Peggy Seeger, Cecil Sharp House, review: a masterclass from a folk veteran

Peggy Seeger and her son, Calum MacColl, performed for a London audience glad to be back - Vicki Sharp
Peggy Seeger and her son, Calum MacColl, performed for a London audience glad to be back - Vicki Sharp

Peggy Seeger is steeped in the folk tradition. Over a 65-year career, she has released over 70 albums, over half of which were recorded with her late husband, the singer Ewan MacColl. Her father was renowned folklorist Charles Seeger and her mother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, her brother was Mike Seeger and her half-brother was If I Had A Hammer icon Pete Seeger. And MacColl’s daughter from a previous marriage was the singer Kirsty MacColl, who died in 2000.

So I slightly feared that this concert by Seeger, now 85, in the home of English folk – the imposing Cecil Sharp House in Camden – would be one for the purists: rather serious and slightly austere. But it was nothing of the sort. Seeger, who was born in New York but has largely lived in the UK since the 1950s, imparted her wise and optimistic worldview with joy and a wonderful lightness of touch. This was a masterclass in storytelling through music, as though delivered by a favourite aunt.

She was joined on stage in the venue’s wood-panelled Kennedy Hall by her son Calum MacColl, an accomplished musician in his own right. “I’m very glad to half-see you all,” Seeger joked as she looked out at the mask-wearers in the socially-distanced and seated crowd. “One good thing about lockdown is we’ve learnt to smile with our eyes,” she added.

The music was packed with life lessons. One of the themes of the evening was ageing and anonymity. ‘The Invisible Woman’ was about how society marginalises its older members, while ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ was a haunting song penned by her husband about his mother’s night job washing endless floors in an office block.

Seeger has said that she “revels” in songs, “tasting their words as I sing”. But she has long been a student of folk’s form and context. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Seeger and MacColl set up The Critics Group, a sort of study circle that educated its members about the genre’s disciplines and history. The goal was to preserve truth and respect tradition. And yet, while Seeger clearly does that, there was a refreshing sense of “dogma be damned” about this show as well.

Seeger and her late husband Ewan MacColl at home in Beckenham in 1965 - Redferns
Seeger and her late husband Ewan MacColl at home in Beckenham in 1965 - Redferns

This was in evidence in the jaunty ‘The Day We Went to Mars’, a song that Seeger was forced to leave off her new album The First Farewell because it – unsurprisingly for a folk LP – didn’t fit in. And then there was the fabulous curveball of Lubrication, a not-so-subtle song about the “slip and slide” of “certain moving parts”. Seeger teasingly rhymed the work “luck” with “fffffff-ind you’re stuck”. This was confessional folk music with a raunchy wink; think Victoria Wood meets Dory Previn. Seeger, whose remarkably robust voice did, very occasionally, thin a little, apologised that ‘Gotta Get Home By Midnight’ was based on the “politically incorrect” Cinderella story. But who wants woke folk anyway? This was much more fun.

“A banjo in tune is an oxymoron,” Seeger said after a guitar-banjo instrumental that could have almost passed for one of Led Zeppelin’s pastoral acoustic numbers. There were moments of eccentricity. We learnt that Seeger keeps an emergency £5 note in her bra after she tried to pull out a tissue but reached for the wrong side. And her improvised piano between the verses of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ included snippets of ‘Over the Rainbow’ and classical interludes. “I don’t plan anything,” she said. “As long as I know the Western harmonic system, I can find my way around.”

Seeger didn’t play the two songs for which she’s best known. MacColl wrote ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ for her; it was made famous by Roberta Flack’s Grammy-winning 1972 version, but got no outing here. Nor did ‘I’m Gonna Be An Engineer’, which Seeger suggested she’d sung too many times.

But it didn’t matter. As she wrapped up, Seeger described the lack of live music over the last 18 months as “a kind of starvation”. She was right. And this modest show from one of folk’s living legends was a welcome dollop of sonic nourishment.

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