Interview: Peggy Seeger – First Farewell

Peggy Seeger - Autoharp by Vicki Sharp Photography
Credit: Vicki Sharp Photography

I had the absolute pleasure of catching up with folk icon Peggy Seeger recently to talk to her about her latest album First Farewell, which is out now on Red Grape Music. You can see our full review here. As well as talking about her album, Peggy talked about her desperate need to get back on the road at the age of 85, and why we need to not just talk about the big issues, but connect the dots too.

First Farewell is Peggy’s 24th solo album and is a beautiful and precious piece of art from a woman who is still full of vim and vigour and wanting to change the world through her music, even 68 years into her amazing career. 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.

So you can imagine how excited I was to sit down for a chat with such a legend. I was too embarrassed to tell her that I have been known to sing ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ when handed a karaoke microphone. The song was written about her by legendary singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, who eventually became Peggy’s husband and she talks about in our interview. It’s not every day you get to interview a bona fide music legend.

I started off by asking Peggy if new album, First Farewell, is really going to her last album of original material as suggested by the accompanying press release. I think it’s fair to say that was met with a bit of scepticism in the music press. I don’t think anyone quite believed the press that came along with it and to be honest it doesn’t look like she’s somebody that’s ready to hang up her guitar just yet as she seems absolutely full of vim and vigour.

Well, the vim and vigour is just a show. I’m still on the go. I don’t know if it’s gonna be my last album. The title of it is kind of tongue in cheek. My brother Mike invented the slogan that accompanies the New Lost City Ramblers – who had broken up by that time – on their annual get together concert and they called it ‘The Annual Farewell Concert’. So I think ‘first farewell’ works. I’m kind of fond of that thing seeing someone off at the airport and you give them a hug and that’s the first farewell and then you watch them walk until they’re out of sight and just before they’re out of sight they turn and wave and that’s the second farewell. It opens up the possibility of another album but I’m not sure. You know, in order to stay in trend you have to be on the road. That is your real incentive to keep writing and at least with me it is. I’ve had a massive solo writer’s block for quite a long time. I’m 85, I’m 86 in two months and I don’t know what state I’ll be in by the time Covid allows us back out and I don’t know what state my voice will be in so First Farewell is a good title for it.

Peggy Seeger - First Farewell Album Cover

When Peggy talked about her need to get back on the road, her voice had a real yearning in it. You can tell how much she misses being out there connecting with her audience. It’s clear that for her, it is a massive motivator and a creative inspiration (she mentions her writer’s block more than once in our conversation). I was interested in what keeps her going after 24 solo albums and all the other albums that she’s done with other people as well so I asked her what keeps her motivated and it’s just her love of music, which she has not lost after all this time.

First of all, I love the music. For a long time it was chiefly the American folk songs that I was brought up with. When I started writing new songs and working with Ewan MacColl  practically every week, every month bought new songs, new issues, new politics. First it was just the music, then it was music plus politics and now what keeps me going, I think I keep going because of the music, because of what I do. It’s all I know how to do, I’m no good at anything else. I’ve written a book but that was just one book and it’s about me so it was something I knew about or thought I knew about so what else would I do? I don’t want to play bingo. I have endless ideas of songs to write but I’m in massive solo writers block. I write with my team and I love going out on tour so I just hope we can get out on tour again. I’m dying to get out on tour – you only got a certain number of years. I mean the though of touring when I’m 90 – just makes me want to laugh [and it really does make her laugh]. There was a time when I thought I don’t think I’ll be touring when I’m 70 and then there was a time when I don’t think I’ll be touring when I’m 80 so who knows? God knows what I’ll be doing when I’m 90. It’s keeping me going, that’s what it is and I love the music. I play every day.

There’s a point where I suppose it’s not what you do it, is who you are and it becomes difficult to disentangle the music from you as a person I suppose? Peggy agrees and just talks about the intense pleasure that she gets from singing:

You taste it. It fills your body and you just disappear into another dimension.

Peggy mentions lockdown and the impact that it has had on the world and on her as an artist. Whilst it might have stopped her getting out there in person and meeting her audiences, it hasn’t stopped her performing on her weekly ‘Peggy at Five’ slots and she has released videos of songs from First Farewell showing her performing with her sons Neill and Callum MacColl. She has also performed on Later with Jools Holland video. She is obviously finding ways to get her music out there but I was interested in how lockdwon has impacted the creative process for her.

I do a show every week now at 5:00 on Sunday. I do a 20 minute investigation of a different subject. I’m on my 17th [now up nearly 20]. The one for this coming weekend I’m continuing to base it around the new album. Each week for the last six weeks I’ve focused on one of the songs from the new album. I’m taking that as a jumping off point for the subject of the 20 minute session. I’m doing a lot of things with people who are doing singalongs and hootenannies, especially in America, and I join those. I have to keep singing to keep my voice strong. All of the things that musicians are doing to keep going just so that we keep going. Because the music, your hand muscles, your vocal muscles have to keep exercising. Several of my daughter’s friends who are musicians are stacking shelves at Tesco for money and they have no time to go home and play and they’re losing it, musicians are losing it through not exercising.

I thought it was really interesting that even after the career she’s had and the number of years that she’s been at this she still needs to practise. It’s always interesting to speak to artists and understand that actually this idea that there is some kind of innate musical talent that is just there, that doesn’t need to be worked on, is possibly a bit of a fallacy. Peggy said that they wouldn’t question a classical musician who continued to train so why should it be different for popular or folk musicians? Well, she’s right, it shouldn’t.

We covered the first single from the albumThe Invisible Woman – and talked a bit about it’s origin and how it relates to wider questions around patriarchy. 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. Peggy, though, is not letting up and is doing her bit to change.

The song showcases Peggy’s voice which is sounding great and has got a really lovely tone at the minute – it’s really got a purity to it. The song explored how women start to feel that they’re not being seen when they get older. I asked Peggy if it written specifically from her viewpoint or from the general viewpoint of women who reach an age where that starts to happen.

So first of all I should say that I am both visible and invisible. Professionally, I’m visible but I’m in a fringe area – I’m not in the big classical scene, I’m not in the big pop scene. I’m not even in the big folk scene, I’m kind of on the edge and looked on as special because I’ve bloody lived so long – but I do feel invisible out in public. I think an awful lot of older women are that way but the song was written by me and my son Neill, who’s 61, who came over to my place late in 2019 because we wanted to write a song together since we’d never done it before and he lay down on the couch and he said “what shall we write about?” Neither of us had a brilliant idea so we started talking about our lives and he said: “Mum, I’m 61 and I feel as if I’ve disappeared and I delved into it and it turns out I think that he felt he was invisible to younger women but an older woman feels invisible to everybody except other older women. Older men are not interested in us, they look at the younger ones. Look at Rupert Murdoch who is married to somebody who could be his granddaughter. But an older woman of 90 with a man of 25 people would just stop. So the song kind of moved over to being the invisible woman when I was with Neill. It was pretty much equal songwriting – it just flowed out. It only took about 2 hours to write. He was happy for it to be invisible woman because when I told him to what level invisibility went, he couldn’t believe it.

The song is obviously about a specific aspect of how women, and especially women of a certain age feel in society but during the week that I spoke to Peggy, the news media was filled with the aftermath of the horrendous murder of Sarah Everard. So this was the context for some of what we talked about – a horrendous reminder of how women are treated in society in very obvious ways and lots of not so obvious ways. Invisible Woman kind of nods to those wider themes in a way. I was interested in Peggy’s thoughts on the current discourse around women’s issues? She had a lot to say as you can imagine.

Well the biggest threat right now really is male violence and I’m afraid I see a bigger worldview than is comfortable for most men to listen to. The world is run by men. We live in a patriarchal world. Even though there’s a lot of changes taking place and a lot of them are really good, it’s a patriarchal world and I was discussing this with a bee-keeper who comes and takes care of hives in the back yard of where I live and he said that he thinks the problem is that men are hard wired to quick overreactions as a kind of Pavlovian response – to fight other men and to fight whatever gets in their way. When you look at the violence in the world – war, that’s men, the people who drive at pedestrians in the street into crowds, those are men who do that, women don’t do that. Maybe an occasional one but they don’t march into a nursery school with an assault rifle. They’re not the ones who torture or who operate the drones that fly all the way around the world to kill somebody in their street in a city far away. It’s men who do these things. So I think this is the big thing that we have to talk about.

Peggy is right – unless there is an honest discourse around these issues, I don’t think things will change. Yes, it is a patriarchal society. There is no doubt about that. This whole thing about ‘not all men’ is so frustrating because women know that it’s not all men but it’s always a man which is the point Peggy made. There has to be a wider conversation about what it is that causes men to act and behave like they do in society. If the culture is to change, men need to be at the centre of changing that as well because they need to listen more and they need to not be defensive. She then goes on to recount an incident with her late husband Ewan MacColl which shocked her at the time.

Unfortunately some men do this and all men get blamed and some women do this and all women get blamed. It’s a feature of the way we talk about people but I don’t really think anything will change until men have very active organisations to educate themselves about their proclivities and how quickly they can go to violence and I’ve seen that with men that I never would have thought. Something happens an all of a sudden wham!, they’re changed. Ewan MacColl only hit me once and I was being so bitchy as a 21 year old and he was 41 and the poor man, he was in his midlife crisis, and I didn’t want to be bothered with a man who was 20 years older and I was being horrible and he hit me and burst out crying. He was howling, he said “I’ve never hit a woman” – he was absolutely bereft and it never happened again in any way, there was never any violence from him but just that showed me that even someone who you think is a nice man can just fly off – it was as if he had just turned into somebody else just for that second.

We move on to talking about Peggy’s activism through music. She has a long and colourful history in political activism through song, being blacklisted by the CIA in the 1950s at the height of the McCarthy communist paranoia in the US, which prevented her travelling to Russia and China. She has continued her activism, channelled through writing, recording and touring over the past seven decades. She has always done activism through music. Folk musicians and folk music in particular seems to be rooted in addressing social and political issues. I asked Peggy why folk music in particular is so rooted in those things and other forms of music possibly aren’t to the same extent?

So there are some folk songs that are far out protest, there’s some that are just pointing out how the system works, there’s some that refer to the class system from afar. I think it’s like it is because folk music is the music of the lowest economic class – you didn’t find the rich people making folk songs. It gives the lowest economic profit to people who have no access to find concert halls and who are writing about their lives, their dreams, their ambitions. It is their form of art and it is invaluable and so many of the folk songs are amazing works of art. They are extraordinary: they have been honed and trimmed and edited in a way that an Inuit sculptor will create a seal out of a rock. This was a class that was never taught to read or write – we’re talking about way back – but there’s still areas in the world, huge areas where people can’t read or write and what they want to say they put into song.

I suppose that’s why the Blues is quite similar as it’s that purest form of storytelling that’s handed down through generations and also shared amongst communities and refined and honed over time. Peggy agrees:

So the Blues came from the lowest of the low economic class in America – the slaves and the ex-slaves and they didn’t read or write, they just served and were used and enslaved. What the black Africans donated to the American cultural scene is huge, it goes through so much about basic American Music. I don’t sing the Blues much, I would love to be able to but I’m not loose enough or relaxed enough in myself.

Another single form the album – How I Long for Peace – is a really beautiful song. It’s just Peggy and a piano and it’s just so soothing and mellow but obviously the theme of it is far from soothing and mellow and it is actually a straightforward cry from the heart, as Peggy surveys the world around her. She’s been singing about this stuff for a long time so I asked her if she ever got weary of having to keep making the same points and not seeing the change that she’d love to see.

Well I I don’t write directly activist songs anymore. I write songs like Lubrication which make it this and that and Dandelion and Clover where I explore joy and sorrow, the past and the future. I have stopped writing songs for picket lines partly because there’s no picket lines anymore thanks to Mrs. Thatcher or for Extinction Rebellion or those who are objecting to the racist culture and sit down in the roads. I haven’t written for those – there is a song to be written about the present Sarah Everard outrage. I don’t write those songs comfortably anymore, chiefly because I’m not that kind of thing and I can’t sing them and what I’m trying to do is to get people to co-relate and to join one issue to another in society. We don’t have that many general philosophers anymore like Bertrand Russell who tie everything together and explain that this happened because that happened and this is tied to that. One of my latest songs I have tied the principle of progress and development which is being forced on my local village. They have sequestered the last two green fields in our village which define the village and they are in the middle of the village and we’re battling. I have song called Progress Train which equates progress and development to rape. This is cultural rape. This is economic rape. We have not given permission for this outrage to be imposed on our village – it’s going to ruin the village; there is going to be so much traffic, so much pollution, so much noise and it’s going to increase the village by 30%. I’m making this connection between one section of what we do and another section of what we do. That’s what I’m trying to do now and that’s what happens in Dandelion and Clover and in a way showing one of those beautiful boys the way society works. There is no outlet for his teenage angst and he kills himself and then you see the result of it on his mother all in the one song. It’s not just a song about a boy hanging himself; it’s not just a song about a mother who’s lost her son. You try to give both sides and you try to move it on. It’s a tapestry of how we live and how everything ties in and does not just happen by itself

It’s fair to say that a lot of the public discourse at the minute is often context free and doesn’t make those connections and the conversations are very siloed so Peggy makes an important point here about how things link together and how we make sure that people know things don’t just happen but are created and they are created because somebody else does something over there.

Credit: Vicki Sharp Photography

Talking about connections, Peggy said right at the start of our conversation that she is desperate to get back out there and at the time of interview, she has quite a number of dates in the diary and obviously lots of artists are doing the same subject to when things will be able to get back to some sense of normality. She has rescheduled those date for next year, although she is also doing some throughout this year and the details are on her website. Some of the dates are with her son Callum and the album was recorded him and other son Callum and daughter in law Kate St. John. I asked her what it was like writing, recording and touring with her family members. You can hear the joy in her voice as she answers.

Oh, I love it, it’s wonderful. Their musicality is great. My two boys are who I always want to tour with, it gives me such pleasure to work with them. We talk about what we’re going to do and then we go further and further and further and the fact that we’re all creative and they’re songwriters on their own and so is Kate, so I’m with three other songwriters who are also superb musicians, I mean what’s not to like.

Before I know it, my time with Peggy is nearly up, having flown by, so I finish by asking her what she hopes people will take from First Farewell.

Gosh, it’s probably things they already know, I’m just putting them in a different format. People are smarter than you think. I’ve been made to move on in my thinking. I’m talking to other people, listening to other peoples’ music, reading papers, getting other peoples’ opinions and then sifting them through and this album is my response. In a way I would like them to take what they feel is special or applicable to their own lives away from this. The music is kindness music, there’s no volcanic anger in it. It’s just talking about this time, being gentle and above anything else looking at a number of different issues with compassion because we’re all in this together even when many of us are so combative and so apart from each other it’s hard to believe. When it comes down to the big issues like Covid, climate change, racism, patriarchy – these are big issues they are all tied together. Even when you go as far afield as thinking about climate change there are people now who believe that the earth is trying to purge us. As a living organism, the earth is a living complete organism it runs itself fine without us. There is a book called ‘The World Without Us” – it’s so incredible. She has recognised that there is a species living on her surface that is killing her and is taking it just so far and I’m thinking they may have something in it.

Before we sign off, Peggy reminds me that people can get an actual physical CD of the album from her Bandcamp site and she will sign and add any other words they want “providing it’s not Proustian”. She is also keen to make sure I mention that 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. What is absolutely clear is that after nearly seven decades writing, recording and touring, Peggy Seeger has lost none of her vim nor her vigour and loves music and playing it to people as much today as she ever has and as far as producing great folk music goes, she is definitely a very visible woman.

Catch Peggy online here:

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