There’s nothing that can quite compare to a conversation with Peggy Seeger. At 79, her career could span the length of the A40, and reads like a readymade biopic. One of North America’s finest female folk singers, she, alongside late husband Ewan MacColl, is considered one of the most important players in the British folk revival of the 1960s – reconnecting the music with leftwing politics and resurfacing the value of oral tradition. But the last few years have proven a difficult ride for Seeger; she lost her half-brother, Pete Seeger in January, and is now in a period of recovery from the emergency stomach surgery which led to the cancellation of her 2014 tour. “Since the operation, my memory has just turned into mush,” she claims. And yet, when we delve into the first order of the day, the 50th anniversary of the final BBC Radio Ballad, The Travelling People, Seeger begins to narrate her memories of the project in a finely-tuned, 20 minute stream of consciousness.
In 1957, when the BBC airwaves were dominated by the received pronunciation of Richard Dimbleby and co, Ewan MacColl, together with Birmingham radio producer Charles Parker and the musical prowess of Peggy Seeger, finally brought the sound of regional accents to British radio. The Ballads offered a new approach to radio broadcast, combining field recordings of working people with folk songs inspired by their experiences. The project began when Ewan was commissioned by Charles for a radio feature on John Axon, a Stockport train driver who gave his life trying to stop a runaway locomotive, fighting through scalding hot steam to apply the breaks, as the train roared downhill in February 1957. But were it not for Ewan MacColl, his story wouldn’t have made it much further than community legend. After collecting 40 hours worth of interview material with Axon’s widow and friends, he convinced Parker that their voices, rather than actors should be used to tell the story on air.
“The first time we made a Radio Ballad, Charles and Ewan went out and recorded and came back with analogue tape. The script was written, and the tape was chopped into little bits. Then they called on me to do the music,” Seeger recalls, “I was green as grass – I had no idea how to create an ongoing musical score.” In the years that followed, they created a recording on the fishermen of Great Yarmouth and the Scottish northeast coast for Singing the Fishing, explored the devastating impact of Polio for The Body Blow, ventured down the mines of Northumberland and Durham for The Big Hewer and into the ring to document the lives of professional boxers for The Fight Game. For the final instalment, which aired in 1964, Ewan and his team spent almost a month in tents, kitchens and caravans, at horse fairs and around campfires in Glasgow and Aberdeen investigating the rich cultural diversity of the travelling community.
After their many hours of recordings, Peggy, Ewan and Charles would sit in the recording studio with musicians like Dave Swarbrick and Bruce Turner, cueing in the voices of the interviewees as though they were an oboe or concertina. Overall, the Ballads are inherently masculine, entrenched in themes of male manual work and male grievances – but they are all, collectively, a celebration of life, more specifically, of working class life. “I come from middle class where we’re more polite…and we don’t have hands on contact with the earth and with its running. The gypsies did, the fighters did…there’s a lot of body contact with working people, and it entranced me,” says Seeger.
Today, many of the songs that grew from the Ballads continue to circulate through the folk scene in a way that remains true to the fluidity of traditional music. Shoals of Herring, which runs like a vein through Singing the Fishing, has evolved organically through covers by artists such as Dick Gaughan and more recently Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. “And with The Body Blow, it’s actually used in hospitals to train nurses and doctors on how the patient feels about having Polio,” Seeger explains proudly. But it’s the stories behind the making of The Big Hewer that Peggy retells with obvious delight. A near-perfect record, it offered a voice to the put-upon men of the pits 23 years before the miners’ strike of the Thatcher era. “I was newly pregnant, and I went down one of the mines in County Durham, (one of the workers) Jack Elliot took us down. I have claustrophobia, and I hadn’t realised that what he was taking us to, was where you could measure the pit props from your elbow to the end of your hand. He was a big man, and he crawled in first, then Ewan, and then I crawled in afterwards. They didn’t like women being down the mine, so I had my gender to represent, by not going into hysterics. I was terrified. I really was. What we crawled through was probably only a few hundred yards, but I felt as if it were a mile,” Seeger explains.
Of all of the eight recordings, The Big Hewer is perhaps the most triumphant in recognising the true economy of the subjects’ language. Peggy remembers, “a huge number of their jokes are about death! We were sitting recording – can’t remember his name – but he was wonderful, his face was ashen, must have been about 45 but he looked about 65. He had pneumoconiosis, and he would just have a paroxysm of coughing. Charles Parker, he turned to the man’s wife, and said ‘shouldn’t we call a doctor?’ He just started laughing and said, ‘Doctor?! We don’t call for the doctor here…we call for the plumber!’ because pneumoconiosis fills your lungs up with water.”
Although Peggy was responsible for many of the interviews, and musical arrangements, she’s keen to point out that Ewan MacColl was the “kingpin” of the project, “nothing could have happened with the Radio Ballads without the informants, and without Ewan. He came from working class stock, whereas Charles and I didn’t. Ewan just had an entire dramatic approach to it…he was widely read, and he had folk songs at his command…I did embark on a Radio Ballad about women when Ewan was still alive, but some of the things that they told me Ewan just couldn’t face it…incest, men preying on their daughters, the violence of the men against the women…a picture of women’s position in society began to come out very clearly to him, and he was appalled.”
When I ask Peggy what subject she’d like to explore for a Radio Ballad for our times, she categorically says, “money”, “though with the miners, the fisherman….you went to a community, but where do you go for a money community? You can go to Lidl, or you can go to Donald Trump. It runs through every single part of society…we have the main arteries, we have the veins, it runs the body politic.” And is there anything from those historical eight she would change if she had the chance today? “With Ewan and I….the singing is very studied. I would have taken away some of the songs. But I wouldn’t have tampered with The Fight Game or The Travelling People.”
The need to understand and preserve the roots of folk music is something that runs deep in Seeger’s family history. Her mother, modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and father, renowned ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger worked closely with John and Alan Lomax at the American Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. “At 15 (my mother) knew enough about piano to be teaching and writing small pieces for her pupils. She is now known as the main female composer of modernist music for the 1900s. And her music has nothing to do with what I do; it’s very very very odd, very out there.”
The title track of Peggy’s latest album, Everything Changes, penned for her mother, is one of the most haunting folk tracks of 2014, capturing the hardened sadness that comes with old memories. “My mother died when I was 18, and I wrote a poem for her…and I wrote a song for her. So this is the song. You become very much more aware of the passage of time as you get older. When the goalpost appears within your vision, which it has for me, you can either get very depressed and start writing, or you can start drinking,” she says. Everything Changes was recorded before her brother Pete’s passing, Peggy claims the song “might as well be for him too…all of the vanished people in your life.”
The album, produced by her son Calum MacColl, is the first in Peggy’s career where she plays so few instruments, instead concentrating on her vocals to tread painful and disquieting territory. A sense of loss echoes through the tracklist. Even its ethereal lullaby, Nero’s Children, left me unnerved, conjuring memories of Lillian Gish rocking on that porch in The Night of the Hunter, awaiting evil’s arrival. The songs are written largely by Seeger, some of which have been in the making for decades, “I was very young when I recorded the tune for Over the Mountain To You, when I was 10 or 11; I thought that was pretty funny, to write the words in your mid-70s and the tune when you’re 10 or 11,” she laughs.
Letting go of the instrumental control for this record has allowed her to create some of her most experimental songs to date – she has abandoned the ‘purist’ approach of some of her folk contemporaries over the years. In 2012, the song Ewan MacColl famously wrote for Peggy before their relationship began, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, was remixed as an electro track by her anonymous friend DJ Broadcaster, and her cover of Do You Believe in Me by Peter Berryman offers a jumpy, maniacal break from the darkness of Everything Changes. “Humour is very important to me in my music. A lot of my music is very dark. A lot of people die in folk songs, or left holding the baby or murdered by their lovers or their lovers been away for seven years and hadn’t come back. So I try to learn things like this one.” And are there any of her folk peers who she’d like to see celebrated more, those who fell through the cracks of the revival? “I loved what Dave Van Ronk did. He’s been kind of celebrated, but not really….and I never much took to Bob Dylan. Occasionally one of his songs hits me…I’d like to meet him. Well, I did meet him back in 1959, when he asked for my autograph, before he was ‘Bob Dylan,’” she says wryly. “A lot of them are wonky singers, people like Rosalie Sorrels. She made some lovely songs, but the media, they want…you have to be just what they want at the right time, either that or just a little bit ahead of them. And I’ve never been where they were or that much ahead of them.”
As she steps into 2015, Peggy’s 80th birthday will be on the horizon, and she’ll meet it with Everything Changes held proudly in hand – the rocky events of 2014 trailing behind her. “I started a label for (Everything Changes) – which is called Signet Music. For the very first record that I ever made, two college friends of mine formed a record company to put it out, and they called it Signet Records, so we’re rounding off with the two ends of my recording life,” she says, gracefully bringing our conversation to a close.
Interview by: Katie McCabe
Everything Changes is out now, Signet Music/Red Grape records
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