The word legend is used rather too often in music, but by any standard Peggy Seeger’s long career as a folk musician and social activist qualifies her for that title.
From being kicked out of her native America for having the audacity to visit Soviet Russia in the McCarthyite 1950s to recording a series of hugely influential albums with her husband Ewan MacColl she has been instrumental in keeping folk music alive in her adopted land. Her solo career has seen her champion progressive causes from Greenham Common to mankind’s destruction of our environment.
Now she’s back aged 85 with a critically acclaimed new album, First Farewell, that is a very much a family affair. Paul Clarke spoke to Peggy about how this record came about and what it was like working with her children.
So Peggy how did this album come about?
“If we come right down to the wire the genesis is my kids and their partners are trying to keep me going. I’m 85, still writing songs with both of my sons, and my oldest son’s partner Kate St John. We had songs waiting and Calum said ‘it’s time for another album mum.’ “
So what next?
“We pulled together songs that we felt worked and I said my voice isn’t good enough, it isn’t what it used to be, and I have to be very careful. But they pushed it, I’m surprised as some of the songs are a bit off the wall, and very different to what Louder Than War seems to cover as I’m softer than war.”
I don’t know about that Peggy, as Louder Than War is always interested in non-conformity and free thinking, and I think your whole career has been about that.
“I’ve never fitted into the normal pattern as my partner Ewan MacColl and I purposely stayed down in the grassroots. We never wanted to be popular and I think if we’d have tried we would have failed dismally. We just did what we wanted.”
One of the standout tracks is An Invisible Woman, co-written with your son Neill, where you reflect how people seem to get less noticed as they get older. I love the lines ‘I strolled down the high street on Sunday/in clown shoes and lace underwear/did they notice my dance?/not a single glance’ where you rail against ageism.
“The song was generated by writing my first song with Neill as we’d never had. He’s 62 now and he didn’t how to co-write with me, and I with him, so we sat there and said what should we write about? Nothing came up so we started talking about our lives, and he said you know what at my age I feel like I’ve disappeared. I said you try being 85 and a woman, or try being a woman over 45. The baby factory has shut, you are redundant and what are you going to do? Older Women are not regarded as being wise any more.”
One of the most moving songs is Lullabies for Strangers which seems to be about the cost to people who migrate here to work.
“It’s not especially migrants as it’s also people who work here and then go home. Like almost all the women I know I loathe housework, so fortunately I can afford someone who needs a job to come in and clean the house. For about maybe five or six years I had two Filipino sisters, small and in their fifties, very cheerful and they used to sing while they worked in the house. I talked to them about their lives, and both had children back in the Philippines. They put their children through college doing housework for English people and they talked about their children with a longing that was so heart-breaking. One of them hadn’t seen her daughter for three years, and wasn’t going to be at her daughter’s graduation, and she had sent her through university by being here for seven years. Kate St John was really responsible for the chords, melody and poignant lines like ‘kissing shadows.’
Sometimes musical families working together can go badly wrong like Liam and Noel, but what’s your experience been?
“It’s an eye-opener, it’s jaw-dropping. People thought because it was a mother and son, or daughter in law, that there would be battling, but we worked together seamlessly. There’s no resentment if a line put in doesn’t work and Calum may say ‘fantastic’ or ‘he may say ‘oh, mum really.’ You just turf out anything you think about, and even if it’s ridiculous it can spark something else in the other person.”
While you are well known as a folk performer you are actually a classically trained pianist like your mother. This album seems to straddle folk and classical, so was going back to the piano a deliberate choice for this record?
“In no way would I look on this as a folk album as folk songs develop, they become. Only two or three songs sound even vaguely like a folk song. What happened is simpler than that as I have bad arthritis in both of my hands, and a piano is a percussion instrument essentially, so I can sit there and tap keys. Whereas on the banjo I have a really swollen knuckle on my right hand, which impedes other fingers, so my playing is reduced significantly. I started on the piano and I may end on the piano.”
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Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.