Since the 1950s, Peggy Seeger (http://www.pegseeger.com/) has been performing before audiences in the United States and Britain. During this period she has recorded over 14 solo albums and many joint albums. After living in England between 1959 and 1994, Seeger moved back to the USA and lived in Asheville, North Carolina until early 2006. Following is part 1 of a 1996 interview with Seeger.
I was in the bookstore looking at the magazine section, and I noticed a lot of glossy magazines featuring people who were singing folk music in the 1960s and 1950s. You know, an article like “Generation X and Joan Baez.” Also books. Like When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. What’s your explanation?
Peggy Seeger: Who was that by?
Robert Cartwell. So it seems like every decade there’s a revival of interest in the folksingers of the 1950s and 1960s and in folk music in general. How do you explain the cross-generational appeal?
Seeger: When you say “cross-generational appeal,” do you mean “why is it appealing now to younger people?”
Seeger: Are you sure that it is?
That’s what these articles are saying. In the early Nineties—no. But now, in the last few years—yes.
Seeger: Well, then the young people now are getting romantic about the Sixties. They’re not listening particularly to folk music now. You go to the festivals now and there aren’t all that many. Probably at festivals there are younger people. But at the concerts there are more older people, generally speaking. Although I went to a Joan Baez concert down in Asheville and there were a terrific number of women there—young and older women.
So maybe that’s where it’s centered? Among women.
Seeger: I think we’re hungering for a more innocent period, to be quite honest. I think many people feel that folk music has an innocence about it. That the music that we’re being presented with now, as pop music, doesn’t. It’s interesting that there wasn’t a folk music revival back in the Thirties and the Twenties when there was a lot of really innocent, quite joyful, music.
So many movements seem to run almost in pendulum-like form. Look at the way the working-class movement and the union movement spurs up every now and then. And look at the way feminism is spurred up every now and then. The ecological movement as well. Although I hope the pendulum is going to stay where it is and move even further over.
But I think, certainly, as far as the Fifties and the Sixties are concerned, it was a kind of glowing period. People kind of look on it as—even though it included things like the Vietnam War—if we still had a kind of innocence about us then.
You lived in both the United States and in Britain during the Fifties and Sixties?
Seeger: I lived in England for most of that. I was abroad for most of that time. From 1955 onward I was abroad.
You’ve been back in the States in the Nineties. Is it much of a culture shock?
Seeger: Yes. Although I had been back several times before then. I was blacklisted in early days, even though I hadn’t done very much. Or at least, if not blacklisted, it was very difficult to get in. You had to hire a civil liberties lawyer to kind of plead your case. And you had to get work permits and special visas and all those kind of things
But coming back now, despite the fact that I have come back about eight or ten times between 1960 and 1990, yes—quite a culture shock. But not as much as if I had been a foreigner. I’m quite comfortable with American people. Always have been. Not all. The ones that are the kind of people that I meet I’m quite comfortable with.
Why would you be blacklisted as a musician? I thought that was only political people. I thought artists weren’t blacklisted?
Seeger: No. No, no, no. My brother, Pete [Seeger], wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a long time in the Fifties. Or early Sixties. And to be a folk musician, was to be regarded as quite “left-wing” and “red,” in the Fifties and Sixties. Definitely.
In the 1990s, what have you been up to artistically?
Seeger: I performed by myself up to 1958 or ’59. And then I joined with Ewan MacColl and sang with him for over 30 years. And when he died in 1989, I swung immediately to singing with my old comrade, Irene Scott. We formed a duo called “No Spring Chickens.” And we sang together for 4 years. And then she decided she didn’t like touring life. And I decided to come back over here.
And so I have been learning to sing by myself again. And it was extremely interesting. Because working with Ewan MacColl it was very, very serious. And fairly static onstage. Working with Irene, she wanted to bring humor onto the stage. So I started using a reasonable amount of humor and being lighter onstage, in terms of presentation. Although not necessarily in terms of the kinds of songs being sung. And, of course, the big difference now is that I’m swinging over to ecological and feminism politics, rather than the old left-wing politics of the jobs and the unions.
This is not to say that I don’t find them important. Because they are. But I believe that the major push, the most important push now, is ecology. And feminism goes hand-in-hand with that, because so many of the feminist principles are ones that mesh in perfectly with ecological action.
Next: Peggy Seeger: A 1996 Interview—Part 2