‘Music hits where nothing else hits’: Peggy Seeger on new album First Farewell, invisibility and ‘thumping away’ on the piano

Remarkably, First Farewell is Peggy Seeger’s 24th solo album. In a career that has lasted more than 65 years, she’s been a major voice in the folk revival, the activist movement, radio ballads, Child ballads and as an accomplished songwriter, so it’s understandable that at the age of 86 she’s come up with what’s being billed as ‘probably’ her final album and tour.

If it is, Seeger is not missing the opportunity to talk about some big subjects. Her song The Invisible Woman, for example, tackles the way women seem to be increasingly ignored the older they get. “Our society kind of says ‘well the baby factory has shut down, so you’re not worth thinking about any more’,” she says. “You’re shoved away.”

Inspired by a conversation with her son Neill MacColl – “he felt invisible to younger women, not necessarily to men, so he had that advantage” – the song balances a melancholy of being unable to recall “when my tangible self was put on the shelf” with a wry wit: Seeger conjures the image of dancing down the street “in clown shoes and lace underwear” only to remain apparently unseen.

Seeger credits her partner Irene for inspiring her to be witty in song and on stage. “I like the idea of using humour, especially a shared humour,” she says. She claims her sense of humour is “delicate, but it’s also a bit raunchy sometimes” – as evidenced by the mischievous Lubrication, which details how “certain moving parts are meant to get along together” and complicatedly forges a link between the Earth’s ecosystem and “sexual congress”. Did the Earth move, indeed…

She’s warm and witty, but Seeger knows how and when to be direct, too. Tree of Life is a short, sweet love song to Irene, sparse piano lights up the genuine longing in her voice as she sings the appropriately disarming How I Long For Peace, while other subjects to be starkly addressed include young male suicide and modern slavery.

“It’s a different type of album,” she says. “It’s much more emotional, it’s much more involved with time. I’m very aware that I’m singing as an older woman; I’m singing as a woman who has to run home to her grey-haired lover. So there’s a lot happening on this album, and it is closely related to time. I must admit, my time is running out. I’m very aware of the seconds of my life, ticking away.”

The march of time has forced Seeger to adapt, musically speaking. First Farewell is her first piano-led album – stiff fingers making guitar and banjo a little trickier these days. “I love the piano,” she says. Despite not owning one for 30 years, when she lived with Ewan MacColl (there simply wasn’t room), she says “it’s my main instrument, the one I would take into old age above any other”. Is her style influenced by her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger? “My style is thumping away,” she laughs. “But she taught me to be free on the piano; she taught me how to get lost on the piano and find myself.”

Seeger’s singing voice has changed, too. Age has added to its beauty – in the way it has for Martin Carthy, for example – but listen to the way she sings the technically challenging, richly emotional Lullabies for Strangers and it’s not difficult to believe she practises for “at least an hour a day” as a matter of course.

“I keep better care of my voice than I do of my body,” she says. “I’ve dropped it down, to a much lower range. I sang in folk clubs in pub rooms from 1959 to about the middle of the 1990s, and there were no microphones: you had to reach the back of the hall with your voice. You’d have to practically shriek to be heard at the back, so I started singing high. So with a microphone, I’m just enjoying the fact that I can still sing some. My voice has gone down by about a fifth: where once I could sing happily in D, now I’d have to move that song down to G. It feels good to sing down there, your voice vibrates in a different way.”

And the power of song – the ability to articulate something in a unique way – is what ties the disparate threads, moods and subject matter of First Farewell together. You don’t make 24 solo albums and not know what you’re doing, after all.

“Songs are different from poetry,” says Seeger. “They’re different from conversations, they’re different from prose. You can do a lot with them: music hits where nothing else hits. It’s such a vital part of us. You can reach people with music where you can’t reach them with other things.”

It’s the end of an interview that has felt reassuringly full of wisdom. Does Seeger feel wise? “Oh good Lord no,” she replies. Then she continues – rather wisely – on to the subject of “the stupidity of the male dynamic that runs the world”, referencing hippopotamuses, Donald Trump, the First World War and the key subject of the environment. If First Farewell does turn out to be Seeger’s final album, we should be happy that she’s not going quietly.

First Farewell is out now on Red Grape Music. Click here for details of the First Farewell tour

Main pic: Vicki Sharp

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