First Farewell is folk icon, Peggy Seeger’s, 24th solo album and it is out today via Red Grape Music. We’re told it’s ‘probably’ her final original album but based on the utter joy she still has for playing music and her never-ending supply of thoughts and ideas, it’s hard to believe we won’t see more material from her. I suppose the clue is in the title really – if this is the first farewell, then there are bound to be others, right?
It’s hard to describe the place that Peggy occupies in the history of UK and USA folk without resorting to tired clichés and mythic descriptions but she really is a legend of the folk scene and is one of the most inspiring, uncompromising and important artists of any genre in the past 60 years. Coming from a musical family steeped in the traditions of folk and blues and with siblings Mike and Pete Seeger going on to become huge figures in the scene in their own rights, it might seem her path was pre-ordained. Whether it was or not, she has made an indelible mark on the pages of folk history and it is great to see her, with the new album, continuing to write more of her own history.
So at the age of 85, with an unbroken 68-year career, Peggy has released First Farewell, which really is a delightful and precious piece of work. It’s the sound of someone in reflective, but playful, form who is still bursting with ideas and thoughts and has an unerring sense of optimism that things can still be better. It’s her first to be written and recorded entirely with her immediate family members – sons Calum and Neill MacColl and daughter-in-law Kate St John. When I interviewed Peggy recently about the album, she was brimming with joy at working with her family:
I love it, it’s wonderful…it gives me such pleasure to work with them…and the fact that we’re all creative and they’re songwriters in their own right who are also superb musicians, I mean what’s not to like?
‘All in the Mind’ a song co-written and sung with her son Callum MacColl about ageing and the complexities that go with that. The tune has lovely accordion, piano and the vocals of mother and son are really sweet together; one of a number on the album where the interplay between the family members comes to the fore.
It’s also her first album to reference her roots as a classically trained pianist. It wasn’t actually pre-ordained that Peggy would go down the folk route, and she was destined at one point to become a concert pianist, following in the footsteps of her mother, the Guggenheim fellowship composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The use of piano arrangements on this album, rather than a purely traditional folk instrumentation, give a nod to those roots. I love that Peggy is still learning and still training even after such a long and illustrious career. She talked about practicing her folk every single day and said that why shouldn’t she – after all, concert pianists still practice every day, however experienced they are, so why can’t folk artists? Why not, indeed.
The eleven songs on First Farewell mine some of the most pressing issues of our time and muse on those issues via some beautiful and poetic storytelling. The issues addressed on the album are personal and political: life-long love; the invisibility of old age; the joys of not giving a damn anymore; loneliness; young male suicide; modern slavery; and social media addiction. Her desire for change seems as urgent now as it did at the start of her career; her uncompromising focus has not waned over the decades, not a bit. Despite the serious and difficult nature of these topics, Peggy brings an intense optimism and inquisitiveness to this album. You just have to look at her picture on the album cover to see how much she is still loving life. She also brings a playfulness and intimacy to these songs that really connects you as a listener.
Addressing issues in a with a knowing wryness is demonstrated no better than on The Invisible Woman, which was a single release from the album. It was co-written with son Neill, and explores how the older generation, but particularly older women have become marginalised, forgotten and invisible in today’s society. It may not be like the 1950s anymore and progress has been made but, sadly, the patriarchy is still in charge. Speaking about the track, she says:
My older son Neill MacColl was hesitant for ages about co-writing with me. He turned up at my home one day, laid his 6’1” self along my two-seater sofa and laconically offered a possible subject for a song. ‘The Invisible Woman’ strolled in gradually, wearing clown shoes and lace underwear. We ended up with a song that expressed an uncomfortable new feeling that was creeping up on us both but that echoed the folk songs that I’d sung to him since birth.
Peggy’s continued joy in creating and performing and her patient, determined activism, is as strong as ever and it is wonderful to behold in the video she has released to accompany the track. Recorded with Neill and Calum, Peggy’s eyes dazzle with a wry knowing and lust for life that feels like this might be solo album number 1, rather than number 24.
The theme of ageing and reflecting upon it is also explored in Cinderella-themed final album track ‘Gotta Get Home by Midnight’ Peggy says:
I wrote this song to combine a couple of different ideas around ageing. The first is that when I wake up in the morning I can feel as old as the hills but I gradually feel younger as the day goes on. The second is that however old you are, you can still be very passionate and want to race home to be with your love. I do have to be in bed by midnight though as my coach will change into a pumpkin. There’s a time when everyone has to go and you shouldn’t apologise for it.
‘Dandelion and Clover’ is a story of love and time and memory. It’s a beautiful song about the duality of love and loss, happiness and sorrow and how you can’t have one without the other – “sorrow and joy are bound together” sings Peggy, playing soft notes on her piano. There is a lovely description of how something or someone that might be dead is alive when remembered. ‘How I Long for Peace’ is a straightforward cry from the heart, as Peggy surveys the world around her. It’s another beautiful song with just Peggy’s vocals and gentle piano. Peggy says of the song:
This is a completely truthful song and sometimes it’s important to just say things as they are. When people talk about hypocrisy and greed they normally mean someone else’s hypocrisy and greed. We consume an enormous amount. I’m the same – I’m guilty too. We all are. When I wrote the song, I wanted to state it just very simply – my deep desire to stop the fighting, the battling, the tearing down other people and being rude and assembling riches while so much of the world is poor. I really do long for peace.
What is as clear as ever from this album, and from speaking to Peggy about it, is the she remains as passionate an advocate for change through music as she ever has and she has produced a gem of an album that will make any day better and more optimistic, and a bit more playful.
- Dandelion and Clover
- The Invisible Woman
- All In The Mind
- We Are Here
- The Puzzle
- Lullabyes For Strangers
- One of Those Beautiful Boys
- Tree Of Love
- How I Long For Peace
- Gotta Get Home By Midnight
Peggy is also desperate to get back out there and connect with audiences and has a 26 date UK-wide tour now confirmed for March 2022 with some dates later this year – see her website for details. She is playing at Cecil Sharp House, London on 27th May.
If you can’t wait to see her in person, you can tune in to her YouTube Channel every Sunday for her ‘Peggy at 5’ where she explored a different them through music each time.
If you go to Peggy’s Bandcamp page then you can order a physical copy of First Farewell and Peggy will also sign it and add a message of your choice.
Catch Peggy online here: