P e g g y ..S e e g e r
“Folk music is its own person. It doesn’t need us to
“Seeger appears as emotionally connected to the spirit
There have been many multi-generational “folk families” of American musicians and songwriters, from little-known rural clans sharing their traditional songs in unrecorded privacy to the legendary Carter Family, Woody Guthrie and his descendants, and, of course, the Seegers. Not only has Peggy Seeger extended her family’s musical legacy through her own accomplishments but she has created an international tributary through her marriage to the late British singer, songwriter, activist and actor Ewan MacColl and the children they parented, two of whom are professional musicians.
Peggy Seeger’s mother, composer/pianist Ruth Crawford Seeger,.was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship Award for Music; her father, Charles Louis Seeger, was a pioneer in ethnomusicology at UCLA, where he invented the melograph, an electronic means of notating music. Half-brother Pete Seeger, older by 16 years, is an international icon for his musical and political activism for more than half a century, and her late brother. Mike, two years her senior and “the best all-around instrumentalist of the three of us,” according to Peggy, helped found the seminal “old-time music” band The New Lost City Ramblers in the late Fifties, and remained active as a band member, solo musician, and folklorist, continuing his work in recording and archiving music of an older era until his untimely death in 2009. In 2011, Appleseed released Mike's final recordings, a duo CD with Peggy called Fly Down Little Bird. The entire family’s achievements were celebrated in March 2007 at a two-day symposium presented by the U.S. Library of Congress, “How Can I Keep from Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute.”
Brought up in an environment where “home was music,” Peggy absorbed classical music from her parents’ piano playing and traditional folk music from the recordings and visits of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and song collectors John and Alan Lomax, among others. She learned to play the banjo and guitar alongside Mike and participated in the family singalongs. By the time she was 11, Peggy had learned to transcribe music, and later majored in music at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, where she first began to perform professionally.
In 1955, 20-year-old Peggy continued her academic studies in the Netherlands and traveled and performed throughout much of Europe and Asia and part of Africa. That same year, Folkways issued her debut recordings, the 10-inch Folksongs of Courting and Complaint. A greater milestone was soon to follow: “At the age of nearly 21, on March 25, 1956, at 10:30 in the morning, I entered a basement room in Chelsea, London, and sealed my fate,” Peggy says. “Ewan MacColl was sitting on the other side of the room. Twenty years my senior, he was a singer and songwriter par excellence…We were together 24 hours a day for three decades, two people rolled compatibly into one.” MacColl immortalized that first meeting in his song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a #1 US chart single for Roberta Flack in 1972.
After becoming a British subject in 1959 and settling in London, Peggy moved, with Ewan, to the forefront of the British folk revival, singing and lecturing about the place of the folk song in modern life, emphasizing the connections between traditional song forms and political activism. The highlight of their collaboration (“other than our children”) was the development, with BBC producer Charles Parker, of the innovative Radio Ballad form, a mosaic of spoken vocals, sound effects and newly written folk songs. These Ballads have been reissued as an 8-CD set by the UK’s Topic Records. For seven years, Seeger and MacColl ran the controversial London Critics Group and produced a yearly political theatrical presentation, “The Festival of Fools.” The duo also operated and regularly performed at one of England’s best known folk venues, The Singers Club, and formed their own record label, Blackthorne Records. Somehow, Peggy found time to have three children, write music for and perform in films, television programs and radio plays, as well as establishing and editing a magazine of contemporary songs, The New City Songwriter, throughout its existence (1965-85), and helped assemble books of folk songs with Ewan MacColl, Alan Lomax and Edith Fowke. In 1971, she was the subject of a Granada Television documentary in their series, “The Exiles.” In 1995, BBC Radio 2 broadcast an award-winning seven-part series about Peggy’s life, with subsequent episodes broadcast in 1996 and 1997.
In 1983, Peggy began to sing occasionally with Irish traditional singer Irene Pyper-Scott, with whom, after MacColl’s death in 1989, she formed a performing and recording duo, No Spring Chickens. Peggy moved back to the States in 1994 and re-established her solo career as singer, recording artist and lecturer, using Asheville, North Carolina, as her home base. She and Irene resided there until moving to Boston several years ago to enable Peggy to teach at Northeastern University. In December 2006, Peggy and Irene entered into a civil union partnership in England. American visa policies subsequently obliged Irene to leave the US. Peggy moved back to England in 2010, and their two-country relationship is solid and satisfactory.
On May 29, 2005, Peggy’s 70th birthday was celebrated a few weeks early with a very special concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Entitled “In Her 70th Year,” the event included performances by Peggy, her children, Irene, brothers Pete and Mike, and special guests from the U.K. folk pantheon, including Billy Bragg, Martin and daughter Eliza Carthy, and Norma Waterson, among others. The show was broadcast in part by the BBC and in 2007 a near-complete version was released as a 2-CD set, Three Score and Ten, on Appleseed.
Considered one of the finest singers of Anglo-American folk songs, Peggy has written many songs of her own, chiefly dealing with political, feminist, and ecological subjects. One hundred and forty-nine of Peggy’s best pre-1998 compositions have been published in her Peggy Seeger Songbook: 40 Years of Songmaking (Oak Publications). Among her most famous songs are “Gonna Be an Engineer,” which was subsequently adopted as a feminist anthem, and “The Ballad of Springhill,” dealing with a Canadian mining disaster in 1958. To date, Peggy has recorded 23 solo albums (including five for Appleseed, starting with Love Will Linger On, a garland of romantic love songs), issued several informal CDs of topical songs in her “Timely” series, and has contributed to more than 100 other recordings, including brother Pete’s 2003 Grammy-finalist Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger Vol. 3 and Rosalie Sorrels’ My Last Go Round. Peggy’s most recent Appleseed release, Bring Me Home (January 2007) concludes her “Home Trilogy” of CDs (the other two volumes are Love Call Me Home and Heading for Home), which feature some of her favorite traditional folk songs, many of which she’s never previously recorded, and a few poignant originals. Bring Me Home was a finalist in the "Best Traditional Folk Album" category in the 51st Annual Grammy Awards presented in February 2009.
Despite recent physical infirmities and a faraway life partner, Peggy remains true to her credo: "Use what I know to be constructive and useful. And try to keep upright."
Peggy Seeger’s version of “Spider’s Web,” co-written by brother Pete and famed author E. B. White, appears on Pete Seeger & Friends’ Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 3, on Appleseed. Her own song “Sing About These Hard Times” from her Love Call Me Home CD also appears on our Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary 2-CD set.