Peggy Seeger performed her first show in Chicago in 1957 when, at age 22, she jumped on her Lambretta scooter in New York’s Greenwich Village and traveled westward to the Gate of Horn with nothing else but a banjo and knapsack.
Many decades later, Seeger returns to play the Old Town School of Folk Music. Living in New Zealand, she is traveling a greater distance to Chicago these days, but her commitment to traditional songs, group singing and the banjo remains undaunted.
Her introduction to folk music came from Pete Seeger, her older half-brother who spent time with her family in between stints of college and travels with the Almanac Singers. Peggy and Mike Seeger — her brother who would later form the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the first urban folk groups — fought over a banjo manual penned by Pete, and spent summers with him honing their skills.
“Pete was patient, incredibly patient. He wanted to teach, he wanted to spread the word,” she says of those days.
Peggy Seeger eventually became a global ambassador of folk music and an authority of English ballads, settling in London, where she performed, recorded more than 20 albums and produced an acclaimed BBC radio program that introduced audiences to the English folk tradition. She also became an ardent activist, performing music that helped give voice to the emerging feminist and environmental movements.
She talked recently by phone from her home, where she returned from a brief visit to the United States for the funeral of Pete Seeger, who died in late January at age 94. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. Why return to the U.S. now to perform?
A. I’m 79 this year and rapidly realizing I can’t do all this galloping about and lifting in and out of shuttle buses, so I wanted to say goodbye to some friends. I really like performing in the U.S.; I like it a lot. I know an awful lot of the people who come to the concerts. I’m not an icon over there but people know me. And I like hearing them sing. They join in so readily there. Also, more children come to the concerts than they do over here. I think that’s largely due to Pete and the folk-singing movement.
Q. At Pete’s funeral, did talking with others who were grieving provide any different perspective on your brother?
A. The most moving event I was at was at the funeral home on the Wednesday after he died. And I stood at the door for six hours greeting people, greeting people, greeting people. Between 2,000 to 3,000 people filed through: people in tears, people hugging. There was music going on, his ashes were in the urn on the side. There were people of all ages: The oldest was 95, the youngest could barely walk. So I knew the effect that Pete had had. I had been Pete Seeger’s sister for all my life. And it’s an honored position to hold. Not only honored because of him, but because what he did made it possible for me. Lots of young people when they start out, they have hard time trying to get a leg into this mad race that we call the music industry now. It’s difficult. But I had the name Seeger and I had a brother Pete Seeger and mother and father [musicologist] Charles [Seeger] and [composer] Ruth [Crawford Seeger]. So I was lucky. I also loved those people who wedged open the door for me.
Q. Folk music seems, yet again, prevalent with so many folk-based musicians performing to large audiences, and re-interest in the folk revival due to the “Inside Lwelyn Davis” film.
A. Back in the 1500s, [Victorian poet] Sir Philip Sidney said, “go to streets of England and hear the ballad sellers because they’ll be gone soon.” And yet there have been folk revivals over and over and over and over. It’s kind of like the phoenix that keeps rising from the fires of progress. The main thing about folk music is that, if you ever want to use the phrase “ordinary people,” you can use that, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as an ordinary person. We’re all unique and we have our own potential. And there’s essentially music in every child that’s born. But it’s snuffed out by becoming a consumer instead of a producer. Because our educational system teaches us to be a consumer, it does not teach us, on the whole, to produce. It puts us constantly in competition with the great writers and singers of the past, so we feel smaller. What Pete said was, “You can do this, you can make up music, you can sing music.” How simple it is to make a song yourself. And the act of creation is intensely important to human beings. It really is. Intensely. You feel better, you walk more tall, you get along better with other people, you feel that life is your own unique thing as well as a community thing. Pete brought out this individualism, he also brought out the community singing together. So it’s global and local, it’s large and small, it’s personal and general.
Q. The folk revival of the late 1950s returned focus to songs made decades earlier. Why during that time were those songs of such special importance?
A. The collecting of that music came at a time, in the 1920s and 1930s, when there was so much economic disruption that people felt a familiarity with this music even though they hadn’t made it up themselves. And [decades later], I think a lot of us middle-class people — because that’s what I am — we recognized a survival truth in these songs, that these songs were part of the way that people, who were living in horrendous circumstances, made it possible for themselves to survive as a community. I think it’s easy to take such songs and run with them and make them slick and put four-part harmony on them and go to top of “Hit Parade.”
Q. You’re talking about what many commercial groups such as the Kingston Trio or the Clancy Brothers did at the time. Even the Weavers, Pete’s former group.
A. Pete walked the walk and talked the talk at same time. He didn’t try to get on “Hit Parade.” He didn’t try to fancy-up the songs, although the Weavers did. My father was horrified when he first heard the Weavers because they were so smooth and so slick. It might sound an odd thing, but I think [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy [head of the House Un-American Activities Committee that indicted Seeger on 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957 for refusing to answer questions] inadvertently did Pete a favor and got him out of the Weavers. Now I’ll get in trouble for that. But it put Pete on his own. Pete worked beautifully on his own.
Q. Apart from the many protest songs written by your late husband, the English folk songwriter Ewan MacColl, he also wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the classic that Roberta Flack made famous in 1972, and earned Ewan a songwriting Grammy. The song has been covered by nearly 100 people including Elvis Presley, the Flaming Lips, Johnny Cash and Lauryn Hill. Which version do you prefer?
A. It’s been done in almost every musical style but Peter, Paul and Mary probably got the closest to it. But it’s not meant to [be sung] by three people, it’s meant to be sung by one person. If you get visual picture of it, it’s like a cardiograph that it needs just a single continual accompaniment that’s unobtrusive and then you sing like a bird. That’s the way it needs to be. There’s rap versions, there’s soul versions, there’s a country version, choruses sing it, its unbelievable the song hasn’t died. It’s just a nice, simple song.
Mark Guarino is a local freelance writer.