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Review: Peggy Seeger, First Time Ever: A Memoir.

Peggy Seeger, First Time Ever: A Memoir. Faber and Faber, 2017.

Peggy Seeger has written an at times intimate biography charting her early years and her  marriage to British folk legend Ewan MacColl, which produced several talented children.

The book’s title, First Time Ever, is drawn from a MacColl song which produced a huge hit for Roberta Flack and made the Seeger/McColl clan briefly ultra-solvent. The Seegers are of course American Folk’s first family. Peggy’s dad was the composer/educator Charles Seeger, and her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger was a major American composer. Her brothers Pete and Mike had extraordinary careers, and Pete is considered responsible for the revival of interest in the five-string banjo. His half brother Mike Seeger was, with Tom Paley and John Cohen, a core member of the New Lost City Ramblers, who seem to have single handedly kickstarted the urban folk revival and interest in early American Country music.

Peggy Seeger, like her brothers, became an accomplished banjo and guitar player, and her work with her husband of many decades, Ewan MacColl, is testament to her music skill and terrific ear. She is also a dedicated folklorist and has done research and field recording over the years, when not raising a family, overseeing MacColl’s difficult career, and avoiding official British and American interference with her own. She and MacColl were both dedicated Marxists and I’m certain their FBI files rank with Paul Robeson’s for unreliable detail and kack-handed observation.

MacColl had a strong background in theater and solo ballad singing, and his at times heavy didactic approach could stir resistance even among fans, as she recounts in an array of examples of MacColl’s gift for alienating everyone within earshot of his polemics. It was a successful marriage, owing to her absolute dedication to MacColl, and though she makes light of their loving relation, it can’t have been easy. She invariably emerges as the one person who could both mollify those whom MacColl offended and the single force capable of soothing his gargantuan ego – an ego responsible for chauvinist moments that leave the reader gobsmacked at the mans intransigence and cluelessness.

There is a stubborn streak of earnestness in the Seeger clan, Pete more so than Peggy, that would shame a Mother Theresa, and this can lead to some hilariously awkward moments which the Seeger wit was not always able to rescue. Peggy is a Red Diaper baby from a family steeped in Marxist thinking, and the folk revival in the U.S. is a good example of how Marxists responded to the Communist Party’s call for learning and the “Peoples wisdom, found in the their songs and stories.”

Peggy and Pete’s progressive stances are laudable, though there is a careful by-the-book aspect to their radicalism that can sometimes morph into a puritanical Left propriety. No revolution occurs without violence and, as Trotsky notes, all states are founded with and on it. The Seegers were and are educators with a long history conjoining field research with their own stellar musical performance, and in this they are unique. The Lomax family had a similar trajectory with John and Alan Lomax similarly enlarging America’s understanding of its own musical history. Peggy and Pete usually are lumped with other radical singers and activists but theirs is a more careful version of the blunt call to the barricades of Aunt Molly Jackson’s “I Am a Union Woman,” or Mother Jone’s visceral hatred of the ruling class. Woody Guthrie is well within this tradition. There is a famous story of Guthrie, on tour to raise funds for the Spanish Republic, overnighting at a wealthy Chicago progressive’s home. Come morning he had slashed the fine bedclothes and some of the furniture in his room with a knife. The class enemy was not forgotten. Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Aunt Molly emerged directly from the Coal wars and factional disputes which had riven the Left during the Thirties, and none of them were immune to a drink or a bar room brawl. This hard living approach was said to have shocked Pete Seeger and others within the New York Left unaccustomed to the unvarnished agitational lives led by Leftists outside the comparatively polite propriety of East Coast radicals.

That there was a tremendous downside to lives of direct agitation is clear to anyone with a grasp of J. Edgar Hoover’s cold war career. Pete Seeger, after the Weavers were blacklisted, would not appear on American TV again until very late in his life, and for Peggy or Pete there were always passport issues coupled with what must have been intense surveillance as they traveled to and from Communist Folk events, concerts, and fundraisers abroad. MacColl also was a dedicated Leftie who was a key figure animating a series of projects that involved the Party and sympathetic participants in workshops, festivals, and rallies.

Anyone doubting the intensity and magnitude of Left culture should refer to Peggy’s memoir, as it reveals a world, now somewhat faded in memory, of activists, folks singers, political thinkers and educators engaged in a wide range of dissident activity across England, Scotland and Wales. Paul Robeson is still a celebrated figure in Wales long after his years of internal exile in the U.S. and the attempts to nullify and deep six one of the 20thcenturies most extraordinary careers.

The Seegers had deep ties to the old European Left and while in Paris Peggy stayed with Lucienne Idoine who had been interred at and survived Ravensbruck concentration camp for women.  Her income in her early and middle twenties depended on folk club performances, and as England’s folk culture remained intact after the Hippy Sixties, there was always a welcome financial support there. She and MacColl were fixures on the British folk scene and did a number of albums together, collected and transcribed songs, and ran folk song workshops in an attempt to keep the undergound culture alive.

The book skirts the slightly touchy issue of the copper fitting of the folk movement with a bohemian lifestyle, epitomized in the career of Bob Dylan, who came to New York in pursuit of Woody Guthrie and was determined to persuade his peers that he had lived as hard and “authentic” a life as his hero. This was pure fabrication and Dylan’s self-mythologizing PR can be viewed alongside the Seeger clan’s Brahmin background as somewhat at odds with hardscrabble bohemian images favored at the time. All the Seegers came from families boasting impeccable academic and social credentials, and though Pete left Harvard in 1927 he never lost a do-gooder style that, for all his splendid intentions, could sometimes set teeth on edge.

While still married to MacColl, Peggy fell in love with another married woman. On MacColl’s death they became a pair and have lived together for several decades. She does not identify herself as lesbian, but the relationship initially put quite a strain on family members.  The Reagan-Thatcher years were not easy on the Seegers or on MacColl but it did bring a significant resistance to rightwing policies.  MacColl suffered a long, slow decline, and Seeger charts her rage and grief at his passing, at their own marital troubles, and over a daughter who would not accept her infatuation with a woman. She continues to write and teach and perform into her eighties. It’s a remarkable story, a great love story of an extraordinary woman and her adventures midst all the political and cultural turmoil of Britain and America.

 

Warren Leming is a musician/critic/and playwright who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin.