Peggy Seeger: ‘Folk music is really un-PC. But oh, the tunes!’
Peggy Seeger’s face flashes up on my computer screen from her home in Oxford. “Oh, there you are,” she says, then launches into bright, familiar conversation, sounding less like the grande dame of folk music and more like an old friend dropping by for tea. Her hair is short and white; her lipstick and scarf bright pink. Her striking features remain recognisable as those that, more than 60 years ago, inspired one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.
Back in 1957, Seeger was 22 years old and in a relationship with Ewan MacColl, a married Scottish folk singer almost twice her age. That year, he composed The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face in homage to her beauty. Twenty years later, she would become his third wife, but at the time, Seeger says: “We weren’t talking to each other much, because I was living in California, and he was over here, and transatlantic calls were unbelievably expensive.” She laughs. “But I called him on my stepmother’s telephone bill, and he sang it over the phone to me. Such a happy song: it goes from the first kiss to being in bed together.”
Seeger transcribed the song over the phone, and recorded it in a high, sweet fluttering voice, accompanying herself on autoharp. Strikingly lovely though it is, it wasn’t until Roberta Flack made her own darkly sensuous recording of the song in 1972 that it became a modern pop standard. “We were horrified!” says Seeger, laughing. In Flack’s version, “three-quarters of the tune is not the tune that Ewan wrote. We thought it was horrendous. Never mind, the royalties still come in.” In the decades since, Flack's interpretation has grown on her and she now “really likes” it.
Seeger has had an extraordinary life in music: her 70 solo and collaborative albums, combining traditional songs with her own lyrically intricate compositions, are a landmark in modern folk. But, she suggests, her new album – out next month and called First Farewell – may be her last.
“I’m 85. I have arthritis in my hands. My voice is not what it used to be,” she says. “There’s notes that trouble me. I don’t want to fade out, I want to go out with a bang. I’m proud of this album. It has songs about memory, correlating joy and sorrow, past and present, hello and farewell, it feels like a good note to end on.”
When I start to ask about her career, Seeger stops me. “I don’t like to call it a career,” she says, “because cars can go careering down the road.” For her, music is more a vocation. Born in New York in 1935, Seeger is part of an American folk dynasty. Her father, Charles Seeger, was a prominent musicologist who helped organise the folk archives at the Library of Congress. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a pianist and composer, who transcribed folk songs for leading ethnomusicologists such as Alan and John Lomax. Her half-brother, Pete Seeger, was a pioneer of the 20th-century folk scene, while her brother Mike Seeger formed The New Lost City Ramblers.
When Peggy was a child, the blues musician Lead Belly and protest singer Woody Guthrie would come to stay. “All I remember of Woody is him dragging his guitar around the floor, barking and barking, pretending it was a dog,” she says. “I remember meeting Lead Belly, this enormous black man in a tie and suit, who arrived with Alan Lomax, who always dressed like hell. I had never seen a black person who was not in menial relation to white people before. He was very gently spoken, but I saw him playing in a boxing ring with big brother Pete, and he was immense.
“I was brought up drenched in folk music. We were just little kids playing in the corner, listening to chain gang songs, gospel songs, ballads where mothers are killing their babies, laments of women and men in prison. These songs are hard-wired into me.”
Seeger mastered multiple instruments with ease – her daily practice still incorporates concertina, dulcimer, banjo, guitar, autoharp and piano – and by her early 20s she was travelling around Europe as a folk musician. At the height of McCarthyist paranoia, her US passport was withdrawn owing to suspected political affiliations, effectively stranding her in exile. “I have done dangerous things, thoughtless things, without looking back,” she says now. “I turned my back on my native country almost flippantly. I was in an exciting new relationship, and there was a living to earn.”
She teamed up with Ewan MacColl after meeting him on a UK tour in 1956, and the couple soon became mainstays of the British folk revival. They raised three children – Neill and Calum (both now significant folk musicians in their own right) and Kitty MacColl (a successful designer) – all of whom contributed and collaborated on First Farewell, along with her daughter-in-law, Kate St John. Kirsty MacColl, the effervescent singer-songwriter who died in 2000, was her stepdaughter. The couple married in 1977 and remained together until Ewan’s death in 1989.
“He was the first great love of my life, my creative songwriting partner and the father of our children,” she says. But for the past 32 years she has been in a relationship with a woman, Irene Pyper-Scott, whom she met in 1964 and married in a civil ceremony in 2010. “Irene is the overwhelming love of my life, but I don’t label myself as lesbian or bisexual. I loved a man; I love a woman.”
Seeger switches easily between seriousness and humour, even flirtation. “You are a very handsome man,” she tells me. “You’re the type I used to go for when I was a younger woman… of 60 or whenever it was! But relax, I’m not going to kerb crawl you on Zoom.” She observes contemporary conflicts over sexual identity with sympathetic amusement. “Gender roles can be quite frightening,” she says. “You are asked to drop into one of two buckets when you’re born and expected to take all of the social advantages and disadvantages that come with it. I feel real sympathy for those stuck in between categories. We all have a part of ourselves like that. I’m an old lady, but I don’t feel like an old lady!”
These ideas are addressed on the new album in The Invisible Woman, a song written with her son Neill, which offers a witty rebuke to the way society marginalises women of a certain age. “People just look past you, but there are advantages,” she says. “When I go out, nobody is trying to touch me up, as they did until I was 50. Women become invisible once the baby factory is shut down. We are shoved aside, discriminated against, marginalised, all over the world. How we have been treated despite the fact that we’re 49 per cent of the population is outrageous, oh, outrageous!”
She’s furious, but her anger soon dissolves into laughter. “I’m off on my hobby horse!”
On the hot topic of cancel culture, Seeger offers a passionate argument for why statues of slave traders should be taken down, while defending her right to preserve folk songs full of cruel deeds. “The ramifications of the slave trade are unspeakable and distressing. I grew up in a segregated world, in Washington DC in the 1940s and 1950s, and it still hurts,” she says. “In a diverse society, why should we put up with statues in public places of people who condoned and profited from slavery?”
The songs of that era, though, speak to Seeger of a different truth. “The statues represent the ruling class. The songs talk about what the ruling class did to commoners, and what commoners did to each other as a result,” she says. “Many of them are politically really incorrect. There is misogyny all over the farm. Women are being murdered, victimised, [punished] for nagging their husbands. They’re always being left with the baby in their arms, crying, feeling sorry for themselves. But the tunes are so lovely, oh, so lovely!”
Seeger feels a duty to keep these songs alive – and insists on their continued relevance at a moment in time when news reports are filled with stories of women being assaulted and murdered by men.
“My partner says, ‘How on earth do you keep singing these songs where somebody’s being hung or there’s a massacre at the end of it?’,” she tells me.
“But the song is a piece of history, the music of the working class, beautifully crafted and honed and handed down for hundreds of years. When you really look into it, you will see a history of how women are treated. To sing a song about Omie Wise, who was murdered by her lover in 1808, or Poor Ellen Smith in 1892, or the murder of Laura Foster in 1866 that is remembered in Tom Dooley, it’s an honour roll of women who have fallen in the battle of the sexes. I am trying to hold on to these songs, until the next generation takes them up.”
Peggy Seeger: First Farewell is released by Red Grape Music on April 9. Peggy Seeger will perform at Cecil Sharp House, London NW1 on May 27. For tickets and details, see: efdss.org