Safe travels, Ms. Seeger.
Folk legend Peggy Seeger is leaving Boston, but she’s not slowing down
|“Essentially what you’re trying to do is wedge these songs into other people’s heads, the way they’re wedged into yours,’’ says Peggy Seeger. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)|
Asked how she would describe her long, rich, and profoundly important career, Peggy Seeger is stumped. “Whoo,’’ she says, and “Oh, my.’’ Then the 74-year-old folk singer answers slowly, intimately.
“First of all,’’ says Seeger, who is returning to Britain after living in Boston for four years, “I take utter and complete pleasure in singing the songs. One of the nicest things about folk songs is that I can sing them by myself, wherever I am. And the words and music are so completely physically satisfying to me that you just want to share that. Essentially what you’re trying to do is wedge these songs into other people’s heads, the way they’re wedged into yours.’’
Peggy Seeger, song-wedger. It is revealing that she presents herself this simply, and not as the musical revolutionary she is.
Seeger, who gives a farewell concert tomorrow night at International Community Church in Allston, began her career in the early 1950s, when female musicians were still expected to perform in chiffon gowns, singing daintily while the menfolk played the instruments. But she was a multi-instrumentalist, accompanying herself on guitar, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, piano, and concertina. And her haunting, silk-and-steel voice was anything but dainty.
She played a pivotal role in launching folk revivals in the United States and Britain; helped popularize Appalachian folk music; wrote folk ballads so organic, like “The Ballad of Spring Hill,’’ that many believe they’re traditional, and political songs that are sung on picket lines and at protest rallies. In one of musical history’s sweetest serendipities, she is both the author of the song that helped launch the feminist movement, “Gonna Be an Engineer,’’ and the subject of Ewan MacColl’s adoring love song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’’
She was certainly to the folk manner born, raised in the Seeger family with musician brother Mike and famous stepbrother Pete. Her parents were ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, an acclaimed modernist composer who wrote brilliantly simple transcriptions for seminal folk songbooks by John and Alan Lomax, B.A. Botkin, Carl Sandburg, and her own children’s books.
“I just osmosed folk music,’’ Seeger says with a laugh. “It was sponged onto me as a child. There were no radios or televisions in our home, but you could always hear music. My mother taught piano, so there was always someone playing in the daytime. And in the evenings, there was lots of piano playing or singing, and people visiting, like Woody [Guthrie] and Lead Belly [Ledbetter].’’
After two years at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Seeger rambled through Europe. Folklorist Alan Lomax was trying to create a British version of the Weavers, Pete Seeger’s hugely successful folk group, and asked her to join. The band bombed, but introduced her to MacColl, the British folk lion.
“I met Ewan on March 15, 1956, at 10:30 in the morning,’’ she says, the love palpable in her voice. They were together until his death in 1989, raising three children, performing as a duo, and collaborating on nearly everything.
“It was a partnership from the beginning,’’ she says. “There were dire predictions, with him being 20 years older, but we worked well together. We were total opposites in so many ways, but maybe that was part of the fascination.’’
In 1970, Seeger wrote “Gonna Be an Engineer’’ for a satirical revue. In it, a woman dreams of a career, meeting resistance at every turn: “No, you only need to learn to be a lady / The duty isn’t yours, for to try to run the world / An engineer could never have a baby / Remember, dear, that you’re a girl.’’
She wrote it in two hours, and says it wasn’t about her. She never wanted to be an engineer, and “nobody ever told me I couldn’t do things.’’
The song spread like wildfire. She was soon being invited to sing for feminist groups, scurrying to fill her repertoire with more feminist songs. Female musicians all over the world had the same experience after hearing that song.
“Sometimes a song puts an idea in the air,’’ says women’s music pioneer Holly Near. “Peggy wrote that before I even knew I was a feminist. She sang about the things that go on in women’s lives at a time when we couldn’t imagine those ‘little things’ were important enough to sing about, because we didn’t think we were important enough. Her song said, yes, you are.’’
Seeger has lived in Jamaica Plain since 2006, but is returning to Britain, where her children and seven grandchildren are. But she has no plans to slow down.
“I am 75 this year,’’ she says, “so I reckon I’ve got about five more years of galloping around — unless somebody wants to advertise me as the only 81-year-old banjo player on the go.’’
She means it as a joke, but the smart money is that Peggy Seeger will soon be cracking open another glass ceiling.