First Time Ever: A Mem­oir

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - TONY CLAYTON LEA

Peggy Seeger

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.

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