Peggy Quotes

Peggy Seeger ranks as one of the most important people who ever graced and shaped the British folk scene. - Ken Hunt, Folk Roots Magazine

Peggy Quotes 2

First off, Seeger's a daunting multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, autoharp, banjo, piano, concertina, and of course singing. However, she doesn't just play, she demonstrates a fluency surprising even for an overachiever on the banjo, and her vocals can be either bird-on-a-wire delicate or gusty, ringing with authority and surprising projection.
- Mark S. Tucker


Ken Hunt f - Roots Magazine

fRoots Magazine - interview by Ken Hunt

Autobiographies are curious confections, like biographies only different. Of all the 'protagonists' that lit the blue touch-paper for the British folk scene's imagination - now that Shirley Collins has begun telling her story in print - were it in my gift, the one I'd commission would be Peggy Seeger's long, strange trip. She and Jim Lloyd delivered an extensive oral biography for Folk On 2 ten years ago. Quite frankly I want more. (During one interview, she remarks, "I've been writing up my life recently". She straightaway goes into dream meltdown with a cheery, "Just for my own enjoyment".) This sparky woman has done so much, lived so much, crammed so much into her, so far, 70 summers. Most of all, she has informed our appreciation of British and North American folk music, like very, very few people have. Then factor in her multiple roles in illuminating the folk, political song and feminist scenes and how her songs have enriched the folk idiom, and you have somebody worth getting amazed about.

Incidentally, if the reader wants to read the subtitles to her songs, most of them appear in her 1998 Peggy Seeger Songbook - Forty Years Of Songmaking, while the aural evidence is scattered over a half-dozen or so CDs. When we meet, she is in fine fettle, inquisitive about a discussion about her life expressed through a selection of songs picked out, strobe-like, to flash-image her life in song. (Strobes also leave a lot in darkness.) This account draws observations out of the author of songs such as If You Want A Better Life, Lost, It's A Free World, Gonna Be An Engineer, Primrose Hill, Thoughts Of Time and Autumn Wedding. Not all of them appear in this mini-biography-in-song. (At one stage, she remarks phlegmatically, "The big problem, I think, with songs right now is to get to the people who really need to hear them.") Recorded music can give the impression of partially filling the gaps, so put on, say, AN ODD COLLECTION, LOVE WILL LINGER ON, PEGGY SEEGER THE FOLKWAY YEARS 1955-1992, ALMOST COMMERCIALLY VIABLE, the first of her HOME TRILOGY, HEADING FOR HOME or one of her limited editions like THE BALLAD OF JIMMY MASSEY or SONGS FOR OCTOBER 2004

What follows is a series of snapshots from several illuminating conversations. Count what's included, not what doesn't appear. Camille Paglia has spoken about popinjay reporters. Others are less eloquent. Peggy's main gripe when it comes to journalists concerns the mind-numbing paucity of imagination that she so regularly encounters. In Song Of Myself she lays down her history and to me she talks about journalists asking her the same questions over and over again. "I get sick of it. God, you get sick of it! It's like they have to hear you say what they have read already. You hear it on the radio in interviews. The interviewer asks a question and then you 'so and so and so'. The person says, 'Oh yes, I did that'. There's got to be a better way of interviewing people against past events. Why not just give a capsule? Born so-and-so. Parents so-and-so. Took up the banjo. Now tell us about who you really are. And get deeper in, quicker. There's so much small talk with interviews. Often now I will say I don't want to spend more than five minutes on family, Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl. They can read about that anywhere. Let's talk about who I am now! Send readers and listeners to the website if they're really interested. What we really need to share is feelings, responses, attitudes, quirky things. Maybe things that are not quite as favourable to you as a person but which take you off the pedestal."

Cue plotting the contours of her Seegerishly hilly biographical topography. The expression 'first dynasty' rather than 'first family' springs to mind. Margaret 'Peggy' Seeger was born in New York in June 1935, the second child born to the ethnomusicological pioneer, composer, inventor and teacher Charles Seeger (1886-1979) and his second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), a composer, arranger and musical scholar in her own right. Peggy is little sister to Mike, big sister to Barbara and Penelope, half-sister to Pete (from her father's first marriage), partner/ wife to Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), mother to Neill, Calum and Kitty, and partner to Irene Pyper-Scott.

A further frustration, she confesses, helped seed Song Of Myself. "At the time I wrote that interviewers always went to Ewan first. He talked and talked and talked and talked. Finally, they turned to me. By that time everyone was interested but weary, so you wanted to be fairly quick. They always began with my father, my mother, Pete, how I'd met Ewan. The same questions over and over and over."

The first song that she wrote that she was happy with was The Ballad Of Springhill. She was 24, stranded in France, the twin-bellied model of 1958's asylum seeker unable to get into the country. (How she got into England is one for the autobiography.) Sitting in "a bleak restaurant" she sat forking "grey tripe" while watching French television pour out coverage of a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Some of the linguistic niceties bypassed her French but the nail-biting horror of the raw images grated her imagination. "I had made up a song recently, singing about these hard times. I had three weeks before I went back to America. When I made up this song, I kept saying the tune sounds so familiar; and I'm not going to forsake the tune, even though I found out it was highly derivative. Fortunately it was a traditional song and I hope nobody's copywritten it. It's derivative in the way a lot of Ewan's tunes are." With hindsight she feels that "actually seeing what you were talking about" was the key. "I'm very, very susceptible to what I see. This was live television. It wasn't a replay of anything. It was actually happening. I remember it was - and it said it on the television - the first time a disaster had been broadcast live. It hit me right then."

It was a watershed moment. "I did already know some disaster songs that I sang. I made Ballad Of Springhill before I'd ever been down a mine. I sang protest songs when I really didn't know a great deal about protesting. Obviously I thought they were well worth singing and should be sung. Ideas can be the sixth and seventh senses that add to the melting pot. Ewan taught me about tasting words and working with them like in a physical sense. That was a song that appeared quickly. I didn't work at that one."

The next song in this musical mini-biography is On This Very Day. It is not quite her return to meeting Ewan MacColl, as he famously memorised in First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It is a springboard into other realms. "It was a coincidence that Calum and Kerry got married on the same day, 25 March [in 1994] that Ewan and I met [in 1956]. They didn't know until they heard the song. The amount that my kids don't know about me is rather nice. Now I feel I can tell them things and I haven't been telling them those things throughout my whole life." What she created was a template-song idea that combines an occasion with events that happened that day in history. "The template idea's nice. It works. You have to be a bit ingenious. And you have to be silly; that's one of the nice things about it. So many silly things happened in history and it's nice to mention them. Now I use this template to make up songs for other people whose birthdays or whose weddings are on that date."

Anyone whose spouse or life-partner has died will get Lost. "We lose something every day, don't we? We find something every day. It's a little hard to remember back to the state of mind I was in then, when Ewan died, because I also had a delicious love affair going. I was compulsively, deeply in love with someone else at that time. But that wasn't a substitute. Nothing substituted for Ewan. Shared memories? In lots of ways you want to lose those memories. If you have nobody to share them with, what is the point? You're just regretting. Your children aren't really interested because they have a different version of what happened. My daughter Kitty told me recently that I'd said at one point that Ewan was my perfect life-partner. I still think he was. She said, 'But you argued all the time!' I don't remember arguing all the time. I don't remember bitter arguments. Were they bitter ones? When she told me about one, then I remembered it. I tend to remember the good things."

Lost summons an observation about ageing of another sort. "As I get older and have more emotional memories in my head, I think I'm more capable of singing songs like Lost and virtually literally sending thoughts out to people who have similar experiences or who have experiences that are analogous to that. Because that's quite an extraordinary song to sing when there are a lot of older people in the audience. Then there's a space of three to five seconds afterwards when nobody stirs. And you don't want anybody to stir."

Primrose Hill is another of the songs that emerged after MacColl's death. It marks, however, a rediscovery of love in all its life-affirming vivacity as she discovers Isabella Plantation, a haven of childhood-reminding tunnels through banked rhododendrons, in Richmond Park and Primrose Hill, a pleasant stroll from Cecil Sharp House. "Most of the love songs talk about flowers and birds. They don't usually talk about space stations or internal combustion engines. They talk about nature or gravitate inwards towards the person you love or gravitate outwards towards feeling part of everything. Irene was the big love affair of my life. Never felt like that about anybody. Including Ewan. Totally felt complete trust. She took me there." By which she means Isabella Plantation, Primrose Hill and maybe, for those who wish to interpret matters thusly, higher heights.

"Ewan and I didn't go out. Or if we did, we went out to the country, we didn't go into town. We hardly went anywhere in town unless we were taking the kids to the zoo or something like that. Maybe we'd sit on Crystal Palace Hill and picnic and listen to the symphony. I knew nothing about [Isabella Plantation]. I had a whole other agenda to places that Irene knew about. She and her husband Philip went to a lot of places together. Isabella Plantation was absolutely fantastic. Just walking. Seeing the flowers. It was the classic courtship - which I didn't have with Ewan. In my experience, I have not had a male-female courtship that was what I'd call a courtship. [It was] 'Let's hop into bed'. With Irene, it was an awakening of all the senses. I also wrote over a hundred poems for her in the time. I'm recording those. Some of them are very short, some of them I have turned into songs. Occasionally I do a set in concert where I sing one of the love songs and then read one of the poems." Irene's impact went beyond the geographical.

Irene and Peggy sang together for three or four years, as NO SPRING CHICKENS. "Writing humour into the songs," she admits, "is one of Irene's big gifts to me. Irene says, 'You're far too serious on stage. Far too serious. And a lot of your songs are far too serious.' I sang with her for three or four years. Ewan and I were relatively serious on stage. Some of the songs would be humorous, but many of the humorous songs were poking fun at other people. They weren't humorous situations in and of themselves. Humorous the way It's A Free World is humorous. Or humorous the way some of the ballads are humorous, like little sitcoms."

Making political points with humour is well instanced in her Give 'Em An Inch, a little something that touches upon the transition from boyhood to adultery represented by an inch of dangly flesh. "I do think in feminist songs that you have to somehow make people laugh at what everybody realises is a humorous situation like this little kid that's born with a little inch of flesh. I got that idea from a cartoon where the mother looks absolutely exhausted and the midwife is holding a baby up and saying, 'Oh, this is why they're so powerful'. There's this little dick sticking out. It was an excellent cartoon. You laughed at it immediately. This is why cartoons put things into a capsule, in one statement, something that you can then open out into a whole situation. Both men and women laugh at that. They can't do anything else. The average man does not think of himself with a willy an inch long. More women, than men would like to believe, laugh at where the penis leads men. Laughter apparently does all kinds of things to the brain and the body that they don't even really know about. Laughing with somebody at the same situation, rather than at somebody, works."

For me, Peggy Seeger is a folk litmus test for conformity, non-conformity and complications. She is not the stereotype I once perceived her to be. Our conversations were punctuated with laughter, like when I corpsed while asking about Give 'Em An Inch and had to admit that, unbidden, images of flying phalluses had entered my head. But that's a story for another time.

-- Sofi Mogensen Assistant Editor: fRoots Magazine

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