First Time Ever: A Memoir
Faber&Faber, hardback, 464 pages, €24.19
Peggy Seeger experienced a childhood immersed in music and politics (her half-brother was renowned folk singer Pete Seeger, her father was a musicologist, and her mother a modernist composer and the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship), and an upbringing that involved personal insights into the lives of Woody Guthrie, Jackson Pollock, Alan Lomax and Big Bill Broonzy. She visited Communist China, which effectively barred her from returning to America; she entered into a marriage of convenience in London, specifically for the purpose of being granted British citizenship; and she embarked on an enduring if fractious love affair with Ewan MacColl, a married man more than 20 years her senior.
Prospective biopic filmmakers would do well to stick closely to the events outlined in this rugged, occasionally riotous, memoir, as it comes with the kind of thorough detail (quite often at the expense and disadvantage of its author) that defines the word “evocative”.
Here’s what Seeger writes of her first sighting of the man who would hold influence over her for decades, and change her life: “It’s Ewan, his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out, clad in ill-fitting trousers, suspenders, no shirt, a ragged jacket and a filthy lid of stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can.”
The memoir starts as it means to go on: succinct and pointed. “Summer. 1955. A barbecue at Butterfly Beach. I didn’t fit in.” With no small amount of style, Seeger relates her upbringing in a progressive household. Her mother, she writes, “wasn’t a cuddler once you were out of childhood”, a woman perhaps undermined by the “regret of opportunities lost” and “hurts unmendable”. Her father is also sparingly outlined: “Everything was interesting…”, a man whose “temper was shoved down so far that it seemed not to exist”. For Seeger there was relief and a way out: music.
It is when she lands in London that the real grit emerges. A planned trip to a logging camp in Finland is diverted by folklorist friend Alan Lomax, who phoned Seeger and asked her to help him out with the television production of the 1939 American play, Dark of the Moon, which required a female singer and banjo player. Finland is soon jettisoned. “London sounds more why-nottish,” writes a roguish Seeger, and so begins her adult years: a lifetime of becoming associated not only with Ewan MacColl but also with the British folk revival and (for the era, at least) the contentiousness of their Singers Club.
The Singers Club and its guidelines, says Seeger, gradually gave rise to a huge influx of singers and songwriters from all over the British Isles and Ireland. Its associated Critics Group — which, belying its title, was instigated to educate and not to critique its members — featured, for a while, Irish folk singers Luke Kelly and John Faulkner. Such an egoless notion of a masterclass for burgeoning singers, eager to learn the techniques of folk song composition, was doomed to fail. Perhaps inevitably, it floundered through MacColl’s unyielding belief that art and democracy should not mingle.
Now aged 82, Seeger writes with sharp and candid wit, devoid of sentimentality. (The only omission is a division between her and her daughter Kitty — “I can’t write about that,” admits Seeger in a rare display of total privacy.) Her affair with MacColl, abortions, family upheavals, financial difficulties, creative differences, sexual dalliances and societal censure are submitted via acutely observed vignettes and well-delivered anecdotes.
Her songs and music aren’t overly analysed but rather casually, almost off-handedly, explained. Topics such as touring are laced with heavy doses of pragmatism (“does it occur to an audience that we might not feel like singing on the night?” is something that surely every performer has asked themselves), while the chapter titled ‘The Occupants of Hell’ is a hoot of a rollcall of merciless audiences, woeful accommodation, inferior management and everything else that comes with being a touring performer.
Shot through it all, however, is a survivalist, staunchly feminist spirit. There may have been continual conflict throughout her personal life (although she loved him right up to his death in 1989, MacColl comes across as a handful), but her latter years have been reasonably settled, and has brought her deserved if belated acclaim.
Seeger says that writing the book, trawling through her diaries, is all about travelling and touring “the strange country of Myself ”.
It is, the reader can be fully assured, a really good place to visit.