Peggy Seeger Songbook Reviews
THE PEGGY SEEGER SONGBOOK
What a great section on songwriting. It should be required reading for all the hordes of youngins trying to showcase at these Alliance meetings. (Let 'em learn from a master). Thanks for the songbook.
Excerpt from a letter from Gene Shay, Philadelphia folk promoter and radio show host
Five years ago, folk music had all the kudos of the real ale-soaked beards and wafting, paisley caftans sorted by too many of its exponents. But in 1999, Kate Rusby, a young singer-songwriter who sang traditional-sounding ballads in a beguiling Yorkshire accent, was nominated for a Mercury Prize and her CDs started appearing in the chrome racks of a new generation. The stage - or soapbox is set for the publication of songbooks by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
We tend to think of the folk movement as wilfully anachronistic and cosily crafty. Folk songs are built around melodies that are democratically easy to sing and play. They include a lot of fol-di-rols and baby-talk choruses but their apparent harmlessness was often a vehicle to spread subversion. Many old songs were working-class complaints about being sent out to till the fields or march off to war at tuppence a week for the lord of them manor while he was busy claiming his droit de seigneur in yon ivy-decked spinney. For Seeger and MacColl, the folk song was more often than not a protest song.
The word "songbook" is a misnomer for two unusual collections, which can be read as biography, social document, political manifesto and testament to a 35-year love affair. Ewan MacColl - nee Jimmie Miller - was born in Salford in 1915. He educated himself at the Manchester Public Library during the Great Depression and read compulsively to counter insomnia throughout his life. He was involved in theatre and agitprop before turning to singing and songwriting full time.
Seeger was raised in more middle-class comfort in America. Her father, Charles, was a professor of music, and her mother, Dio, was an avant-garde composer. Her folk-singing half-brother, Pete, ensured that their house was visited by such earthy folk-stars as Woody Guthrie. "Dio," she says, "would set the theme of the Moonlight Sonata to a sequence of folksong chords with a thumping bass, or would play Barbara Allen in the style of a Bach invention. She was intrigued by the connection between mathematics and music and transmitted her excitement to me. Unless you've played The Irish Washerwoman in C-sharp in the Lydian mode at the age of ten you haven't lived."
Ewan was 20 years older than Peggy when they met in 1956 and he was married to his second wife by whom he had two children, Hamish and Kirsty. She was the inspiration for his most famous song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which sold millions when it was recorded by Roberta Flack. She returned to America but came back to him in 1957. They had three children and spent 24 hours a day together until his death in 1989.
Peggy says the publication of these large books, which include the most "singable" of their songs, is her final gift to Ewan. The photographs with which she illustrates the MacColl book, capture the mood of the times and she has written funny and passionate introductions to most songs. She explains the events that sparked them off and laughs at herself and Ewan when their arguments or language have become outdated. Sometimes she repeats herself and her tone, like that of many folk songs, can cloy.
Ewan was a Communist and his songs are often about men going to work on the railroads or in factories. When it comes to love, he is often bawdy and refers to his "artillery". But his love of words is still enormously entertaining and politically powerful. He's at his best when he satirises Margaret Thatcher practising her elocution on the cat and [lists] the extra jobs for undertakers that will be generated by nuclear power.
Seeger, as she admits, can at her worst be over-wordy, musically frilly and preachy. But at her best, she produced such feminist classics as I Want to be an Engineer and she caricatured John Major's sinister smiling response to on-screen criticism - like a "slow, slow velociraptor". My favourite aspect of folk music, though, is the way its narrative nature can mark in our minds the small stories that make up the bigger picture, as in the song Seeger wrote for the miners who were killed in the 1965 Cambrian Colliery disaster:
Thirty-one voices cried out in the darkness
Thirty one lamps blew out in the gale;
Thirty-one check discs are left in the lamp room
Thirty-one miners lie low in the vale.
By singing these songs, we remember those men, and MacColl and Seeger too.
Helen Brown, Daily Telegraph, March 16, 2002
DIRTY LINEN EM/PS review
THE ESSENTIAL EWAN MacColl SONGBOOK: Sixty years of Songmaking complied and annotated by Peggy Seeger (Oak Publications ISBN 0- 8256-0321 (2001); $29.95)
THE PEGGY SEEGER SONGBOOK: Forty years of Songmaking, by Peggy Seeger (Oak Publication ISBN 0-8256-0344-7 (1998); 429.
These two massive tomes are a testament to one of the first couples of 20th century folk music, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. MacColl, born Jimmie Miller, was the son of a Scottish iron moulder whose radical politics forced him to leave Scotland in 1910 to find work. Young Jimmie, therefore, grew up in Salford and nearby Manchester, towns he later immortalized in songs like "Dirty Old Town" and "The Manchester Rambler." He founded the well-known Theatre Workshop and after World War Two, became increasing involved in folk music. Seeger was born to a very musical family. Her father was the musicologist Charlie Seeger and her mother the singer and musician Ruth Crawford Seeger. Both became very active in folk music in the 1930's And brought their children along with them in recording trips and study voyages of all kinds. Peggy, her brother Mike and her half brother Pete are the ones most associated with folk music today. In 1956, MacColl met Seeger at a rehearsal for a TV production on which both were singing . . .he remembered his first meeting with Seeger as a life-changing moment and wrote about it in his most successful song " The First Time I Saw Your Face. In 1958, the two met again . . . and settled down together for 31 years until MacColl's death in 1989.
. . . one of the very refreshing things about this book is Seeger's unsentimental honesty about which songs are dated, which she never liked, and which are pretty good. So for people who want the classics of MacColl's repertoire, this book isn't strictly necessary. But as a glimpse of the process of writing songs, this book is both fascinating and instructive. How did MacColl transform old Irish songs into social commentary, how did he apply Scots' lullabies to political demonstrations and how did he convert the landscapes of Britain's inner cities into places of mystery and romance? It's all here to be read, played, sung and pondered and for that part it's highly recommended.
. . .MacColl's presence is as deeply felt in this book (Seeger's collection) as Seeger's presence was in the MacColl book. Indeed, the most moving songs here, like "New Spring Morning," deal with their great love for one another. It's also interesting to compare the two books and look at events in their lives through their songs . . .Seeger's collection is just the sort of book to get you in touch with your inner earnest, eco-feminist singer-songwriter.
Steve Winnick, Dirty Linen, August-September 2002
FOLK ROOTS PS/EM REVIEW August 2002
The Peggy Seeger Songbook - Warts & All: 40 Years Of Songmaking (Oak Publications US ISBN 0 8256 0320 X. UK ISBN 0 7119 6291 X)
The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook - 60 Years Of Songmaking (Oak Publications US ISBN 0 8256 0321 8. UK ISBN 0 7119 6292 8)
Peggy Seeger ranks as one of the most important people who ever graced and shaped the British folk scene. Other Americans like Jack Elliott, Alan Lomax, Hedy West et al came and went. She stayed. In so doing, she raised standards like few others. Seeger belonged to a family that was far more than her half-brother Pete or her full-brother Mike. She talks about her parents, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger in detail. This collection is nothing like her 1964 collection for Oak, Folk Songs Of Peggy Seeger, it's full of memorable songs, including Primrose Hill, There's Better Things To Do (a read-it reaction to arriving in England in 1956), her rewording of Lonnie Donegan's My Old Man's A Dustman, Wasteland Lullabye, the very important I'm Gonna Be An Engineer ("you'd think I'd been brooding on discrimination and prejudice all my life," she remarks), Song For Charles Parker and so on. Her explanations and memories of engagement capture the mood of the times and provide a pr'cis of the energy and politicisation of those various struggles and the folk revival. Much of The Peggy Seeger Songbook is about the politics of living. It makes for a wonderful book, but it does not compare with The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook. She did better by him than she did by herself, which is a cause for sadness and an indication of her graciousness. Peggy Seeger deserves much praise and many readers with these two volumes.
Ewan MacColl was a man whose art reached huge numbers through the folk clubs, untold millions through the wireless, and greater numbers still, through the collusion between recording and radio. It was his songwriting that brought him his hugest audience. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face remains his greatest hit - and is the first song in The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook - but with the act of singing it down the phone to Peggy Seeger in Los Angeles, he effectively handed it to her, no matter what the Berts or Robertas did for his royalty statements. However much he was a heel, a schoolmaster and self-reinventor, art poured from him. Some of it was of its time and sometimes it served its time in the front line before being tactically withdrawn. Yet as these scores of songs remind, his could be art of a high calibre. An "amplifier for everyday speech", hope sprang eternal for MacColl, even if it was the hope that he was hooking up with the numinous, much like Shakespeare and Jonson did in their day.
I have no doubt that MacColl knew the value of his best work and kept one mandarin eye cocked on posterity. Songs such as Sweet Thames, Flow Softly (a title with the purl of Burns' Flow Gently, Sweet Afton), 30-Foot Trailer, The Moving On Song, Dirty Old Town - all represented here - are the stuff of greatness. This anthology is instructive in the varied insights it grants into MacColl's creative juices, whether the facsimile draft of My Old Man or the mouth-rolled changes from Famous Flower Of Serving-Men to Shoals Of Herring, his favourite mode (Dorian, since you wonder) or his unwitting self-plagiarism. Peggy Seeger does not dodge some of MacColl's unkinder attributes or spare us his hammy side (after his autobiography Journeyman how could she?), or his mysteries, such as the possibility that the Alfred Watts of Newcastle, who 'furnished' Ivor in The Singing Island (1960), may well have been MacColl himself. There have been earlier MacCollian songbooks, collections like Shuttle & Cage (1954) and Songs For The Sixties (1961) that used many mouths to feed them, but this is the one to which I shall return and use when contemplating the lives, times and works of Ewan MacColl. Consistency can be the hobgoblin that paralyses the human mind. MacColl comes out of this volume as somebody who never stopped learning and even learned how to change.
Ken Hunt, 2002 Folk Roots Magazine, August 2002
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger had a profound effect on their contemporaries in the folk music world that can still be heard today. Oak Publications have released songbooks that chronicle their lives and work and that are inextricably linked together. Both deserve serious study as the songs also selectively chronicle much of the latter half of the twentieth century. They do much more than that though, they tell us something of both artists, their co-operation and political commitment. From Pete Seeger's foreword to The Essential Ewan MacColl, to the closing pages of The Peggy Seeger Songbook, there is much to learn and wonder at.
I'm tempted to treat both the books as one for as Peggy writes in her introduction, "for thirty years their work was inextricably combined". From reading Peggy's excellent introduction and discussion of Ewan's life and work you are confident she's telling the truth - she applauds and criticises; she tells of strengths and weaknesses and above all, she loves him. There is no need for her to worry about being biased for as she recognises there is no value-free position from which to view Ewan's, or indeed, anyone's life!
In addition to their songs both books offer us a discussion about song writing - looking for the 'right' rhyme, the 'right' word or expression; writing and rewriting lines until you feel satisfied with the effort. A condition rarely achieved one suspects, or if so, then possibly short-lived as time can lead to discovering an alternative way. I found both books very moving for their honesty. Peggy reveals a co-operation that was indeed deep and lasting yet not without self examination and criticism.
In relatively few pages, Peggy manages to convey the importance to popular culture of the Radio Ballads in particular and their collaborative work in general. As writers and performers Ewan and Peggy made an enormous contribution to the emergence and development of the 'folk song movement' and to the artistic lives of untold numbers of writers and performers who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to develop their talents.
These books present excellently crafted contemporary songs that are a celebration of and a commentary upon Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. The large coffee-table format features words, music, song notes, drawings and photographs for around 150 and 200 songs from Peggy and Ewan respectively.
I've long held the view that Ewan MacColl was a leader of a resistance to the 'Americanisation' of British culture. Britain had and still has its own songs and music that came from and were sustained by, a rural and urban working class. Ewan and Peggy are in that tradition. In this 'struggle' it is ironic that Ewan's most important collaborator was an American - Peggy Seeger. As she writes, "Ewan and I were life partners, workmates, friends and lovers..."
I recommend them and their books to you!
Roy Bailey - April 2002 BBC Online
"The Peggy Seeger Songbook, Warts and All .... was some time in the creation but is now in print! The joy of possessing this book is enough to make one (me at least) cry. The 149 songs plus one poem are arranged chronologically, showing the year in which each was written, 1956 through 1997. Some years only one or two, sixteen in 1990. There is a temptation to skip some 30 pages of introduction - don't do it, the songs are enriched by knowing of the family, the life and influences. The book is of course excellently indexed: subject, titles, first lines; there's even a glossary for translating English words to American. Besides songs, the book is 'part autobiography, part social and political history.' It's not our part to critique individual songs; it's assumed that most folkies have heard some of them - and here they are with information about the writing of each. Let's just say she is a consummate song writer, absolutely one of the very very best. There are songs of social concerns, love, ecology, women's and men's politics -- what's to mention? If it's in our lives, Peggy has written a song about it.
"It seems to me difficult for anything to enhance the words and music but the illustrations by Jacky Fleming manage to do this. They are absolutely delightful!"
Faith Petric, The Folknik, Vol XXXIV, No. 6, November 1998
International Alliance for Women in Music
The Peggy Seeger Songbook, Warts and All
This is a generous book in size and content (304 pages of music and 36 pages of text), yet it is the short essays by Peggy Seeger that are the gems of the book. She writes about her childhood and what music has meant to her throughout her life, and she relates personal anecdotes and memories. She describes how her mother, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, taught her children music not with formal lessons but with games and unorthodox ways of using familiar tunes, such as playing a folk song using the entire circle of fifths. The story of her relationship with her father, Charles, and his first family is told with affection, charm and candor. The untimely death of her mother affected Peggy's years at college, as she was responsible for caring for her younger sister and her father.
Seeger also presents practical advice on song writing. She sometimes uses traditional folk songs as a means of creating new versions or borrows ideas from a variety of sources: books, conversations, advertisements and cartoons. The essay, "In Particular," deals with compositional problems as well as processes and techniques she has found interesting or useful. Her account of composing "Guilty" serves as a reminder that the process of creating any musical work involves self-criticism and problem solving.
The songs, which are arranged in chronological order, are charmingly handwritten, and they exhibit the painstaking care of a visual as well as musical artist. Supplementary notes for each song are illuminating, providing the work's history and musical roots. The Peggy Seeger Songbook is stimulating and enjoyable. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary folk songs, the Seeger family or song writing in general.
Roberta Stephen is a classically trained singer who loves folk songs. She is an educator, composer and arranger, and serves as president of Alberta Keys Music Publishing Company in Calgary, Canada.