Peggy Seeger is considered by many to be the female folksinger, responsible for the continuous upswing of folk music popularity. It is a fitting title, considering Peggy was living and breathing folk music since before she was born. Brought into musical history by Roberta Flack in the late 1970s, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” one of the most stirring love ballads was penned in Seeger’s honor, by the late Scottish songwriter/folk singer, Ewan MacColl.
Born into a family already well immersed in the folk culture, Seeger and her siblings were raised with music surrounding them. Her mother and father, Charles and Ruth Seeger, were accomplished musicians and teachers, and they brought their business home with them, filling their homes in New York and Maryland with music and musicians and from cultures around the world. Their business was cataloging folk music for the Archive of American Folk Songs of the Library of Congress. According to Seeger, “They had me analyzing and transcribing tunes for an anthology at age eleven.” Her parents often entertained the musicians they were cataloging, and Seeger was right along side, listening and learning. “We had always sung as a family, but when Mike and I learned folk banjo and guitar, the singsongs became weekly events,” she reminisced on her website. According to Kristin Baggelaar in Folk Music—More than a Song, “it was through listening to other musicians and field recordings of singers and instrumentalists from all over the United States that she absorbed the folk idiom and developed her singing and playing techniques.”
Their parents’ profession also influenced the rest of her siblings. Her brother Pete Seeger was a well-known political-protest folk musician who, while coming of age during the changing decades of the 1930s and 1940s, toured with Woody Guthrie. Her brother Mike also performed and wrote music. Seeger recorded the album Three Sisters, with her sisters, Penny and Barbara.
Seeger was gifted with the ability to learn musical instruments amazingly fast. Learning first on the piano at the age of seven and then moving on to other instruments, including the guitar, five-sting harp, string banjo, autoharp, Appalachian dulcimer and the English concertina. Her formal musical education took place at the prestigious Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she began using her voice as an instrument. She carried on her parents’ work by singing traditional songs.
After college, Seeger spent a lot of time touring the world, including living in Holland. She learned Russian and began adventuring to eastern countries like the former Soviet Union, China, and Poland. She also ventured through Europe and parts of Africa. In the mid 1950s Seeger was asked to perform in a London television production of Dark of the Moon. After becoming a British subject, she met the person who would become her biggest influence—and her future husband—Ewan MacColl. MacColl saw Seeger while rehearsing with a band called the Ramblers, and later penned his signature tune “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
After marrying in 1958, the couple went on to write, compose, sing, play and tour together for almost 30 years until MacColl’s death. Seeger is often quoted giving thanks to her husband who “helped me to crystallize a singing style and, most important, showed me who ‘the folk’ really are.” Shortly after marrying MacColl, Seeger began writing her own folksongs. “Songwriting,” quotes her website, “helps me to live in the present, ‘at the same time as myself,’ as Ewan MacColl used to say. It is my way of trying to let tomorrow’s people know part of what it was like to be alive today.”
Considered to be one of North America’s finest singers of traditional songs, Seeger is credited with reviving the British folk music scene. Seeger has more than 100 recordings bearing her name, and over a three dozen solo albums, for numerous British and American labels. Her most recognized folksong “If I was an Engineer,” was recorded in 1970 for the British Festival of Fools, as an ode to feminism. Seeger and MacColl, as the London
Recorded dozens of albums, as a solo artist and with various performers including MacColl, Irish songwriter Irene Scott, and various siblings; released American Folk Songs for Children, Smithsonian/Folkways Records, 1957; Almost Commercially Viable, Golden Egg, 1992; An Odd Collection, Rounder Records, 1996; returned to the United States in the 1990s.
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Critics Group, were the forces behind the annual festival. “If I Was An Engineer” was on At the Present Moment, released by Rounder Records in 1973.
Seeger traveled upon the more political and social side of folk music, staying with the traditions of Leadbelly, the Guthries and her own brother Pete. Many of her songs dealt with politically charged issues. “Seeger’s distinctly clear and very pretty voice especially lends to the optimism, even when singing on darker subjects such as wife abuse, abortion and death,” wrote Chris Speek for the Chapel Hill News.
After her husband’s death from heart problems in 1989, Seeger decided to go on the road and toured most of Australia and the United States. She also began collaborating with a close friend, Irish singer Irene Scott. Together, performing under the name No Spring Chickens, the duo released Almost Commercially Viable for Golden Egg in 1992. The album was named after a comment a record company professional made. Album title notwithstanding, according to Andy Malkin in Stirrings, in 1998, “both Peggy and Irene’s voices are really fresh, despite their combined ages of over a century.”
In 1994, Seeger returned to the United States. She continued to record albums, and began compiling material for her as yet unpublished songbooks. In 1996, Seeger released An Odd Collection for Rounder. “Seeger rather resembles Simon and Garfunkel sans harmonies, or a more historically and politically conscious Peter, Paul and Mary,” wrote Speek. Her feminist views were easily displayed on the album with subjects ranging from housewife duties to nuclear pollution to unionism. It was on this album that Seeger finally got the chance to pay tribute to her husband—“On This Very Day” recalls the day she and MacColl met.
Seeger’s 1998 release, Period Pieces, is a collection of her songs from the 1960s through the 1980s. It is a wonderful collection of the themes she had sung about throughout the decades. The difference, wrote Chris Morris for Billboard in 1998, lies in her song’s arrangements. “The majority (of songs on the album) are characterized by a buoyancy and humor not usually associated with political song.” Seeger also was able to pay tribute to her mother with her 1998 release American Folk Songs For Children. Released a number of times since she first recorded it in 1950s, the album is a dedication to her mother. Her mother originally collected all the materials on the album.
Along with recording albums of folk anthems, Seeger has also published various print collections including The Peggy Seeger Songbook, Warts and All, and The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook. In her own songbook, Seeger included nearly 150 songs and one poem, arranged in chronological order. As Faith Petric wrote in The Folknik in 1998, “Let’s just say she is the consummate song writer, absolutely one of the very, very best. If it’s in our lives, Peggy has written a song about it.” As Seeger told Billboard, “The trick is to make music that men and women can respect but which is presented in a feminine way... I do not want to intimidate or to make men think I’m hostile. It’s a tricky business.”
American Folk Songs For Children, Smithsonian/Folkways Records, 1957.
Peggy Alone, Argo Records, 1967.
At the Present Moment, Rounder Records, 1973.
The Angry Muse, Argo Records, 1968.
Almost Commercially Viable, Golden Egg, 1992.
Folkways Years, 1955-92: Songs of Love and Politics, Smithsonian/Folkways 1992.
An Odd Collection, Rounder 1996.
All Music Guide.
Baggelaar, Kristin, Folk Music—More Than A Song, Thomas Crowell Co., NY, 1976.
Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 1989.
Strambler, Irwin and Landon, Grellun, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martins Press, 1969.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 1992.
Billboard, October 3, 1998.
Chapel Hill News, April 3, 1998.
—Gretchen Van Monette