Thursday, August 16, 2007

Peggy Seeger: A 1996 Interview--Part 3

Since the 1950s, Peggy Seeger ( has been performing before audiences in the United States and Britain. During this period she has recorded over 14 solo albums and many joint albums. After living in England between 1959 and 1994, Seeger moved back to the USA and lived in Asheville, North Carolina until early 2006. Following is part 3 of a 1996 interview with Seeger.

As far as the festivals you’ve been performing at in the Nineties. Is there any difference between the audiences and the performers, compared to the Eighties? In what people are singing about? What response you get?
Peggy Seeger: I’m not much of an authority on what’s happening in America. I really haven’t been here long enough. Ewan MacColl and I didn’t do festivals. Because we didn’t like the “stop-start,” “stop-start” thing that goes on in festivals. I compare it to greyhound racing. You know, the gun goes and you have 5 minutes to do your bit and that’s it. Generally, I prefer concerts. I’ve been doing festivals because I think it’s an important discipline to have. And, probably apart from anything else, it gives me a chance to hear other performers, which I love to do.

I am very impressed at what’s going on at a lot of the festivals. There’s a lot of young people. Quite a lot of children. And it’s an audience with a very catholic taste. They seem to be able to take almost anything that you give them.

Have they heard of you? The U.S. media doesn’t seem to give you much airtime?
No. The U.S. media has not given me much airtime. I hope to remedy that. I don’t know that I’m popular stuff. My songs have a lot of words. And some of them take a lot of thinking about. I think I’m probably not “sensational” enough. I’m not “smooth” enough. I don’t know. There’s something that I’m “not enough of.”

What about public television? I know whenever they’ve needed to raise funds, they invite a lot of the folksingers from the Sixties who allegedly are excluded from the commercial stations because they have “no commercial appeal?”
Seeger: I don’t know that I’m excluded. When I do sing on television and radio I seem to get a lot of appreciation. There’s a lot of us out there, you know. There’s a lot of people vying for these spots. I’ve been on “Prairie Home Companion.” I’ve been on “Mountain Stage.”

I was out of the country for so long. And also my name was tied to someone else’s, as part of a duo. And people get used to saying “Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.” And when Ewan MacColl dies—I actually met people who said they didn’t know I was still alive. You know, I’m only 61 [in 1996].

So, it’s a very fickle audience. But there are a lot of people who have followed the stuff that I have done over the last 30 years. And I get quite a lot of nice pats on the back when I go to festivals and concerts. And I’m very happy getting concerts, as I have been doing. I’m getting a reasonable amount of work. And I’m learning also that I can teach. Which is something that I wasn’t aware of until Ewan MacColl died. Since then I’ve been teaching songwriting and been talking about the position of women in Anglo-American folksongs. And been giving seminars on ballad-singing and on what makes folks songs so powerful, and all these kinds of things.

Is that why you’re living in North Carolina [in 1996]?
Oh, I just picked that out of a hat. Because I wanted a place that was in the South, that was in the mountains, that had good music and warm weather. And that wasn’t too near the rest of my family. Because I just wanted to see what would happen if I landed in a place by myself, without any connections.

If people want to get your cassettes or CDs, where would they go about getting them?
My web page is open now—you might find it of interest: The best place…just go into a record store.

One of my records I like best is really hard to get. And you can really, I suppose, only get that from me. Which is one called Almost Commercially Viable. I made that with my friend Irene, when we were “No Spring Chickens.” Made it in England and never managed to get it sold to anybody over here yet. Mind you, I haven’t pushed hard. That’s one that I really like. Probably Internet, Worldwide Web.

In terms of the future. What’s your sense? What’s going to be happening in the United States and in England?
England I can’t say very much about. Because I haven’t really been in contact with what’s been happening in England since ’89. I took a couple of years out to write a couple of books and I hardly sang at all in England.

What books?
Seeger: I finished a book of my own songs—140 of them. And a book of Ewan MacColl’s songs—200 of those.

Some readers might not have heard much of Ewan MacColl for some of the reasons you indicated, like blacklisting. From an artistic point of view, what is going to be his place in history?
Well, in England he is regarded as one of the architects of the British Folk Revival. There was Alan Lomax, Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd: who were largely responsible for starting the English revival as we know it. And he was one of the main singers and theorists, teachers, and critics in that. He was a superb unaccompanied singer. And he was a person who opened up the English and Scottish repertoire of songs. I would say he probably has recorded about 100 albums. And many of them were songs that he just literally revived out of books. Because if they died, nobody knew them anymore.

He was a theorist of the revival, in that he worked out ways by which singers who were, say, brought up in different musical traditions, could approach singing of folk songs without ruining them. He also kind of kept the British Revival’s nose to the grindstone, as far as understanding the relationship between folk song and the working-class.

So he was like a Woody Guthrie, right, for Britain?
Seeger: Kind of.

But what are the differences?
Seeger: He came from the same kind of background as Woody Guthrie did: a working-class man. He was also uneducated, like Woody Guthrie. I would say he was probably a more skilled songwriter than Woody Guthrie. Ewan didn’t write—now this is my personal opinion: I don’t think he wrote any bad songs. And I think Woody Guthrie did. And I think Woody Guthrie wrote some absolutely superb ones. But he also wrote some stinkers. And if Ewan wrote stinkers, he kept them quiet. He was lucky enough to keep them quiet.

Ewan was also in theatre, which Woody wasn’t. He was responsible with his first wife, Joan Littlewood, for forming Britain’s best recognized revolutionary theatre: Theatre Workshop—which in the late 1940s and right through the Fifties was regarded as a pacesetter for activist theatre. He left that to stir-up the folk revival, which he did. And made a lot of enemies.

If you were in England and were in the folk revival and spoke of Ewan MacColl, anybody would have heard of him. He also is known for writing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And for writing a number of songs which many people in the folk revival over here think are folk songs. Like “Dirty Old Town.”

Is there an autobiography or biography of him [as of 1996]?
There’s an autobiography of him. But it was published in England and then taken out of publication. I’m trying to get it done again. It was never released here. And I’m trying to get it released over here. I will get it done. It’s called Journeyman. And I think it’s a wonderful book. An excellent book.

He wrote plays. And then the two books that I’ve done are kind of historical surveys, telling what was happening at the time when the song was written, making comments about the songs. With discographies and prefaces. Oh, you know, the whole thing. They’re huge books.

Getting back to your own performances. What do you hope to achieve when you perform before a live audience?
Oh, I want to entertain them and make them think. I firmly believe that I have a great deal to learn from any audience that I sing for. And the folk revival generally gets an awful lot of really thinking people to it. I would like to, if possible, move them on from where they are and to draw on their experience to move me on. I’m very much invigorated by most of the people that I meet at the concerts that I give.

I suppose you might say I probably appeal more to their thinking faculties then I do to their emotional ones. But I try to make a good combination.

Technically, you’re considered quite skillful compared to most musicians. How did you get so good?
Well, I’m not as good as I used to be. Because I have arthritis in my left wrist, which is hampering me rather a lot.
(end of interview)

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