Peggy Seeger – First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)
A doe-eyed child holds a harmonica to their lips with two pudgy hands. A sombre looking man sits stiffly on a chair situated behind the child. He appears to be mid-strum of the guitar that he grasps. A lady clutching a dulcimer reclines on a couch positioned to the left of the man. The final figure in the black and white photograph is a mischievous looking boy wearing a beret. He is perched atop a wooden cabinet set at the centre-back of the gathering. His fingers are pressed to his lips. Perhaps they conceal a tiny instrument. Or perhaps he is biting his nails.
The doe-eyed child depicted in the image is celebrated folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, aged two years old. The photograph, dated circa 1937, is the first photograph on the inserts of Seeger’s memoir First Time Ever.
Seeger’s childhood, she writes, was ‘steeped in music’.
The lady reclining in the image is Seeger’s mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The sombre looking man is Seeger’s father, the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. The little boy is Mike Seeger who will grow up to be a folk musician.
Section one of First Time Ever consists of Seeger’s whimsical, entertaining reminiscences of her early years in Chevy Chase, New York.
She describes one spring afternoon during which she was instructed by visitor Jackson Pollock to run across a canvas laid out on her front lawn. Her bare feet were first dipped in paint.
The canvas, Seeger believes, was later discarded.
Seeger writes in the foreword to ‘First Time Ever’ that her memoir is intended as a record of ‘what I think I was, what I believe I am’. Are such musings of interest to the reader?
Indeed they are.
Seeger, labelled ‘voice of experience’ in a profile by The Guardian writer Colin Irwin, is an excellent raconteur.
She recalls, for instance, her seasickness on a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, ‘There was a symphony of misery: tuba squawks of wood scraping wood, drum-drone of the engine, cello pizzicatos as dropped water bottles hit walls…’
Seeger describes milling about a theatre backroom shortly after moving to London in 1956. She spies, for the first time, her future musical and romantic partner the folk singer and songwriter Ewan Macoll. She remembers ‘his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out… The filthy lid of a stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can’.
Seeger and Macoll’s romantic partnership is the source of much emotional turmoil detailed by Seeger in the memoir.
Their musical partnership was very productive. They wrote and recorded music prodigiously. Together with producer Charles Parker they created the acclaimed BBC radio series The Radio Ballads in the late 1950s.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s they were regular players at The Ballad and Blues Club in London. Partly at the behest of an exasperated Seeger, a musical policy named The Policy was instituted at the venue. Performers were only permitted to play songs which came from their own cultural background.
Writer Rob Young refers to the Club as a ‘petty dictatorship, a microcosm of imagined musical purity and authenticity’’ in an article on English folk clubs published on The Guardian website.
Seeger makes an impassioned and heavily italicised defence of The Policy against accusations of snobbery in ‘First Time Ever’. She begins, ‘East London vowels don’t really fit with Lead Belly’.
Seeger was aged 83 the year the memoir was published. In a string of ominously titled closing chapters (‘Slow Express to Eternity’, ‘Last Time Ever’) she describes in a jovial tone the illnesses that have beset her in recent years.
‘Frequent, lengthy, audible, malodorous and dense beyond belief,’ she writes of her ‘gaseous emanations’.
Seeger presently lives in Oxford. She is married to folk singer Irene Pyper-Scott. She continues to perform music and she is a passionate social activist.
The most recently dated video of Seeger on Youtube is a clip from the January 2017 edition of the current affairs television programme ‘That’s Oxfordshire’.
Under stark studio lighting Seeger does battle with Oxford City Councillor Bob Price on the subject of a recently demolished Oxford swimming pool.
Seeger gives a formidable performance.
– Abby Kearney