Peggy Seeger’s album First Farewell was released last month via Red Grape Music. The album is Seeger’s 24th in a career spanning seven decades that has placed her as a key figure of the UK & US folk movements.
First Farewell is a striking and brilliant album, managing to be bold, moving and warm. It captivates with its memorable songs such as ‘All in the Mind’, ‘Invisible Woman’ and ‘Gotta Get Home by Midnight’ that deeply stir the listener. We hope that more music from Peggy will follow and there will be more farewells to come yet.
I interviewed Peggy via Zoom and we delved into the ideas behind her new album, her memoir First Time Ever, appearing with Paul Robeson at Trafalgar Square in 1960, how she has been adapting to virtual concerts during the pandemic, and as a long time active campaigner on social, environment, and feminist issues, her latest project.
Where you are today – could you describe it to me? And what have you been up to today so far?
I’ve just chiefly been in my house cleaning up the kitchen, having breakfast, going out to feed the birds, talking to the guy who’s come to dig up some bamboo. It’s grey, but it’s variable grey, not the gunmetal grey, it’s not the depressing grey, and I have lots of birds because I feed them – I feed them very well. And it is breeding time, so it’s a good time to feed them. So that’s mostly where I’ve been, I’ve been on my feet. I’ve taken 874 steps around the house since I got up. I only count them because I’m competitive with myself!
Your album ‘First Farewell’ came out last month. It’s such a great collection of songs, holding many layers, and it stirred a lot within me. Could you tell us what sparked the idea for the album and how it took shape?
Well, the catalyst for making it at all was my son Calum MaColl, he broached it in 2018 or early ’19. I toured with Calum a lot in 2019. And we had a big tour booked for 2020, all over the country. He said, ‘Mum we really need a new album for the tour’, and I said, ‘I’m not up to doing another album’. The previous album, Everything Changes, was recorded in 2013 or 14, somewhere around there. And I didn’t think I could better it. So, he said, ‘but we have to have a new album, do you have any written songs?’. So yes, I had ‘How I Long for Peace’, I had ‘Tree of Love’ and ‘Gotta Get Home by Midnight’, and he said ‘well, we need three more songs from you’. So, I made up three more songs, and then I co-wrote songs with my daughter-in-law, and my older son, and two with Calum. We have a family setup here, my daughter does the graphics, and a lot of the administration. My daughter-in-law, she’s my manager. And then there’s Calum and Neill who do the music, the singing and the recording and, Kate St John, she plays any number of instruments. So, it’s entirely a family thing. So, that’s how it got put together, it didn’t have an opening idea at all. We just chose what went together, and there’s still three or four songs that didn’t go on it. One of them was very funny called ‘The Day We Went to Mars’, but they didn’t fit in on this album.
The title is tongue in cheek. I got the idea from my brother Mike who worked with a band called The New Lost City Ramblers, but they broke up after being together for 30 years, but they held an annual concert which they call the annual farewell concert. And I thought that was fun. First farewell, because people say goodbye, but at the airport, I say goodbye twice. I call it the first goodbye and the second goodbye. The first one is where you hug the person and you can’t go, and they can, and they walk down that little corridor at Heathrow. And if someone is really close, they turn, and they get the second goodbye. So, this also leads it on to doing another one, but I don’t think my voice is good enough for another one. There’ll be songs I don’t know what we’ll do with if I can’t sing them, maybe it’s going to be a whole new singing style. So that’s how it came about. It wasn’t premeditated.
And when did you record the album?
Well, we had half finished by the end of 2019 and we didn’t have the money to finish it because it costs a lot to make an album and produce it. Calum records it, directs it, and produces it and he and Kerry Harvey-Piper put it out on their independent label. We didn’t have the money. So, we got two grants – one from PRS, and one from Women in Music, that made it possible to finish the album. And it also made it possible to have a publicity team which I have never had for any, any album. And this one has just zoomed up – the publicity team is stunning, they really are. I am delighted because I’ve met so many different people from different magazines – it is wonderful!
How do you usually feel before the release of a new album – is this one any different for you?
This is the first time I’ve ever had a release date. The first time I’ve ever had a publicity team that led up to it. I’ve done something like 35 interviews in the last six weeks. How do I feel? I feel exhausted! But I am excited because we’ve actually pressed it up so that you can get it physically as well. So, if you go to Bandcamp, you can just pay your money, and I send it off personally with a personal message. It’s great because we have all of the pre orders stacked up in a big box, ready to go for the actual day.
‘The Invisible Woman’ is an important, beautiful, and powerful song that reflects on aging and gender, exploring the way that many women can be unfairly rendered invisible as they grow older – can you tell us about this song and how it came into being?
It’s important to emphasise that it was made by a man and a woman. It was made by my son, Neill, and myself, equally, and I had never written a song with him before, but the album was coming out, and I said I’ve written with Kate, I’ve written with Callum, I want a song with you. So up he comes to my place in Oxford and he stretches his 6 foot 1 frame along my three quarters sofa. We looked at each other and said ‘so, what shall we write about?’. Usually one of us, Kate or Calum and me may have an idea, or maybe a guitar riff – there’s usually an idea of some sort in there. But this time there was there was bloody nothing. So, we started talking about our lives.
We weren’t in lockdown so that worked well. And he said, ‘you know what Mum, at 61 I feel that as a man, I’m disappearing’. And I said, ‘try being a woman of 85!’. And I said, ‘how do you mean disappearing?’, and it turned out that he more or less felt invisible to young women. He’s a handsome man, especially when he shaves off his designer stubble. So, it skewed over to being about women, and I think Neil did that on purpose, because I was saying I feel invisible to anybody but older women. I have felt invisible as an older person ever since I was about 60, 50. I used to go walking with my daughter, and she was born when I was 38, so by the time I was 60 she was 22, and she always dresses beautifully.
I was walking down Oxford Street when we were just window shopping. And I started noticing the men who were coming towards us. Kitty and I, we link when we walk along. And the men’s eyes would look at me at my head, and they’d see my white hair. And immediately, their gaze would go to Kitty and they’d look her up and down. You could see them looking her up and down, they completely didn’t want to see what was going on behind her. And that I found interesting. I rather like it because you can disappear. I have been in rooms where virtually, I felt invisible. The men are all talking to the young women. ‘The Invisible Woman’ has got a lot of attention, from older men and older women, so that’s been good.
I’ve really enjoyed your ‘Peggy at 5 on Sunday’ live performances – what have these broadcasts meant to you?
They’ve been a lifeline for me. Even though it’s small stuff, you can get to see them on YouTube – you can see all of them all the way back on YouTube. But for me… us musicians, we perform for other people in person. And that is endemic, that is right in the idea of music. Although, I was listening this morning on BBC Radio Four to a reading from this new book Lev’s Violin where apparently violins were confiscated from a huge number of Jewish musicians in the Second World War in the 1930s. They were not allowed to play in orchestras and the orchestras lost most of their violinists, because of that. And violins were stolen from Jewish houses, but in the concentration camps the Jewish musicians were provided with them to play, to the incarcerated ones. There was an interview with one of these Jewish musicians after the war. And he said, the music in a way meant more to the musicians themselves, because it means you had better food and more blankets.
So, singing to me… I’ve been doing this for 65 years. It’s so much part of me that I sing around the house. I practice every day. My instruments need to be comforted every day. They need to be played every day, especially the guitar. The guitar is very sensitive to being played every day. You know when it isn’t. So having this outlet, and people respond really nicely – they send me Facebook messages, emails and it’s really nice. But it is a very small, listening public, very small, but then folk music is a fringe entertainment, thank goodness. I am not famous in any way – I’m well known in my fringe music, and I’m very glad to be where I am. I just record the whole thing myself.
I’m currently reading your book, First Time Ever. I love it. I really like your writing. Can you tell us what it was like writing the book and going back over these times in your life?
I started writing the book, because when my first life partner Ewan MacColl died, I didn’t know who I was – I’d been with him for 32 years. And I had a new partner that I was deeply in love with – my partner Irene. And she said, ‘well, if you feel that you don’t know who you are, maybe you should write up who you think you are’. So, I started writing a letter to her every day for a year or two. And then she said, ‘you maybe want to make it into a book’. Somebody had already written a biography of me, and she was very good – Jane R. Freedman. It took her ten years to write. It’s excellent – it really sets me out. But Irene said, ‘write just what it feels like’. I said, ‘I can’t – there’s this pile of letters, what am I gonna do with it’? And I was mentioning it to a friend in Philadelphia and he said, ‘send me the pile’. And he drew up virtually a memoir about 200,000 words, and said ‘this is a starter, you’ll have to cut it’. So, I went through it and took out what I thought was not right and started getting a ballad writing style. If you know the traditional ballads, they have a certain disciplinary, they have a format. So, I thought, let’s go from narrative to stationary. I tell the story, and then there’s a certain point, I go over to describing somebody that I knew, or conversations. And then I always tag it, so that you’ll want to get back to the narrative later.
The descriptions are there because I have them in my head. When I was on the stage at the Bolshoi in Russia, I can see the dress I was wearing. I remember when the lights went up and there’s seven or eight rows of balconies, all filled with Russians and the red draperies reaching all the way down, all those stories. I have pictures in my head. I have a multitude of them from concerts – I remember the audience standing at Daventry. That would have been 45 years ago, where the whole audience stood up for the whole show because there were no seats. And they arranged themselves according to height, which was quite wonderful. So, I had the pictures. You know the chapter about Alf Edwards, the concertina player. I remember that! I remember his whole flat. I remember all the people walking by, because it was a basement flat. I remember his little kitchen. I don’t know where these pictures are going to go when I die, I have no idea. Everybody probably has them. It’s just that they were very useful in writing the memoir.
You performed with Paul Robeson – there is a wonderful photo of the two of you at Trafalgar Square in 1960. What are your memories of working with him?
No, no, no, I didn’t. I did not perform with him. He was going to be speaking at Trafalgar Square and some damn fool said ‘would you like to accompany him?’. And I thought that that meant I would get a microphone. If you look at that picture, I’m not on the microphone, and we were at Trafalgar Square. I had a nylon string guitar. And I had met him once, way, way, way back, but I can’t remember. Sometime at my brother Pete’s house. But that was after, that was later on.
So, he arrived in a limousine at Trafalgar Square and I’m already there with my guitar case. He had people flanking him. And so I went up to him and I said ‘Hello Paul I’m Pete Seeger’s sister’ and his face just glowed. And I said, ‘I’m supposed to accompany you, what are you singing?’, he said ‘oh just play along’. He didn’t even tell me what he was singing, what key! And there I am with the guitar, with no microphone. Anybody who has ever been in Trafalgar Square, and I’ve appeared there several times, but with a microphone. Oh, he was magnificent. He commanded, and he was so polite to me. So, he was singing ‘Old Man River’. And there’s me strumming the guitar! I find that photograph just so funny.
You have a tour booked for the new album. What part of playing live again are you most looking forward to?
The tour is next year, but we have a few Scottish dates booked in October, and Calum and I are giving two concerts in London, on May 27, but those are sold out. It’s going to be very strange on May 27 because it’s all social distancing. One of the things we love to do is getting the audience to sing, but they’re not going to sing if they’re socially distanced, they won’t want to do that. I think it’ll be very strange, but Calum and I are already discussing what we should be doing because it’ll be different. Working in a different way with something that I’ve done for 65 years is going to be very interesting.
Finally, what are your tentative plans for the rest of 2021?
Well, I go into hermit mode easily – I’m a natural hermit anyway, I have lived on my own since 2006. In America, in Asheville, North Carolina, and in Boston. And here. So, lockdown isn’t all that new to me. I have some very wonderful people who do shopping for me. I don’t shop online; I like to keep the people standing at the tills in the markets. If anything, I miss going into town and seeing the different people. Oxford is not a multi-ethnic community. But one of the nice things when I had to go into town to the dentist and the optician, is that it’s back to normal occupation, the tourists aren’t there. Normally, the tourists are like shoals of fish, all following the little plan that walks down the street and they’re busy talking to each other, it’s a crazy scene.
I’m working as part of a campaign now which I love you to print something about. I’ve always had an issue that I take, like the First Lady in America will always have to have an issue! And this time it’s the last two green fields, in my little village in Oxford. Housing has taken up 16 acres of our green fields. These last two green fields are in the centre of our village, and they’re being taken for housing. So, I’m part of a committee that is saying, ‘No’, and we’ve become experts! We are thorns in every part of the council’s side, and we may win. I’m part of that – I’m the person who gets endorsements. So, if anybody could go to https://iffleywoods.org/ and sign the petition, we have over 8,000 signatures so far and we’re fighting 29 houses, it would be a great help.
First Farewell is out now via Red Grape Music.
Peggy Seeger photo credit : Vicki Sharp