The legendary folk musician talks to DIVA about sexuality, visibility, and a 68-year career in music
BY NADIA DAVIES
First Farewell is Peggy Seeger’s 24th solo album, and will likely be her last. But mellowing is not her style and she’s not going quietly.
A remarkable record, it underscores the 85-year-old’s importance and continued relevance as a songwriter and performer in folk music, cementing her place as one of the most uncompromising and inspiring female artists of any genre and age.
We caught up with Peggy to find out more about the record, activism, and what visibility means to her.
This is your 24th solo album, and the 68th year of your career. How does it feel to still be writing and recording songs now?
Well, I get tired very easily. But the overriding feeling is one of having, not conquered old age, but having brought who I have been into my 80s, and I must say I never contemplated that. When I was 60, I thought what will it be like when I’m 70, when I’m 80? Will I still be doing this? And to me those ages are so old that I thought no! I’d be in a wheelchair or six-feet-under! So, it does feel good. And I love the album.
The intention is to tour the album if the pandemic allows, which is amazing! How does the experience now compare to when you first toured?
I really hope that 2021 will be a touring year. The touring experience is totally different now. The first time I toured was with [husband at the time] Ewan McColl, and the first tour we did was with a six-month-old baby who was still in diapers! We rolled up to the ticket counter at the airport with a baby, three huge suitcases, four instruments, boxes of records – and that was what we travelled with for about a month and a half. Ewan and I did grassroots touring around wonderful folk clubs, staying in B&Bs, driving all around the country having some very interesting and strange experiences. When [Ewan] died I started touring with my present partner, Irene Pyper-Scott, as a duo called No Spring Chickens, but that didn’t work out. So, I went to the US and started touring totally on my own in a motor home called Maggie! It was hugely energy requiring, but then I had the energy. When I came back to the UK, I started doing the same but with a little post office van that I called Rosie. I toured here for about five or six years, and when I turned 80, I started touring with my sons. Now I tour with my manager, who is also my daughter-in-law, Kerrie, one of my sons and a sound engineer. I don’t know I’m born it is so easy! And that will continue until I stop touring.
Take us back to the beginning. Was a career in music something you always aspired to?
I never aspired to a career in music, no. When I saw what my brother [Pete Seeger] was doing, travelling continuously, I thought, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want music as a career” because I loved it too much. It occurred to me very early on that if you make something you love into your career, it’s possible that it will become boring or a habit, but it hasn’t. I just really enjoy what I do. I love touring. I love recording. I love sitting in my front room and just playing and practising. I don’t look on music as my career. I look on it as the activity that I am entirely engrossed in and has ruled my life and will do so until the day I die. I play music every day. Every day.
First Farewell was performed and recorded with your sons and daughter-in-law. How was that experience for you?
Recording with my sons, travelling with my sons, ANYTHING with my sons, I just want to do it. They are just the most superb musicians for me, and we mesh in completely. It was not only performed and recorded with my sons and daughter-in-law Kate, but we co-wrote five of the songs and my daughter Kittie did the graphics for the CD. So, it’s all been in the family and I love it.
Invisible Woman is one of the stand-out tracks from the album for me. Visibility is an issue for older women, particularly gay women. What does visibility mean to you?
Invisible Woman is an interesting song. I wrote it with my son Neil – it’s the only song I’ve ever written with him and we didn’t know what we were going to write about when we met, so we started talking about our lives and what we were doing. He said, “Do you know mum, as a 61-year-old man, I’m beginning to feel invisible”. I said, “You want to try being an 85-year-old woman!” So, we started writing about invisibility, but it swung over to being about women. I am visible in what I do. I’m not famous, I’m well-known in my field but my field is a fringe one. I have all the visibility that I want. As far as being an older woman, I feel that I’m not seen properly when I’m out in public where people don’t recognise me. I feel that older women are often treated very differently or ignored in social situations.
As far as visibility for a gay woman, for some strange reason I’ve never referred to or thought of myself as gay. When I was with [former husband] Ewan MacColl, I didn’t think of myself as heterosexual. I was just was who I was, and I loved a man. Now that I love a woman, I love a woman. Somehow, I think gay women are not as identifiable as gay men. People try to divide us into butch and femme, the same way they try to divide men into femme and masculine, but we’re not all like that. Sometimes two gay women both seem very feminine. You would have maybe a hard time looking at [my current partner] Irene and me and saying who might be the butch, or who approached who first, or who takes up one position in lovemaking. It’s bizarre and it’s gross the way a lot of the non-gay community look at us. I even heard one man who said “What can two women do together sexually? There’s nothing they can do!” Little did he know!
You have a long back catalogue of protest and politically themed songs and describe yourself as an ecofeminist. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Ecofeminism is about the development of women’s connection with nature and climate and planet. I describe myself as an ecofeminist because women seem to be closer to nature. I think we’re less violent than men. We’re more careful with our bodies. I think socially we are the more advanced, the more human gender. We give birth, we treasure life in a way that men do not. We don’t kill as easily as men do. Ecofeminism is acknowledging that women are part of the natural system of the world. My partner Irene is a very fundamental ecofeminist and she moved me over to where I am now, which is deep and complete involvement and identification with the planet and with nature and working with women.
I have had an issue to write for, for the last 60 years. When you write songs for social and political issues you enter the issue itself, and you are with other people who are acting and expressing their concern in different ways, not just songwriting. I don’t just depend on myself, I feed off them. The organisation or the issue that I’m interested in tells me what is wanted in a song. It means I stand on picket lines when we’re battling for a swimming pool in Oxford. It means I’m actually on the committee which is fighting to save a field in my village, I’m not just writing songs about it. So, being with the people who are fighting for whatever issue it is, is a vital part of the song writing and I learn so much by it.
Tell us about your songwriting process.
The songwriting process is a tangle. I can’t answer it properly! As a songwriter that sounds a strange thing to say, but I write songs of so many different types and the actual songwriting process is so different for so many of them that I don’t have a songwriting process. Sometimes a song can light down on your shoulders in a minute and a half. Sometimes I can carry a tune around with me for years. I originally wrote a song for Patrice Lumumba, the elected Congolese president who was tortured and killed, but the tune was too gentle for the subject. So, I kept the tune, discarded the words and kept rewriting until three years later I was walking, and the words just landed on my shoulder, and that was it. It was a song called The Mother, and it works beautifully. It kind of feels like the Inuit people who often find a piece of stone and carry it around with them because they’re sure a sculpture is hidden in it, and then one day the stone tells them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians/songwriters?
I think it’s funny asking me for advice for aspiring singers and songwriters. I will confess here that my last two CDs which will be my 23rd and 24th are the first ones that I have ever, in my 68 years, made a profit from. I am not interested in selling myself. I write a song and I just don’t know what to do with it because I didn’t write it to be marketed, I wrote it because I wanted to write it. I would just say write for yourself. Write for someone you love. Write for an issue that is really important. Don’t aim at being famous, just write what you want to. It’s an amazing talent that you’ve been given. Write for beauty and for usefulness, not necessarily for wealth.
First Farewell is out 9 April. Pre-order now at peggyseeger.com.
DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.
➡️ linktr.ee/divamagazine ⬅️