On the road again aged 87, Peggy Seeger has no desire to slow down

Folk legend on ageing, her brother Pete, and how she grew out of ‘sledgehammer songs’

“As musicians, we are our music. Which is why I keep going. If I stop, a huge part of me would vanish and die.”

Peggy Seeger lives and breathes her music as viscerally now, at the age of 87, as she did six decades ago.

In the midst of her First Farewell tour (there will be many more farewells, she reckons), she's electrified by the 27 gigs she's recently performed over 40 nights, in the company of her son, producer and singer/songwriter Calum. A folk musician all her life, Peggy Seeger's famed lineage (daughter of musicologist Charles Seeger and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Porter Crawford, sister of Pete and Mike, and partner to English folk singer/songwriter and folk activist, Ewan MacColl for over 30 years, until his death in 1989) inevitably informs and colours her worldview.

But Seeger is a woman on a mission that’s barely dimmed over a lifetime of singing, songwriting, campaigning and touring. There is no subject unfit for her laser-sharp wit and wisdom. Feminism, class politics, ecology, the menopause and the invisibility that seems to accompany ageing are just a small handful of the many topics to which she has turned her attention.

She’s lived in England for many years, and considers it her home, despite a visceral opposition to Tory politics. It’s where her three children and nine grandchildren live, and where she can collaborate with her sons, Calum and Neil. It was Peggy who inspired MacColl to compose The First Time Ever I saw Your Face, as they spoke on the phone, long distance, during the early years of their relationship. Seeger embodies the notion that folk music is above all, music of, by and for folks.

For Peggy Seeger, the art of songwriting is one that she’s still honing with an appetite that shows scant signs of dimming.

“I’ve been through a number of stages of song writing and some of them have depended on what the subject matter of the song was about,” she says on a Zoom call from her home in Oxford. “When I first got together with Ewan MacColl, I wrote quite a number of movement songs, about unions and class solidarity. There were songs about the anti-apartheid movement, the poll tax and things like that. As we moved into ecology and identification with nature, I began to realise that there were other ways other than hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer.

“So I have what I call sledgehammer songs. I’ve written one about the killing of an abortion provider in Kansas city called Right to Life, and after 9/11 I wrote a song called Caveman. Then I started writing not so much protest songs, as songs with alternative suggestions in them. And then there were the scalpel songs, which were delicate. My song Everyone Knows [about sexual politics], where you unpack the issue, shows where the conflict lies between men and women.

“Then there’s the wedge songs where you know you are singing to an audience who might not agree with what you are saying, so you put the thin end of the wedge in. They think the song is about one thing, and gradually it gets to be about another. That’s the song Lubrication [from Peggy’s latest album, where she mines the correlations between climate change and sexual intercourse]. I love writing wedge songs, because I love watching people’s faces as they realise what a song’s really about. And then there are the rogue songs. I don’t know where they appear from!”

A multi-instrumentalist, Peggy plays the guitar, piano, five string banjo, autoharp, concertina and Appalachian dulcimer. She’s a born conversationalist who blithely advises that “my sentences are Proustian, and you must interrupt when you want”. One suspects that there aren’t many conversations with Peggy Seeger that require lubrication. Her stories conjure memories of her older brother, Pete, whose music sought to bridge divides like few other musicians in the last century. He was 17 years older than Peggy, and they had different mothers. Were they close?

“Nobody was close to him,” she declares. “You couldn’t get close to him. He was sent away to boarding school at the age of four because his parents were breaking up, and he just closed down emotionally. I once sat across from him at his house, about 20 years ago, and I told him, ‘Pete, you have been huge in my life. You have kept me going when I went to England. I learned so much about banjo and how to play and sing from you, and I just want to say thank you. You have been a real brother.’ And he sat there, tears rolling down his face. He didn’t say a thing. He couldn’t respond. He just wasn’t able to do that.”

So many folk songs were written and sung by men, and focus on the physicality of digging, mining and attacking an issue as if in combat. Did this trajectory bypass the role of women as creators and carriers of folk music across the generations?

“Well,” she says wryly, “I don’t think that there were many women collectors, were there? And women are not going to sing certain songs for a male collector. I reckon there are a lot of women’s songs that are bawdy and very honest about relations in marriage that they simply would not sing for a man.”

One of the most resonant tracks on Peggy’s latest album is called The Invisible Woman, a paean to the experience of ageing and increasing invisibility. Telling it like it is, she’s never been one to cleave to a predictable path. The recent leak of a Supreme Court document which suggested that a majority of US Supreme Court justices plan to support overturning the historic Roe v Wade case law that legalised abortion incenses her, and underlines the fracture lines in American politics, she believes.

“Women should rise up in outrage,” Peggy says. “The Supreme Court is mostly men, and its whole formation is a joke. The president who is in power is allowed to put his own choice in. And with the American system, and the electoral college system, there is no way we will have justice.

“I’ve had four abortions. Ewan and I had to keep two families, and our finances for the first 12 years of our relationship were like a tightrope with no fastening at either end. And we were irresponsible. The whole idea of forcing women to have children that we do not want is… I mean, what? Maybe I should write a sledgehammer song about this, because the whole notion that the patriarchy has the right to tell us women what to do with our bodies is ridiculous.”

Unencumbered

In an age of polarised political debates, Peggy Seeger follows her own winding path, unencumbered by any desire to conform, or to retire quietly. She’s been in a relationship with a woman for many years, and pays no heed to preconceived notions of who she is or who people expect her to be.

“I don’t label myself,” Peggy says with trademark clarity. “When I was in a relationship with Ewan, I didn’t label myself with a statement, ‘I’m a heterosexual.’ Now I’m in a relationship with a woman, I don’t say, ‘Ooh, now I’m a lesbian.’ Some women do that. I don’t see the need for it. When I was heterosexual, I never imagined I would be in a relationship with a woman. I don’t call myself a lesbian, because I love a woman. If she didn’t exist, I wouldn’t go trawling for another woman. I just love this particular woman.

“My son referred to me once as bisexual. I said I’m not: if something happened to her, I might not look to meet anybody. I just am who I am. I don’t need any label. The label is a bit sad in a way, because it always sets people against where you are.”

One label that Peggy’s willing to accept is that of folk singer, but even then, she insists on refining it so that listeners understand her approach to her music.

"I'm not a folk singer in the way that Joe Heaney was or Sarah Makem was," she says. "I am a singer of folk songs. I'm not going to imitate a singer who lives in the Appalachians. I sing them as best as I can myself, with no histrionics. I just sing them straight."

Peggey Seeger’s Irish tour runs from June 2nd-19th

peggyseeger.com/concerts