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Thursday 19 September 2019

Peggy Seeger: 'I clearly remember the first time I came to Ireland'

Folk legend Peggy Seeger tells our reporter about the moment her estranged lover sang to her what would became one of the world's greatest love songs, and what life on the road is like in her eighties

Regular visitor: Seeger says she has long been drawn to the folk music tradition of this country. Photo: Robin Little
Regular visitor: Seeger says she has long been drawn to the folk music tradition of this country. Photo: Robin Little
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is one of the greatest love songs ever written, and it was penned for Peggy Seeger. Now 82, this icon of the folk revival, and stalwart of the protest song genre, remembers hearing 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' for the first time.

It was 1957 and she had moved back to her native US from her adopted home of England where she was making a name for herself as a folk singer of note. So her estranged lover Ewan MacColl sang the song down the phone to her. The Scottish troubadour had just written it - and he was trying his damnedest to win her back.

"We had fallen in love but I didn't see a future in it," she says. "He had a child, he was married, he was much older then me."

She would eventually go back to MacColl after a year's separation, although MacColl would have one more child with his wife Jean. That child was the future folk singer Kirsty MacColl. And yet, despite such a messy start, both Seeger and MacColl would remain together, inseparable, and - later on - married, until his death in 1989.

Seeger, who even then was demonstrating her own prowess as a songwriter, says she had no sense that she was hearing a song that would be adored by millions around the globe. "There was no sense of that then," she says. "Ewan was a very, very good songwriter but often it's very difficult to sense what songs would connect with people."

It's been covered innumerable times and there are versions from George Michael and Elvis Presley, but the one that made the song truly famous was recorded by Roberta Flack in 1972 and went on to win a Grammy for Song of the Year. Her version had been employed in Clint Eastwood's hugely popular movie Play Misty for Me, and it quickly connected with audiences.

"We didn't like it," Seeger says, plainly, of a recording that pulled in more royalties for MacColl than any other.

In fact, MacColl apparently loathed most versions of the song. "He hated all of them," his daughter-in-law once wrote. "He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled 'The Chamber of Horrors'. He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower [in London] singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace."

MacColl and Seeger were visionaries in the revival of English folk from the late 1950s on. She says they worked well together, teasing out their new songs on each other, offering encouragement and criticism in equal measure. And, of course, besides their own solo work they released several joint albums, too.

MacColl was famed for his strict approach to folk music, drawing up a list of rigid rules about what songs could be and even the type of clothes folk singers should wear. Seeger says she abandoned such prescriptiveness a long time ago and yet her metier has not changed: she's still a folk singer, happy to tour as much as her age will allow.

"The singing is okay," she says, "but it is harder to play the guitar. You just aren't as dexterous as the years go by so what helps me is simplifying the arrangements and the playing. If the songs are strong enough, that sort of approach should work."

Seeger's childhood was steeped in music. Her father, Charles, was the leading musicologist of the day, collecting and preserving folk music from all corners of the US. Her mother, Ruth, was an acclaimed modernist composer. Her brother, Mike, is a respected musician while her late half-brother Pete is now regarded as a giant of American song.

Pete Seeger died in 2014 and Peggy misses him greatly. "And yet we spent much of our lives on different sides of the Atlantic," she says. "There were periods of time where we wouldn't see that much of each other, because we were busy doing what we were doing and getting on with our lives."

Seeger has just published a remarkable memoir. First Time Ever is an honest, engaging account of a life less ordinary and she credits her partner, the Belfast singer Irene Pyper-Scott, for the encouragement to write down everything she could remember.

"It was about 15 or 20 years ago," she says, "and every single day I wrote it down and then sort of left it. But years later I was talking to a fellow in Philadelphia - Brian Reece - and he helped me condense what I'd written. I'd got about 200,000 words down."

And, she says, she's got quite a memory. "I'm lucky," she says, "it's all like a gallery in my head and I can recall aspects of my life with great clarity. For instance, I distinctly remember the first time I came to Ireland [in the mid-1950s] and we went to a village that seemed as though it was still in the 19th century. There were thatched roofs, half-doors and such like.

"I was there with Diane Hamilton [aka the wealthy heiress and folk-music patron, Diane Guggenheim] and she had this big, expensive car. When we drove into that village, everybody gathered around because it must have felt like such a strange, exotic thing."

Seeger has long been drawn to the folk-music tradition of this country and visits whenever she gets a chance. She will be in Dublin as a guest speaker - and performer - at the inaugural Festival of Politics event.

She is a natural choice of speaker, having been a leading proponent of the power of the protest song. One of her most celebrated, 'I'm Gonna be an Engineer', railed against how women were straitjacketed in the society she grew up in and was adopted by the women's lib movement.

"My country is experiencing a rough time now," she says, "but we've been here before. Don't forget about Nixon and Reagan and the two Bushs. We've had very bad presidents in the past."

She says she is content with the way her life has panned out but misses MacColl every day. "We lived out of each other's pockets, but I was never bored with him. Maybe it's because he was with a woman who was 20 years younger and he didn't want to get complacent, but he always kept it interesting. And I really miss his creativity - he had such a strong fire within him."

Peggy Seeger will be in conversation at the Tailors' Hall, Dublin, next Saturday for the Festival of Politics (November 22-26)

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