Jean R. Freedman earned a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. She is the author of Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London. She recently answered some questions about her biography Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music Love and Politics
Q: How did you first encounter Peggy Seeger’s music?
Freedman: I first heard about Peggy when I was in high school, when I acquired Earl Robinson’s Young Folk Song Book, but I first heard her sing when I was in college, spending my junior year in London. I heard Peggy and her husband, Ewan MacColl, at the Singers Club, a small folk club in central London. I was captivated by their skillful and intelligent interpretations of traditional songs and by their politically astute songs about contemporary events.
Q: Who or what does Seeger consider the biggest inspiration behind her music?
Freedman: Peggy credits her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, for her academic knowledge of music and her ability to make music playful; her first life partner, Ewan MacColl, for teaching her about politics and songwriting; and her second life partner, Irene Pyper-Scott, whose depth of thinking encouraged Peggy’s own valuable self-criticism. Equally important are the vast anonymous musicians whom we call “the folk,” for their creativity and stamina throughout the ages.
Q: What impact did Seeger’s environmental and feminist activism have?
Freedman: Ewan MacColl gave Peggy a political education and taught her about political songwriting, but feminism and environmentalism were her own discoveries. Some of Peggy’s best and most famous songs reflect these two causes, which remain central to her life and work. The 1971 classic “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer,” with its humorous words and its serious critique of gender inequity, sounds as fresh today as it did 45 years ago. Her environmental songs, such as “Carry Greenham Home” and “The Mother,” continue to alert us to one of the most serious problems of our time – the degradation of the planet.
Q: How did Seeger’s music change, if at all, after falling in love and working with Ewan MacColl?
Freedman: It changed a great deal. She began to focus on ballads, one of Ewan specialties and often considered the high-water mark of Anglo-American folk music. She began to write songs. Many of the songs she wrote were commentaries on contemporary events, yet she crafted them in the style of traditional ballads, so that they sounded familiar and new at the same time. She became politically active, and this was reflected both in the songs she sang and in the songs she wrote. Ewan encouraged her to specialize in American music, which she did, but she also became proficient in British music when she accompanied or sang with Ewan.
Q: Why would you say folk music continues to have such a vibrant following? What about it as a genre has helped it to withstand the test of time?
Freedman: Folk music is anchored in the past, yet it looks toward the future. When people write new words to old tunes, the new words may be more easily accepted because the tune is familiar. Folk music does not require extensive musical training, so that anyone may join in, but it is rich and complex enough to allow musicians great scope for creativity. Many people learn the folk music of their communities as children and carry this knowledge with them throughout life; the music becomes a sort of musical hometown. It is familiar enough to be friendly and welcoming, yet changeable enough to surprise and intrigue us.