I love this photo.
Fellow Morris-dancing-survivor Angie has set up a new local branch of the Women’s Institute round our way, and one of her recent coups has been to get Peggy Seeger to be a guest speaker, talking about her life and singing a bunch of songs. Would I like to do the sound, should there be any specific requirements? Absolutely. Not every day you get to meet a legend.
Peggy Seeger was born in the 1930s, to an an acclaimed composer (mother) and an ethnomusicologist (father). Her siblings also went on to be giants in the folk music world (the supposed feud between Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan is still pored over today). When the money ran out, she dropped out of Harvard and went hitch-hiking around the world. After travelling ‘on the thumb’ through (Communist) China and Russia she was blacklisted back home. This was at the height of Cold War paranoia in the USA, and it was clear that if she returned they would take her passport away, and she wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere. So she continued her trekking, enjoying the kind of social, intellectual and sexual freedom that would probably have been unthinkable for a woman of her age back home.
Just as she was about to accept a young gentleman’s offer to accompany her to a logging community in Finland, she got a very different offer from the grand high priest of folk collectors, Alan Lomax (the guy who first recorded the then-unknown Muddy Waters) to be part of a British band he was putting together: The Manchester Ramblers. The band, by her own account, sucked, and didn’t do very well, but it introduced her to Ewan MacColl, who would become her husband until he died 30 years later, and would give her a reason to stay in the UK.
So basically, at this talk we were treated to an account of a life spent right at the beating heart of the American and British folk worlds.
But better still, I found her to just be very likeable. Which is absolutely not a given, particularly in the folk scene. Sorry, but… you know what I mean, right? In the 60s and 70s there was an expression: ‘folkier than thou’. Folk fans can be insufferable pains in the fucking arse, and I include myself in that bracket. So, someone who had not just been at the centre of the post-war folk movement but the centre of the political post-war folk movement… I’ve heard the words ‘pedantic’, ‘self-righteous’ and ‘slightly insane’ frequently attributed to people in this world, and probably with good reason.
Well, she drives everywhere in a red van which she named ‘Rosie’, and on the back there’s a car sticker which says “What would Pete Seeger do?” In other words, I had nothing to worry about.
Almost as soon as she walked in she was asking me about where I thought the acoustics would be best, pointing to a brick beam in the ceiling and saying she’d had problems with sound traps like that before. Mindful of the fact that this person has been playing professionally for about 60 years, and that her 70th birthday was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and featured supporting turns from Billy Bragg and the Waterson / Carthy family, I did my very best to nod thoughtfully and say “Maybe here?” If she sensed that I had less than one clue, she certainly didn’t show it.
She chatted amiably with the audience before the show kicked off, then she talked for about an hour, about the past, and the present with her new partner Irene, about being a young woman in the 50s versus now, about being resentful on reading her mother’s letters to find she was actually a feminist, but never lived by those principles, and defaulted to her father’s judgement again and again (even though she was the breadwinner). About how radical politics has changed over the years. Then after a short break she played for maybe 45 minutes. And judging by the conversation afterwards, I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t blown away. As much by the conversation. She’s apparently writing her memoirs at the moment, which was probably lucky for us as it meant the anecdotes had been recently crafted. But I was also stuck by her songwriting, which I much prefer to Ewan MacColl’s – more direct, less preachy, and funnier.
Anyway, I mentioned all this to Hannah afterwards (she wasn’t able to go thanks to the late commute – which was a shame, as she would have loved it). “Bit of a crush?” she asked, and I said yeah, probably. Ms Seeger did strike me as a character from film. Something like Inside Llewyn Davis, but with Billy Wilder writing the dialogue. Example, when chatting afterwards I said what a fan I was of Eliza Carthy. She replied: “Oh, isn’t she wonderful? She’s a loose cannon, but boy can she shoot.” Who talks like that? I mean, without following up by saying “Actually, that’s a good line, I’m going to write that down…”
Anyway, this isn’t just an excuse for me to lots of namedropping. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t need an excuse to do that. This just struck me as a salutary lesson. As a kid, I was always warned about the precarious nature of a career in music (as opposed to something sensible like engineering), and the danger of being a poverty-stricken invalid in your dotage. What Peggy Seeger demonstrated is that, if you do it right for long enough, you’ll find yourself at 80 years of age being healthy, mentally agile, independent, still playing music, and having grown into person you were always meant to be. Still being very much in the game, as far as I could tell at least. Ironic for someone whose signature song was “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer”.
In the break in the middle, Angie showed me that her phone had just happened to show her what was playing on Radio 4 Extra at that moment: a programme called ‘Peggy Seeger In Her Prime’, with a picture of her in maybe her early 30s. I insisted we all complied in taking the photo. For me, it summed up the whole evening.