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Peggy Seeger: Looking to the future with a first farewell

by Now Then Sheffield
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Peggy Seeger (Vicki Sharp Photography)

Peggy Seeger would like me to introduce her to you as an American songwriter who sings folk songs and songs she makes up herself. In truth she's a bonafide folk legend, a songwriter with a prolific, highly influential and radically political career spanning seven decades.

About to embark on what she says could be her last ever tour, Peggy was kind enough to take some time out on a Saturday evening to speak with me about it.

Tell me about this tour.

The tour is called the First Farewell Tour. It gives me the possibility of having a second one or it may be the last one. I'm 84. I've had a long life of touring. At some point I'll have to stop, I'm sure.

It's new songs, some of which I wrote about 20 years ago but were never recorded. It's contemporary songs, songs I've made up either with my sons or with my daughter-in-law, or by myself.

Hopefully we'll have a CD ready, just in time. It'll be made with both my sons and my daughter-in-law. I really like the songs that we make. It's a dark album. At 84, you kind of see the goalpost. And lost memory is a lot of that in it. Looking forward towards the goalpost, looking backward at a long life. And there's a couple of humorous ones on it. There's a love song.

I don't like a lot of direct songs, the way Billy Bragg does, or the way a lot of activist songmakers write. I write songs that I hope will help us to co-relate problems that we have. One of the songs on the new album is called 'Lubrication' and the first verse makes it sound sexual. You're lubricating something. And then it turns out I'm talking about tectonic plates, that we're taking the lubrication out of the earth, the water and the gas and the soil, and so the tectonic plates are having difficulties. It's a funny song. I worked very hard on it. It'll have a slippy-slidey guitar and at the end [and] people will be encouraged to sing, "Moving parts, slip and slide," and they'll probably be laughing.

I like songs that people can sing. I like the songs to be singable. It's an odd album - and I like it.

You've described yourself as an ecofeminist. What does that mean?

For me, the big thing now is climate change. I see it as a feminist issue as much as a human issue. I think women take better care of the planet than the patriarchy has. The patriarchy has really buggered it up. We love to consume - oh we love the fashion, love all the things we can go out and shop for - but it's essentially a male way of running things, what we do now.

War is a men's thing

So I say I'm an eco feminist. I believe women have got to start taking more control, because I think we care more for things. We take fewer risks. We're not so willing to form hoards of armies that go into other people's countries. We'll join an army in defense, for the most part. There are women in the army, but it's a very, very small number compared to the number of men. War is a men's thing, invading is a men's thing - has been forever, if you look at history. They form an army and they march against other men and kill each other. Women identify with nature.

We're trying to make songs that make people laugh, or that make people cry, or that encourage them to get out on the streets and sit down. Because people aren't prepared at this point to do it. Young people are, because it's their world that's going to pot. I've been to two of these demonstrations, but I don't go to a lot because I'm breakable, and I'm more use unbroken.

I'm reading a book right now called The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. It talks about how we are part of the world. The whole world begins at our skin and we are part of it. We're not the gods that we think we are. We're not separate from it. We're literally as much a part of the world as mosquitos and birds and elephants. And we cannot act contrary to the laws of the world. We have done, and look where we are.

So trying to explain certain things while you're talking about climate change and ecology is important. Trying to make a different view, instead of us all saying, 'There's so many things I've got to give up to save the world'. But once you realise that you are actually a part of the world, it becomes an honour, a privilege to be as much a part of the world as that bird, or that worm you almost trod on but didn't.

And that's where I think we've come a cropper. I think that's where our problem is. Our mantra as mankind seems to be to conquer nature. But you can't conquer nature. There's no way. In the end, as we're seeing now, nature conquers you.

What makes a folk song different from any other kind?

Well, it's harder to describe now. You could've talked about it easier in the fifties, which is where I come from, before you could hear absolutely anything on the radio. Back then you never heard folk songs on the radio. When the radio came into communities - isolated industrial or mountain towns - when it came there it had a tremendous effect on the music they made there. Before that, the music was much more identifiable with a place. Now, a lot of the music, you can't tell where it comes from.

For the most part, folk songs were made by the lowest economic class. They were made by the people who had no other kind of music. Say you had a small town in the Appalachians that make their living with coal. Everybody knows about coal. The song is made by people familiar with the work, familiar with the language, familiar with the terms, and it is a type of music that they all know and enjoy when it comes down to them through their history of being a small, insular coal town.

This country has anthologised itself to death. There are so many fantastic songs from here, that you can really - as an English person, or a Scots person, or an Irish person - do justice to. I don't sing any of those songs. I've been here for 62 years and I do not sing English songs on stage. I've sworn allegiance to the Queen and I don't sing English songs on stage, because I don't feel that I speak right or that I know enough. You're representing something with folk music.

I've never written a folk song in my life

Once people had access to music of any sort, it did affect how people felt about their own songs and about the songs they then made up. In a consumer society, which we are, mostly we don't produce music, we just consume it.

I've never written a folk song in my life. I've written songs that people don't know that it's me who made them up, so that makes it on its way to becoming a folk song. One's called 'The Ballad of Springhill', about a mining disaster. It sounds like a folk song, but it isn't one yet.

The songs that I write are songs that I write. I've written a song for Extinction Rebellion. That's an anthem that they can use if they want, while they're sitting down in traffic. I've written songs that are almost like music hall, songs that are almost like stage songs, a lot of different types. I'm essentially a songwriter that also sings. I always say, don't call me a singer songwriter. I'm a songwriter who sings folk songs and songs she makes up herself.

I think everybody ought to make up songs, especially for children. Make up songs for children, make up songs for yourself; they don't have to be deathless verse, just something about your own life.

Alice Flanagan

Peggy Seeger plays with Calum MacColl at Abbeydale Picture House on Thursday 14 May. Tickets are £18/£12

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Peggy Seeger and Calum MacColl (Vicki Sharp Photography)
by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 144

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