First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger – an elegy for folk music
There are no sonorous signals of big moments, rather a series of chronological arabesques, which is why this amazing life reads more like a novel
Peggy Seeger performing at a folk club session in the Enterprise public house, Long Acre, London, late 1950s-early 1960s. Photograph: EFD SS/Heritage Images/Getty Images
First Time Ever: A Memoir
By the second paragraph of Peggy Seeger’s memoir, we have learned in a lyrical riff that typifies her style, that aged 20, boyfriend in tow, she left home for Santa Barbara, ditching the appendage soon after. Now in London, aged 24, eight months pregnant with the child of her married lover, Ewan McColl, then in the process of leaving his wife Jean, she pours tea as his mother Betsy announces;
“You’ll ne’er get him to leave Jean.
She’s wi’ bairn, due in October.
She’s a loyal lass.”
This is the kind of moment that most biographers and autobiographers would mark as defining . The only clue in Seeger’s case is that it is written as though set to music. And it is no accident that many years later she references the emotion of that moment to get through a ballad, 33 verses long, about a wife ousted by a young bride. It is typical of her brutal honesty that she is able to weigh the innocence of the young bride against the pain of the older woman.
She does not calculate what was seeded at that moment, though she later talks of the “teeth always missing from (our) heterosexual set of gears”. But a timebomb ticked through her three decades’ relationship with McColl which ultimately led to her great and equally enduring coup de foudre with Irene Pyper Scott: “I am not a lesbian. I just love a woman.”
She quickly displayed an instrumental virtuosity which was her entree to the folk worlds of America and Britain
There are no sonorous signals of big moments, rather a series of chronological arabesques, which is why this amazing life reads more like a novel. I found it a slow read because it invites a Follow The Music adventure. I spent hours and hours immersed in YouTube: like poetry, the music of MacColl and Seeger involves an overflow of powerful emotion and is ultimately cathartic.
Born into liberal American folk music royalty – her father was an archivist , her mother the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition – she quickly displayed an instrumental virtuosity which was her entree to the folk worlds of America and Britain.. Her legendary half brother Pete Seeger seemed to have spanned the entire history of civil right activism: his song If I had a Hammer resounded at Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” rally in 1963.
Pete Seeger and Ewan McColl, from different continents, were diehard communists: Neither ever renounced Stalinism; Seeger braved the House of UnAmerican Activities; while McColl clung to the class politics of his native industrial Glasgow. They all – Peggy included – believed that music could change the world. In a lacuna between first meeting McColl at a folk club in London and the scene in the kitchen with Betsy, she attended what might be called “show tours” in the communist bloc in the late 1950s.
The book dwells on Peggy’s sharply observed recollections of these Utopian sabbaticals in the USSR and in China. But she was strangely unaffected by all this ultra-leftism. “I knew who I was: a suburban middle class female who’d had a superb exposure to folk song and classical music. I sang songs that I treasured, I was a link in the chain of oral tradition.”
Though at first astounded to find her folk songs anthemised by feminists, her stance against all injustice meant she was a natural feminist and enthusiastic Greenham Commoner.
This is a life viewed through the prism of music and politics. She loved McColl, she was fiercely loyal – her mother-in-law Betsy fertilised that seed well in her paean to his former wife, the “loyal lass” – but living with a man with a mission often leaves a void. She had three children and four, sometimes traumatic, abortions, before he agreed under duress to a vasectomy.
These men’s politics were rigid and atrophied: the irony is that their art . . . would not have survived a week in the totalitarian states they extolled
The story behind the hit The First Time Ever I saw Your Face, reveals the quintessential narcissism of men who want to save the world. Written by McColl for Peggy, it is not actually supposed to be about her. It’s a song to be sung by her to him.
These men’s politics were rigid and atrophied: the irony is that their art, rooted in individual freedom, joy, diversity and ordinary people’s lives, would not have survived a week in the totalitarian states they extolled. It’s almost as if they feared relinquishing their extreme beliefs would dilute their music.
And yet there was something very noble about them. Pete Seeger singing at Obama’s inauguration brought historic symmetry though Bernie Sanders – a Seeger without the songs – who carries their flame.
What would Charlottesville be like if it had Seegers and McColls?
That is the question this elegy for folk music ultimately presents.
- Anne Harris is a former editor of the “Sunday Independent”