography

Ewan MacColl official website

Calum MacColl official website

Charles Seeger (Wikipedia)

Ruth Crawford Seeger (Wikipedia)

Mike Seeger official website

Pete Seeger Music

Peggy Seeger biography (Apple Music)

Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger Archive
An archive relating to the music and work of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger was established by Peggy at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1991. It contains copies of most of their published recordings, together with correspondence, playscripts, photographs, videos, books and other documents and memorabilia relating to their work together, and as individual artists. There is an online index.

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #845

8 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Mar 13, 2020

    Peggy is still active, a remarkable woman from a remarkable family. (See link above for details of her 2020 UK tour … Ed.)

  2. Kerry Harvey-Piper
    Mar 13, 2020

    A wonderful piece of writing. You might also like to know that along with Peggy’s discography on Bandcamp, there’s a similar page for all Ewan MacColl’s albums (still a work in progress by the family but becoming more complete by the week)

  3. Dave Stephens
    Mar 14, 2020

    An excellent Toppermost. Thanks very much Andrew.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Mar 15, 2020

    David & Dave #Kerry
    Thanks for the kind words.
    Kerry – Thanks for the pointer towards the Ewan albums on Bandcamp – such a fabulous resource.

  5. Ilkka Jauramo
    Mar 21, 2020

    My favourite ‘House Carpenter’ is here! Although my “old ticker” won’t allow me to pick my ol’ (well, just fifty years …) banjo at this speed, I enjoy it as much. Thanks for this article, Mr Shields. Peggy was – if not a totally unknown face – at least a fresh ‘rendez-vous’ for me. There are a lot of banjo pickin’ chicks out there: Ellen Petersen and Willow Osborne are two of my favourites. It doesn’t harm that they seem to be nice girls, too.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Mar 22, 2020

    Thanks for this Ilkka. Peggy’s version of ‘House Carpenter’ is in my top 2 with the early Bob Dylan one (can’t quite decide the rank). And, in many ways, Peggy set the template for women playing the banjo (at least in Folk Revival circles). Good piece on early female banjo players in rural areas here.

  7. David Lewis
    Mar 22, 2020

    Illka – for more female banjo: Alison Brown who played with Alison Krauss and then launched a solo career; Abigail Washburn who tours with her husband, Bela Fleck; Roni Stoneman, whose memoirs I’d recommend as a good read; Dolly Parton. All worth chasing up.

  8. Andrew Shields
    Mar 22, 2020

    Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens too of course. Going back in time could throw in Margaret Barry as well.

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