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Glasgow Walking Tours Blog: Peggy Seeger at Celtic Connections

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Here at Glasgow Music City Tours, we love our legends – be that the tall tales we tell on our tours or the legendary performers who have visited our city over the years.

As we prepare to launch our latest round of Celtic Connections tours, we look forward to this year’s sterling festival programme and, in particular, the appearance of the vocal and multi-instrumental legend that is Peggy Seeger.

Peggy Seeger talking on a cell phone

Photograph credit: Vicki Sharp Photography

Seeger has been at the eye of the musical storm for her entire life. Her parents were both composers and musicologists, her half-brother Pete was instrumental in popularising political folk song on both sides of the Atlantic – including the songs of our own Matt McGinn – and Seeger herself formed a progressive partnership with Ewan MacColl, who wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face about and for her.

Now 84, Seeger shows no sign of slowing down. We were privileged to grab some time in her calm, engaging, eloquent company and hoover up her thoughts on a number of topics.

On her classical upbringing…

I had no path for myself. I had no idea of getting married and having children, I had no idea of travelling the world. I had no idea of doing anything with music. As a matter of fact, I almost didn’t want to do music as a career because I loved it too much, and I had seen how classical pianists had to practise five, six, seven, eight hours a day.

I moved away from classical music for a number of reasons. First of all, I wasn’t good enough. Second of all, I didn’t have the nerves for it. There was a point where I was practising piano two, three hours a day and I got quite good but I had other things I wanted to do, and to be a performer in classical music you have to have frightening focus.

…and the call of folk music

Something just drew me to folk music. I was drawn to the songs I heard as a child. My mother was transcribing songs that she had taken out of the Library of Congress on records so that she could put them in to books to be distributed to schools. She played these songs over and over so she could write down what the singers sang – meanwhile, we were little kids playing in the corner.

Almost all the folk songs I heard were in English. They were from North America and an awful lot of them that I was drawn to were from the east coast, the traditions that had been passed down from Scots, English, Irish, Welsh people who had landed in America. My people from way, way back come from Scotland, England, Austria, Germany. At one point I was singing German songs, French songs, Italian songs but I gave that up because I’m not good at it.

So I learned the ones that had the stories, I loved the ballads, those were the ones I was drawn to. Folk song spoke to me in a way that classical music didn’t and I took the road that felt like home, and it landed me in a life that I am very grateful for. England is my home. Scotland would be my home if the weather was better!

On her Scots roots

It’s special singing in Scotland, it really is, because I know that I have Scots ancestors that come from the town of Crawford – my mother’s maiden name, and I’ve got to do my genealogy and find out exactly. I always feel at home when I’m in Scotland, there’s a pull.

On returning to the US in the 1990s

I lost my American passport in the 1960s because I went to China when you weren’t supposed to and I didn’t get it back until the early 1990s when there was an amnesty on people who had misbehaved themselves, shall we say, and gone to places they shouldn’t. I went back because once Ewan MacColl died nobody hired me, I didn’t have any work.

The States were calling me in several ways. I wanted to find out what the country was that I had left when I was 20. I hadn’t gone back there to live, just to tour so I was curious as to what I remembered and what it was like. I was also looking for a warm place for my partner of the time, Irene Scott. I went cold turkey from London to Asheville, North Carolina and it was absolutely thrilling. I’d never lived that far south.

I was also eager to be among my earth family again, of whom there are 120, 130 of them. We have family reunions and they are big events. But then I discovered they were living miles apart from each other, they weren’t a community. So I came back here because I just love these islands – I grew up here from the age of 24 to 54 and it’s definitely home, and my children are here and that is huge. I would say that they are my first reason for coming back because they all live in London and I can see them whenever they want and whenever I want.

On keeping it in the family

I work mostly with my son Calum because Neill is rarely available but I love doing programmes with either of them, and we’re doing an unusual one at Celtic Connections because we normally don’t play the three of us. It’s a different dynamic when there are three of you onstage and you can do something that has a bit more texture to it. The three of us is really special and I’m really glad that they can both do it.

On a female approach to folk…

When I began back in the 50s, there were not a lot of female instrumentalists, especially banjo players. It was considered to be very unfeminine to play a banjo, possibly because you have to sit with your legs apart. There were more female guitarists and fiddlers. I don’t know quite why this is. Maybe it’s because when we start to have families, we don’t have time to keep playing instruments whereas we do have time to sing and sing.

…and life

I’ve written a lot of women’s songs and I associate women with nature. I think women understand what care is. If women were in charge, I don’t think we’d be building skyscrapers, I don’t think we’d be building 747s, I don’t think we would have invented a nuclear bomb, things that kill people, that kill the earth.

On her eco-feminism

I identify the earth with the downtrodden and the system that we have is treading all over women, the disadvantaged, the sexually different, anyone who’s different than what the patriarchy wants to push out as normal.

I’ve written a lot of songs about a lot of different subjects but I have gotten especially interested in the plight of the earth and what we are doing to her. I’ve been writing ecological songs since 1960 – I wrote songs for CND, I wrote them for Greenham Common and Extinction Rebellion is the latest.

I’m hoping that Extinction Rebellion gets a wider focus. It’s doing what I think is necessary at this point which is disrupting the system, disrupting business. I just hope it continues because when a movement starts, it’s very strong and it takes a lot of stamina to keep it going.

On her first farewell tour

That leaves it open. I stole the idea from my brother Mike’s New Lost City Ramblers who did their annual farewell concert. A first farewell means that there’s a chance of a second farewell. I’ll keep going until my body gives out or my voice gives out or until I push up the daisies I suppose.

Peggy Seeger with Calum & Neill MacColl plays the Mitchell Theatre on 18 Jan. Our Merchant City Trad Trail runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundsys throughout Celtic Connections. Tickets here: https://www.celticconnections.com/event/56/merchant-city-trad-trail