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Peggy Seeger: “Ageing is a process of watching yourself decompose slowly”

The 85-year-old folk legend reflects on a life in music and why she feels “invisible”.

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When Peggy Seeger first performed in London folk clubs in the late Fifties, she would sing in a very high pitch – because she had to make sure she was heard in the back. “They had no microphones, and you had to sing to this huge hall that was packed with people,” she said. “You’re singing into 200 pieces of bone – other people’s heads.” Now aged 85, Seeger is unable to reach that upper octave, so she sings “down in my boots”. “I’ve actually recorded songs where I sing C below middle C. And woo!” she threw her hands in the air, “it feels good to the heart.”

Seeger lives in a rented house in Iffley, a village “that is enclosed like a pearl in the oyster shells of Oxford”, she told me when we spoke over a video call from her home office. She laughed as she watched through her window a blackbird carry sprigs of leaves to an ivy-covered wall, where it was making a nest: “There’s a bird feeder, but it just doesn’t learn!” Seeger wore a bright pink scarf over a black turtleneck, and sipped from a mug as she spoke, her American accent – she was born in New York City, and grew up in Washington, DC – softened from the 60 years she has spent living in the UK.

Seeger lives alone; her partner Irene, whom she married in a civil ceremony in 2010, has lived in New Zealand for the past 13 years. The pair haven’t seen each other in person for two years, and Seeger doesn’t know whether they ever will again. They talk on the phone every morning and ­evening, but otherwise Seeger doesn’t mind the solitude. She is, she said, a “natural hermit” who “self-isolates automatically”.

In April Seeger released her 24th solo ­record, First Farewell, a collection of original songs that is charming and tender, while retaining Seeger’s trademark perceptiveness. It is also, the accompanying press release reads, her “(probably) final solo album”.

After an unbroken career spanning 68 years, retiring from the music industry is not straightforward for Seeger. Her music has run alongside her personal and political lives. She is the sister of the musicians and activists Pete and Mike Seeger, and the widow of the singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, who died in 1989. (MacColl sings about Seeger in “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which is widely considered one of the best love songs ever written.) Together, Seeger and MacColl started the English folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties. Her political anthems – pro-choice, anti-war – didn’t make her as famous as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, both of whom she inspired, but folk music has remained her life’s work.

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The name of the record was inspired by the airport goodbye, she said, which comes in two parts: you hug someone before they go through the gate, and then you wait and wave again as they turn to look back over their shoulder. “But I think it is going to be my last [record], because I get distressed at the state my voice is in an awful lot.”

Seeger considers ageing as “a process of watching yourself decompose slowly”, and her voice is “another muscle that’s not working the way it used to”, like the arthritic joint on her right ring finger that has affected her guitar, banjo and concertina-playing. So, she sings lower than she once did, and simplifies her instrumental accompaniments, “the same way as I simplify my life. I think, let me do less. And because the words of the songs are so important, it doesn’t really matter.”

After all, folk is first and foremost about storytelling, regardless of the complexity of the notes. The most poignant story Seeger tells on her new record is “The Invisible Woman”, which she wrote with her eldest son, Neill, who is in his sixties. “He comes over and we start talking about our lives,” Seeger recalled, “and he says, ‘You know, Mum? I’m nearly bald, I’m grey-haired, and I’m feeling invisible.’ And I say, ‘You should try being an 85-year-old woman.’”

Seeger’s success within the folk scene doesn’t make up for her lack of visibility in everyday life. “I can be in a room full of people and I can raise my voice to talk and the person facilitating will not even pay attention to the fact I’ve spoken.” “Why do I feel so much less than I am?/There’s so much more of me now,” she sings on the track, over gently picked guitar.

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While Seeger has only recently started writing about ageism, misogyny is a theme she has come up against all her life. (“She’s smart – for a woman/I wonder how she got that way,” she satirised on her 1971 song “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”, an anthem of the women’s movement.) But as part of folk culture, she has also sung traditional tunes with sexist lyrics. “I sometimes feel as though I’m the curator of a museum,” she said. “They are works of art that documented the way things were. I could sing you any number of misogynistic, cruel songs about women to show what people thought was normal.” And she does, starting on an old Puritan tune: “If you’ve a wife and have no good of her/Here is how you easy get rid of her/Take her up and chop the head off her/Early in the morning,” she sings, “early” becoming “url-eye”, mirroring the pronunciation in the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor”.

“Matty Groves”, an old English ballad made popular by artists including Martin Carthy and Fairport Convention, is another. It tells the story of Lord Barnard, who comes home to find his wife in bed with the title character and then kills them both. It’s a ­violent, hateful story, far from the empowering narratives of Seeger’s own songwriting. But that doesn’t make the song void of meaning: when performing it, Seeger summons the necessary emotional intent by recalling the pain and anger she felt at the death of her friend, the musician Freyda Epstein, who was killed in a car crash in 2003. Some emotions transcend their context.

“Why do I sing the folk songs?” Seeger shrugged. “I sing them because they’re beautiful.” This choice is, for Seeger, a straightforward one: for a traditional song to be interesting enough for her to take on, it must be “a skeleton of a story” on which the interpreter – and then, in turn, the listener – “can hang their own emotional flesh and riches. There has to be something true in it, something that you can identify with. If there isn’t, I don’t sing it.”  

“First Farewell” is out now on Red Grape Music. Peggy Seeger will perform at Cecil Sharp House in London on 27 May

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Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?