Sept. 30 2009 12:00 AM

At 74, Peggy Seeger continues the family folk tradition


 “I’m a singer of folks songs, not a folk singer.”

It’s a strong statement from a woman who has spent much of her life writing, singing and performing traditional music. But Peggy Seeger is a strong woman who knows where she comes from, as well as her place in a larger tradition. “That’s just my own terminology to make it clear I wasn’t brought up in a mountain home, singing on a front porch — I lacked that advantage. We did sing on a front porch, but it was in Chevy Chase [Md.].”

On Friday afternoon, Seeger will dig deeper into that tradition, when she gives a talk on “Women in Anglo-American Songs,” discussing women as creators and subjects of folk songs, as part of the “Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives” brown bag lunch series at Michigan State University, before performing a Ten Pound Fiddle concert at East Lansing’s Unitarian Universalist Church later that night.

“In the United States we have some prestigious women who have produced songs about work and unions, mostly from the south,” said Seeger during a recent phone interview from her home in Boston. “Their output was not large, but it had a big effect.

“A number of our songs of working class people are from a women’s perspective. We don’t know who they are, but they’ve obviously written the songs.”

One such woman was Aunt Molly Jackson, a wife, mother and sister of miners from Kentucky, who worked as an organizer for the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1920s and ‘30s. “She was so effective in her campaigning, her husband was blacklisted,” Seeger said. “The mine owners said, ‘You can’t work; Your wife’s too red.’”

Seeger opens her last CD, 2008’s “Bring Me Home,” with a haunting, a capella rendition of the Jackson tune “Peacock Street,” a gutsy blues about robbing “some big shot” for lack of work.

She may not be from a “mountain home,” but Seeger, 74, was practically born into music. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s parents were composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and ethnomusicologist Charles Louis Seeger, and her half-brother is the legendary Pete Seeger, leading man of the American folk revival since the early 1940s.

“My mother got interested in folk music in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They lived near Washington, D.C., and she would go get big aluminum discs from the archives from the collectors who went to the indigenous places,” Seeger said. “These records would be playing all day, and us kids absorbed the songs.”

When she grew up, Seeger moved to Europe, settling in England, where she married composer and playwright Ewan MacColl. A prolific musician, Seeger continued to learn and perform traditional songs in addition to writing and recording several hundred original songs and working on collaborations with McCall, who died in 1989.

Today, Seeger said she hopes she has helped to preserve the folk tradition for the next generation. “I would hope I’m a link in that chain. I know some of the songs going around now are ones I got from books … things like, “Going to the West,” “Katy Cruel,” “The Cruel War is Raging,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

When Seeger was young, her parents took her to singing events, where she learned the music of other generations. Today, all most younger ears seem to want is their own iTunes collections.

“I find the business of walking around with ear buds in very disturbing,” Seeger said. “It’s a very self-centered form of existence. All you hear is what you want to hear; you miss a huge amount of the rest of the world when you only listen to what you want to listen to.”

Seeger credited regional folk festivals, and organizations, like East Lansing’s Ten Pound Fiddle, with keeping the music alive, but she is concerned about getting a few younger listeners in the seats. “They’ll look at the poster and the gray hair and they haven’t ever heard of me, and I don’t sing what they listen to, so they don’t come unless their great-grandmothers drag them or unless they’ll get credit for coming and listening to me,” she said.”

“Once they are there, I can hold them. It’s a matter of getting them there.”

Peggy Seeger

East Lansing appearances on Friday, Oct. 2
‘A Feminist View of Women and Work in Anglo- American Traditional Songs’ lecture

Noon – 3 p.m. MSU Main Library. FREE
Ten Pound Fiddle Concert

8 p.m.

Unitarian Universalist Church, 855 Grove St., East Lansing


(517) 862-0416