Anatomy of a Peggy Seeger classic

Excerpted from Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics, by Jean Freedman

Peggy had written some mildly feminist songs, such as “Darling Annie,” about an equal partnership between a man and a woman, and “Nightshift,” about a woman’s sexual stamina exceeding a man’s, but none had been very pointed or even overtly political. Overworked, harassed, and mildly annoyed that she had to write a song on demand, Peggy came up with the song that would be her most famous: “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer.” She recalls, “`Engineer’ appeared so fast on the page that it almost seemed to write itself—you’d think I’d been brooding on discrimination and prejudice all my life. Not so. I had been encouraged personally, academically, musically, and sartorially to do whatever I wanted. And I never wanted to be a boy or an engineer . . . or operate a turret-lathe.”

freedmanThe song was a departure for Peggy in terms of subject matter and musical style. With its syncopated rhythms, wide vocal range, and melody that occasionally departs from the primary key, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” does not sound like a folk song. Yet it retains several characteristics of traditional music: the narrative structure is reminiscent of the ballad, and like many traditional songs, it presents two clearly articulated and diametrically opposed points of view. In a traditional song, these two points of view would probably be of a man and a woman for whom arguing is a form of courtship and who resolve their disagreement in the course of the song. In “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer,” there is no resolution between the unnamed woman who wants to be an engineer and the opposing voice—or voices—of a social order that urges her to abandon her ambition and become a “lady.”

Amber Good points out that the two voices are differentiated in the tune as well as the words: “A range of only a fourth—perhaps underscoring the narrowness of thinking—characterizes society’s voice, while the heroine’s melodic range is quite wide, with leaps and skips dominating the melody. Seeger likewise differentiates the two voices harmonically, casting the protagonist in major and the antagonist in minor.”
A line of miniskirted women sang “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” during the 1970-71 Festival of Fools. It quickly became popular and remains her best-known song to this day.