Anchored by Ballads

Peggy Seeger, First Woman of Folk, Returns to New York

The motorcades belonging to musical celebrities look conspicuous navigating Manhattan's asphalt straits: lumbering 18-wheelers hauling heavy sound equipment; state-of-the-art tour buses decorated with tacky, airbrushed murals; and, for tooling around locally, everything from anonymous black limos to stretch hummers. More unusual, if less pretentious, is the chariot preferred by singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger: a well-appointed motor home named "Maggie," soon to cruise our thoroughfares.

"It's seven feet wide, nine feet high, and 19 feet long," she says, "but I can get into an ordinary parking space if I'm in good form and no men are trying to help me." Seeger, one quickly deduces, has a healthy aversion to the passenger seat.

It serves her well. The North Carolina resident, a rosy-cheeked 66-year-old with an accent difficult to place, takes to the road an average of five months per year—just the right amount for a "tempered workaholic." After a pit stop at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers this Saturday afternoon, she will forge ahead to the Advent Lutheran Church on West 93rd Street. A solo concert that evening presented by the Pinewoods Folk Music Club—her first in the city in some four years—will be followed by a Sunday-afternoon workshop on songwriting, a topic she handles deftly in The Peggy Seeger Songbook: Warts and All.

She knows whereof she speaks. Since 1959, Seeger has written hundreds of songs. Those who regard Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Laura Nyro as the first generation of singer-songwriters to craft material from women's experiences should think again. Seeger is a missing link between the 1950s American folk-song revival and women's liberation; the guitar-toting chanteuses of the 1970s could not have existed without either of those movements.

A member of "the first family of American folk music," Seeger appears to have been destined to her calling from birth. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), was the first woman ever awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. Her father, Charles (1886-1979), worked alongside Ruth and folk-song collector Alan Lomax at the Smithsonian and became a leading scholar in the emerging discipline of ethnomusicology. Half-brother Pete, her senior by 16 years, was a driving force behind the folk-song revival with his group the Weavers. And brother Mike, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, would garner high praise as a member of the old-timey New Lost City Ramblers.

Peggy began learning the piano at six, guitar at 10, and banjo at 15. There was so much music in the suburban Maryland home, she says, that she only listened to her radio for The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum, and Backstage Wife. Frequent visitors included Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Elizabeth Cotton. The diminutive Guthrie, her equal in height when she was nine years old, carried his guitar without a case, dragging it by its strap like a dog on a leash. Elliott also happened to be on the S.S. Maasdam when Seeger left Radcliffe College to kick around Europe; they had hootenannies in every corner of the ship.

She would find the other major influence in her life across the puddle: British playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl (1915-89), her life partner for over 30 years. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," his best-known song, can be tied to a precise moment: "March 25, 1956, at 10:30 in the morning," Seeger remembers—the moment they met.

She settled in England—one reason why she is less recognized here than her siblings—and only returned to the States permanently in 1994. Together, she and MacColl produced two volumes of traditional British songs, collaborated on the annual "Festival of Fools" by the Critic's Group in London, and, with BBC producer Charles Parker, created Radio Ballads, a groundbreaking series of documentaries woven from interview material, sound effects, and original music. She compiled the Essential Ewan MacColl Songbookin 2001.

Her original material, as one might gather, draws heavily on the Anglo-American folk tradition. "The ballads are your anchor," she explains. "They're your heart songs. They're your history." Her writing certainly owes a debt to their formal structures, as well as their stark and plainspoken texts. Her first verse in "The Ballad of Springhill" (1958) eerily concludes, "There's blood on the coal and the miners lie/In the roads that never saw sun nor sky."

Like other folksingers, Seeger tackles love, war, pregnancy, politics, nature, and nuclear arms, from what has increasingly become an eco-feminist perspective. But perhaps her greatest gift lies in personalizing these issues as seen through the eyes of others. For example, Seeger joined demonstrators at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England, to protest the presence of cruise missiles throughout the 1980s; "Woman on Wheels" tells the story of Jennifer Jones, a woman she met plying the base's chain-link fence with bolt cutters from her wheelchair. "Missing," a plea for "disappeared" Chilean activist Murielita Navarrete, resulted from a six-hour conversation with Navarrete's mother and sister.

She never minces words, a quality that also begets particularly pointed, salt-of-the-earth humor. The sights—and smells—she so vividly captures might make you squeamish. In "It's a Free World" (1993), a determined restaurant patron combats smoking by harnessing a powerful force of nature: flatulence (bringing new meaning to the question "Filtered or unfiltered?"). "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer" (1971), her most popular song and one adopted as an anthem of the women's movement, provides a whiff of a lady's less savory domestic duties: "Well, every time I turn around there's something else to do/It's cook a meal, mend a sock, or sweep a floor or two/Holding out the potty when the baby wants to poo/I was gonna be an engineer!"

Some of Seeger's more recent offerings challenge the bombings in Afghanistan—one song is prefaced with the sizable list of U.S. targets since 1945—while others celebrate the relationship with her current partner, Irene Pyper-Scott. Seeger's a good eavesdropper, or so she says. Her time spent on planes, trains, in roadside diners, and otherwise in the company of the folk still inspires her. "In my life these days, I travel," she says. "I stay in people's houses. I listen to their stories and I'm astounded by their survival tactics and all that they know. I learn, I learn, I learn."

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