Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Life and Times of Folk Musician and Social Activist Peggy Seeger

Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics by Jean R. Freedman is the first biography of folk musician Peggy Seeger.

The Seegers are famous as musicians and musicologists. Peggy was half sister to Pete Seeger the famous banjo-strumming political troubadour, and sister of Mike Seeger who specialized in 'old time ' country music of the rural South.

Their father Charles was a folk music scholar and collector, taught at University of Berkeley, and was responsible for creating the first musicology course in the United States. Charles' first wife Constance was a concert violinist and taught at the Institute of Musical Art, which became Julliard. Their children included Pete Seeger.

After their marriage failed Charles met Ruth Crawford, a musician, composer and folk music anthologist. They married and their children included Peggy and Mike. The children grew up surrounded by folk music, pacifism, and a political bent supportive of the working class.
Peggy and Mike learned banjo from their half-brother Pete's book How To Play the 5-String Banjo.

Alan Lomax invited twenty-year-old Peggy to London for a job singing and playing the banjo. She had a sweet, clear voice. An older, established British folk singer, Ewan McColl, saw Peggy perform and their lives were changed unalterably.

Ewan McColl was "equal parts poetry and politics, artistry and activism," a collector and singer of Scottish folk songs with a remarkable baritone voice. The forty-one year old Ewan said his senses were "utterly ravished' when he heard Peggy play. McColl came from the poor, working class. His plays, songs, and radio theater addressed political issues of his day-- workers rights, human rights, fascism, and apartheid.

Ewan and Peggy fell in love, but it was years before Ewan was divorced. Peggy became a British citizen by marrying another singer so she could remain in England. They created the Radio Ballads documentaries, Festival of Fools, The Critics Group, and founded Blackthorne Records.

Ewan wrote Peggy a love song to use in concert, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, in 1957. When Roberta Flack covered the song in 1969 it became a hit. Suddenly McColl and Seeger were financially secure. You can hear Peggy sing the song at: https://secondhandsongs.com/work/31003


 Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1965. Photograph: Brian Shuel/Redferns
As the times changed so did Peggy's music. She reflected the Women's movement with her most famous song, Gonna Be An Engineer. The song from 1979 begins with traditional social expectations for a girl:

Momma told me, Can't you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you're older, dear, and maybe
You'll be glad that you're a girl

The girl does as she is told until she finally gets the job as an engineer. But she faces stereotypes at work:

You've got one fault, you're a woman
You're not worth the equal pay

To sum up, she sings,

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I'm just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I've been a suck ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I'll fight them as a woman, not a lady

I'll fight the as an engineer


Ewan's later years were plagued by illness. Shortly before his death in 1989 Peggy and fellow singer Irene fell in love. In 2006 they had a civil marriage.

I was glad to learn more about Peggy, who I knew through the radio and recordings. She was an amazing woman, pioneering feminist, and accomplished artist.

I have long enjoyed Ewan McColl, especially his Broadside Ballads on which he sings King Lear and His Three Daughters (which you can hear at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vF7n-f72Ig). You can hear Peggy on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/PeggySeeger.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Peggy Seeger
Jean R. Freedman
University of Illinois Press
Publication March 13, 2017
$29.95 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-252-04075-7