A couple of months ago, Peggy Seeger wrote a song for Extinction Rebellion. The veteran singer, songwriter and activist had joined the latest round of climate change marches and felt the movement could do with a rousing song to sing alongside the rhythmic protest chants. The resulting Extinction Rebellion! Right Now! Right Here! is a simple, massed singalong, co-written with her partner Irene Pyper-Scott, which incorporates slogans from the placards on the marches and is the latest addition to a wide-ranging catalogue of witty, thoughtful, soulful chronicling, testament and agitation which stretches right back to the 1950s.
“I’ve been writing ecological songs since 1960,” says Seeger. “I wrote songs for CND, I wrote them for Greenham Common. I’ve written a lot of women’s songs and I associate women with nature in a way that I don’t associate men with nature. I think women understand what care is and, if we were in charge, I don’t think we’d be building skyscrapers, I don’t think we’d be building 747s, I don’t think we would have invented a nuclear bomb, things that kill people, things that kill the Earth.
“I identify the Earth with the downtrodden and the system that we have is treading all over women, the disadvantaged, the sexually different. I’ve written a lot of songs about a lot of different subjects but I have gotten especially interested in the plight of the Earth and what we are doing to her.
“I’m hoping that Extinction Rebellion gets a wider focus. It’s doing what I think is necessary at this point, which is disrupting the system, disrupting business. I just hope it continues because when a movement starts, it’s very strong but it takes a lot of stamina to keep it going.” Welcome to the world of the calm, sage Seeger who, at the age of 84, truly is the voice of experience, the professed “spoiled middle-class girl” who left New York in her teens and embarked on a series of accidental adventures in Europe and beyond, whose expeditions to Russia and China at the height of the Cold War cost her her US passport, who settled in Britain for 30 years and, with her husband Ewan MacColl, became a key player in the 60s folk boom, a titan of the protest movement and who inspired one of the greatest love songs of all time. Seeger is as surprised as anyone at how her life turned out.
“I had no path for myself,” she says. “I had no idea of getting married and having children, I had no idea of travelling the world. I had no idea of doing anything with music. As a matter of fact, I almost didn’t want to do music as a career because I loved it too much. The thing is, I fell into it at a time in history where it was just the right thing for me. I played the instruments that were needed, I was in the countries I needed to be, I was the right gender, the right age, I had the right songs. So it was a matter of dropping into a pot of gold – wonderful!”
Seeger was born into a house of music. Her father Charles was a composer, teacher and musicologist. Her mother Ruth Crawford was a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning modernist composer and folklorist who worked with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress, as did her half-brother – fellow folk legend Pete Seeger.
Seeger was classically trained on piano from the age of seven but gravitated to folk music during the course of her studies. “I was drawn to the songs I heard as a child – I loved the stories, the ballads – and I took the road that felt like home.”
Home for her in the north-east US meant the songs that came from her ancestors in Scotland, England, Austria and Germany and drew her over to Europe in the mid-50s. Despite studying Russian – while living in Holland – Seeger was always more comfortable singing in her native tongue and she refined those musical parameters in partnership with her husband MacColl.
Together they founded the influential Critics Group, studying, coaching and performing traditional song, as well as writing original material. MacColl penned the immortal The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face about and for Seeger; Seeger wrote the feminist anthem Gonna Be an Engineer and mastered multiple instruments, from guitar to banjo, autoharp to dulcimer (she admitted defeat on the fiddle).
By this point, Seeger was settled in London, persona non grata in the US thanks to her communist sympathies (as was her blacklisted brother). But when MacColl died in 1989, work dried up and finally Seeger was able to return to the country she had left at the age of 20.
“The States were calling me in several ways,” she says. “I was curious as to what I remembered and what it was like. I was also eager to be among my earth family again.
“I didn’t get my American passport back until the early 1990s when there was an amnesty on people who had misbehaved themselves, shall we say, and gone to places they shouldn’t. I went cold turkey from London to Asheville, North Carolina, and it was absolutely thrilling, I’d never lived that far south. I seem to be able to not mind too much just landing somewhere as a stranger and that’s it.”
In 2010, she landed back in the UK, making her home in Iffley, Oxfordshire. “I came back here because I just love these islands,” she says. “It’s definitely home. My children are here and that is huge.”
All three of her offspring – sons Neill and Calum and daughter Kitty – have continued in the family business and Seeger will do a rare show backed by her sons at Celtic Connections, where she will also guest at an evening of traditional Irish song hosted by Sligo band Dervish. “That will be a hoot,” she says. “I don’t mean to put other nationalities down but, for some reason, the Irish listen in a very special way, probably because they sing so much themselves. You can finish a concert there and then the Irish concert starts – the people who are there start singing and they don’t go home until about two or three in the morning.
“But it’s also special singing in Scotland, because I know I have Scots ancestors that come from the town of Crawford – my mother’s maiden name. And I always feel at home when I’m in Scotland, there’s a pull. Scotland would be my home if the weather was better!”
Seeger will return to Scotland in June for a couple of dates on what she has impishly dubbed her First Farewell Concert Tour, with son Calum. “That leaves it open,” she says. “I stole the idea from my brother Mike’s group, New Lost City Ramblers, who did an annual farewell concert. A first farewell means that there’s a chance of a second farewell.
“I’ll keep going until my body gives out or my voice gives out or until I push up the daisies, I suppose.” Fiona Shepherd
*Peggy Seeger plays the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, on 18 January and guests with Dervish at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 19 January as part of Celtic Connections