Sections
Peggy Quotes

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger had a profound effect on their contemporaries in the folk music world that can still be heard today.  - Roy Bailey, BBC Online

Peggy Quotes 2

With the singing voice of a 20-year old, the tone and temperament of a slightly acidic and world-wise 40-year old, and possessing the studied acumen of a 500-year old, the lady enjoyed a warm intimate gathering of friends and family upon the occasion of her 70th birthday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, England.
- Mark S. Tucker

 

Peggy Seeger - Singer

"The ballads . . . they are my heartsongs. To me, they are the core of our tradition. They have been created, loved, tended, pruned and trimmed by generations of singers so that they are down to their very bare bones. And because their language is so sparse, both the listener and the singer can clothe those bones with any kind of flesh they wish. Every time you sing them, they're different. Yes, the ballads give me endless pleasure. They are also the best antidote I've found for Interstate Hypnosis!"

(Peggy Seeger, Prism Coffeehouse,1996)

 

Music Education

peggy1955mike-300dpi.jpgPeggy's formal music education was interwoven with her family's interest in traditional music. She began to play the piano at seven years old. By the age of eleven she was transcribing music and becoming conversant with counterpoint and harmony. Between the ages of 12 and 35 she learned to play guitar, five-string banjo, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer and English concertina. She tried the fiddle - and failed. When her fiddle was stolen her friends discouraged her from buying another.

For two years she attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she began singing traditional songs professionally. She began to be a songmaker in 1958 with what she considers to be her first successful song, “The Ballad of Springhill.” The rest is not history - it is what is happening now. Peggy looks on herself chiefly as a singer. The fact that she plays six instruments (piano somewhat, guitar minimal-but-interesting, banjo fairly well, English concertina occasionally, autoharp/Appalachian dulcimer at-home-only-thanks-to-airline-baggage-restrictions) does not brand her an instrumentalist as she uses her instruments chiefly for accompaniment. She has never had voice lessons although she has had invaluable help from Penni Harvey-Piper in London and Danny Ellis in Asheville. She professes that ‘my voice isn’t a beautiful voice. Joan Baez has a beautiful voice. Mine is a character voice and that has helped me in singing different types of songs.’

Peggy offers the following random observations on singing:

peggyseeger-speaking.jpg"My work with Ewan MacColl, whose theatre and vocal training background made him an extraordinary singer, helped me to understand the different uses of the voice, the value of applying dramatic disciplines to the delivery of songs. I use these, along with Rudolph Laban’s Theory of Efforts, when giving concerts and teaching ballad singing. This theory connects physical movement with the use of the voice, describes the voice as an manifestation of physical movement. The Theory of Efforts helps me to ring the changes in choice of song, for every song has its own vocal style, pitch, length, mode, intent, attitude, intention. This helps to keep listeners awake for no matter how much they may like, for instance, songs in major, 3/4, moderate tempo, 3 minutes long, accompanied by guitar in G major, sung in smooth, buttery voice, they could not take more than three or four of these in a row without YES, FALLING ASLEEP, mentally if not physically. So any techniques we can use to keep the ear and mind alert helps. The Theory of Efforts helps.


Every day I run through a half-an-hour of mechanical voice exercises provided on a cassette by Ms. Harvey-Piper (with whom she shares grandchildren). Penni plays the arpeggios and scales on the piano and I join in at whatever volume I like. Penni encourages me to ‘sing talk’, so the arpeggios have whatever words I wish to sing. “Where are we going today?” “O what a lovely day”, “Can’t you go faster than that?” (to a slowpoke at a traffic light), “I have a funny old face”, “Diddly diddly poo”, --- or whatever. Asheville residents are familiar with Peggy’s metal box on wheels with the tra-la-la sound of those arpeggios and scales, often running in pitches available only to the ears of dogs. The volume at which she practises these exercises while driving is rumoured to drown out the continual ocean-wave rumble that characterises the racetrack (the I-240) that some 1980s asshole decided to construct right through the centre of town.


So much for the actual physical voice. Another useful technique that Ewan MacColl taught anyone who cared to listen was The Application of the Idea of “IF”. This theatre technique is immensely useful in singing and, like the Theory of Efforts, takes a long time to explain and demonstrate. Essentially, it runs like this: if you are singing “Omi Wise”, in which the loving pregnant Omi Wise is murdered by her lover John Lewis, you (the singer) do not pretend that you are Omi Wise (or, if you prefer, John Lewis). It’s not possible. You are NOT these people and can only believe for a limited amount of time that you are. This belief system is exhausted by the time you sing the song ten, fifteen, twenty times and can contribute to your getting tired of the song. But try saying to yourself, “IF I were a servant girl, in love with the well-off neighbour’s son, IF he promised to marry me, IF he took me up and away on horseback ostensibly to marry me, IF he then told me at the riverside that he was going to murder me, IF he then shoved me in the river, went home, was then jailed ... then HOW would I sing this song?” Now, this is possible. Your singing of the song answers whatever IF questions you have asked yourself... and because you can change the given circumstances of those questions at will, the answers also change and you keep yourself, the singer, eternally interested. This technique is wonderful to apply while singing. You make up a new story every time - it is as fresh to you as it is to those who are listening. One of my credos: A bored or jaded singer makes a bored, jaded audience.


Why do all this? The folksinger (theoretically) sits on a front porch and just sings. So do I, on my front porch. But when you are singing night after night, week after week, (skip the months and years), decade after decade, you need ammunition in the battle to keep the songs fresh. I don’t think these techniques are ‘tricks of the trade’ ... I use them to keep me from getting bored with myself.


Audiences are smarter than anyone thinks they are. They can be fooled temporarily by histrionics, pat jokes, up-tempo songs that they can clap to, etc., etc. - us singers, we’ve all done those things in our time. But the members of the ‘audience’ (who believe me does more than the ‘listening’ suggested by the etymology of their moniker) know when they are moved by what you do. They know when you have allowed them to mesh in with your thinking patterns, they know when you and they are experiencing simultaneously a new approach to an age-old emotion.


Traditional songs and contemporary songs: I mix them in a concert because I can’t help it. An evening made of totally of either one or the other seems to me to be lacking in perspective. I need to live at the same time as myself, therefore I sing new songs, both of my own and others’ composition. But I also need to live at the same time as those who came before me and the traditional songs provide that need. They are also sung differently, especially the ballads, those long narrative pieces whose plots and poetry go back hundreds of years and can be found in dozens of countries. One can sing “The Cruel Mother” and complement it with a poem by Bertold Brecht or read a piece out of the newspaper about a 15-year-old-girl in London in 1996 who bore her baby in her bedroom, aided by her sister. Terrified, she smothered the infant. Those old stories, many of them, become contemporary and relevant and because the texts have been smoothed out and perfected by generations of singers, they are very satisfying to sing. They also act as a foil to the new songs - they are a different course in the same long banquet. They require different singing techniques, different levels of concentration and involvement on my part. I love them.


I fully believe that we get the audiences we deserve, that audiences get the performers they deserve. Some singers seem not to have to work at singing - they just open their mouths and that glorious sound comes out. Irene is one of those singers. Northern Irish by birth and raising, she was lauded as ‘Belfast’s answer to Joan Baez’ in her youth. She rarely sings publicly – in fact you have to use every trick, every means of cajoling, to get her to do so. She can go for days, weeks, without singing, then produces that lovely, effortless fluid voice. You can hear her on Almost Commercially Viable and Love Will Linger On. But I have to work constantly as I don’t have that type of voice. But I have had to work as I don’t have that beautiful almost hypnotically lovely voice. So as a singer, I try to give folks something else: my mind and my political approach (‘political’ in the widest possible meaning of the word). It is possible that people who come to hear me come away exhausted. But I try to send them away thinking deeply and feeling deeply, hopefully at the same time."

Personal tools