Veteran folk singer Peggy Seeger rings the changes

Peggy Seeger. Picture: Vicki Sharp
Peggy Seeger. Picture: Vicki Sharp
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Peggy Seeger has had an extraordinary career that spans sixty years. She spoke to Duncan Seaman ahead of her appearances in Yorkshire.

“IT’S the first record I’ve made where I play so few instruments myself,” says Peggy Seeger of Everything Changes, her most recent album in a remarkable career spanning six decades, that features a band led by her younger son Calum with her elder son Neill and daughter-in-law Kate St John also in tow.

“I only play the piano on We Watched You Slip Away and the concertina on another track and that’s it. The rest I’m singing while the boys are playing. I call them the boys,” she catches herself, “they’re 52 and 56. I’m having trouble not being their mother.”

Calum produced the album, which was one of last year’s most acclaimed folk recordings, and Seeger, who turns 80 next week, is full of maternal praise.

“He’s excellent, he knows how to work with people better than I do. I have to sometimes watch my step. He said to me the other day I’m a control freak in a family of control freaks, which I think is wonderful. I was able to work with my sons once we agreed it was a professional relationship, not a family one.”

Where some may be familiar with Seeger from her anthems against war and prejudice or I’m Gonna Be An Engineer, which was adopted by the women’s movement, Everything Changes has an autumnal feel and its songs are ripe with mature reflections on mortality.

“I have kind of been in that mood since my 70th birthday,” she says. “Those turned out to be the best songs, they fitted well together. Because I’ve been politically minded for the last 50s years, the political situation and the ecological situation is such a desperate one these days I tend to be quite downbeat about it. Death, human problems, that’s how it happened to work out.

“People seemed to take to it. We like things about our misery. Newspapers talk about it and we love to talk about misery and problems – that’s who we are.”

In recent years, Seeger has taken to branching out in new directions. Folksploitation, her previous album from 2102, was an unlikely collaboration with dance producer Broadcaster. “That was to see how far we could take things,” Seeger says. “It was more his expertise than mine.” It’s a far cry from the famously purist Critics Group that she founded in the mid-1960s with her late husband, the Salford-born socialist folk singer Ewan MacColl, I suggest. “No, I’m a musician,” Seeger replies. “Since I was six years old I’ve been into classical music. The boys got into all kinds of other music. I don’t have tunnel vision on folk music – I’ve messed around with it as well. It’s merely changing from one genre or other. I see music as vivacious.” On Folkspolitation Seeger revived one of the best known songs in her repertoire, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. MacColl wrote it for her in 1957, a year after they first met, when he was married to the dancer Jean Newlove. It later went on to be a breakout hit for Roberta Flack. For years after MacColl’s death in 1989 Seeger says she was simply unable to perform the song.

“You have to have the emotional input to do it and part of me was broken when he died,” she says. “Even though I had a new partner at the time – I’m a Gemini, been there done both,” she says, alluding to her long-term relationship with the Irish singer Irene Pyper-Scott, “Ewan was just a soul mate. We worked together for 30 years, now he’s gone I could not sing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. A lot of the places we went to I could not go to, but I sing it with great joy now. I like to think he would be glad I’m with a different person. It’s the perfect relationship,” she adds. “She lives in New Zealand and I live here. We visit each other.”

Seeger grew up in a household steeped in music. Her father Charles was a folklorist and musicologist, her mother Ruth Porter Crawford a composer, while her brothers Mike and Pete were folk musicians.

“It’s only looking back on it and people being so fascinated by it that I realised how extraordinary it was,” Seeger says. “By the time I was two years old my mother was talking 16in records out of the Archive of Congress Library and bringing them home to play to transcribe them on to paper. Chain gang and murder songs, shanties, dance tunes for fiddle and mandolin – that was what we drank in, as well as my mother playing excellent classical piano when my father came home from work.

“People’s mouths dropped open when I said I met Lead Belly when I was six and Woody Guthrie. It was extraordinary but other people have extraordinary lives that I know nothing of.”

Ewan MacColl’s life – raised during the Great Depression as the son of militant trade unionists – seemed “exotic” by comparison to hers, she says. “It was like something out of the movies.”

She recalls they first met on March 25, 1956 after Alan Lomax, the musicologist, brought her to London from Denmark – where she was travelling – on the premise of recording a TV show. MacColl pursued her for three years before they finally settled down. Seeger remembers of that initial meeting: “He was married, he was old, he had a red beard, black hair and smoked incessantly, he ate Rennies after lunch because he lived on fatty food – he loved brisket and steamed puddings. I was 21 and he was 41. I’d been going with boys and this was a man. I was a little frightened of him, but he was very insistent. He was the most interesting person I had ever met in my life.”

Peggy Seeger plays at The Greystones in Sheffield on June 19 and the National Centre for Early Music in York on June 20.