The sad part is, many of these tributes are offered after the subject has passed on. While memorials are important, it is fitting to recognize some names while they are still with us - AND while they are still creating and sharing treasures with us. Last year I had the honor of producing a recreation of a 1956 concert that honored the music and life of Woody Guthrie. The original production was the first "revue" of it's type, and the gathering of talent was a milestone moment of the folk revival as well as an event that helped galvanize the image and quality of work that Guthrie created.
Now we have the opportunity to recognize another individual who I feel has not received the credit she deserves - Peggy Seeger. On the occasion of her 70th birthday in 2005, family and friends gathered in London for a concert that celebrated the music and life of Peggy Seeger. Appleseed Records has released a two CD set recording of the event called "Three Score and Ten".
Beyond a doubt, Peggy Seeger is a national treasure. Perhaps I should say "international" treasure since her music and work had a significant impact on the folk music scene. Taking it a step further, Peggy Seeger has also been an important figure on social and political music scene. Her songs have grown beyond the folk world to become part of the fabric for a number of social movements, such as the feminist anthem - "I'm Gonna Be An Engineer".
Peggy Seeger has inspired other songwriters to write about important issues. She is also one of the most charming performers that has ever graced a stage. Her wit and warmth captivates an audience. There must be something in the Seeger genes because the same trait can be said about her brother Mike and her step-brother Pete.
<- Charles Seeger, Peggy (age 2) and Ruth Crawford Seeger
It seemed as if Peggy's life would circle around music. As a young adult, Peggy spent two years studying music at Radcliffe before deciding to head to Europe to become a professional musician in 1955. Her fate was sealed on March 21, 1956 at 10:30am when she first met Ewan MacColl in London. Yes, she remembers the moment which Ewan also documented in his song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" - a #1 hit for Roberta Flack in 1972 and also recorded by numerous other artists.
Ewan and Peggy were also involved with a controversial theatre group, they ran their own record label, and they organized and operated one of the U.K.'s most important folk venues - The Singers Club. They also found time to raise three children. Ewan passed away in 1989. Peggy continues to perform and now shares her life with Irene Pyper-Scott here in the U.S.
In 2005, for the occasion of Peggy's 70th birthday, a "party" was organized by her three children at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Her family and friends gathered for the celebratory concert with a guest list including Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson with their daughter Eliza Carthy, and in a rare appearance together - Pete and Mike Seeger. (The CD is the first "official" recording of the three performing together!) The event was taped by the BBC and has become the CD that was released on Appleseed Records.
The two-CD set kicks off with the host of BBC 2's folk music radio program, Mike Harding, introducing Peggy. The first few selections feature Peggy performing several old-time folk standards - induding "Hangman" - one of my favorite songs. Peggy is in fine voice and if you shut your eyes, the years drift away to return us to simpler times. The fun is really in full swing when the guests come out to join Peggy.
Their appearances in the U.S. have been far too infrequent, so it is a real treat to hear Peggy singing with Martin Carthy and his wife Norma Waterson and their daughter, Eliza Carthy. If folk music had a monarchy, this stage was graced by their presence for the evening. To think of all the performers and fans who have been influenced by this collection of musicians is staggering. One of the high points in this collection comes when Waterson-Carthy join with Peggy Seeger on her song "Che Guevara", a song Peggy wrote using the melody of the English folk song "The Banks of Sweet Primroses".
Several of Peggy's social and political songs follow including two songs that touch on a post 9-11 world- "Cavemen" and "Home Sweet Home". Peggy tells her audience that applause does not seem appropriate after a song like "Cavemen" which is a reminder to all of us that songs serve a purpose beyond entertainment. These songs become powerful tools in teaching us lessons and helping us understand a point of view that we might have overlooked. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger created a body of work that served this function. Even topics that seem commonplace can be looked at differently. Billy Bragg joined Peggy for her song "Darling Annie", a song that sounds like an old dusty folk song but describes the roles of husband and wife in modern times. Billy admirably closes the first disc with Peggy's "It You Want A Better" life - an anthem-like song that inspires.
The second CD, also the second set of the concert, is a bit more personal. It begins with a moving poem that Peggy wrote shortly after the passing of Ewan MaColl which she follows by singing "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". She then shares a poem and song that she wrote for her partner Irene Pyper-Scott. Another important figure in her life is remembered with the touching poem "My Mother is Younger Than Me". At this point, her brother Mike Seeger joins her onstage. The siblings share some memories of growing up and learning the banjo before launching into "When First Unto This Country" followed up by "Soldier's Farewell". Mike then brings out the quills and shaker to share a "Quill Ditty".
Following Mike's solo, Pete Seeger walks onto the stage to thunderous applause. It had been a few years since Pete last performed in the U.K., and it was obviously a welcome return! Pete, Mike and Peggy then team up for a rollicking version of "Cindy", and remarkably this is the first time that the trio have ever recorded together!
Mike, Peggy and Pete Seeger in concert, 2005 photo© Philip Ryall
The tribute to Peggy reaches a crescendo with the final songs on the CD. Peggy launches into a song that is arguably her most recognizable - "Gonna Be An Engineer" - a song that has been recorded and sung by hundreds of artists. Peggy's children and grandchildren join the assembled artists onstage for a round of "Happy Birthday". The final celebratory songs bring the event to a stirring conclusion - the traditional "Careless Love" followed by two of Peggy's compositions - "Sing About these Hard Times" and a song that she wrote for a friend whose life was cut short by cancer - "Love Call Me Home".
The concert captured on this CD took place in 2005. While they could not save a piece of cake for all of us, we are given a sweet treat with this two-CD collection. Peggy Seeger "fans" will rejoice with the songs that were selected for the occasion. The joy and warmth of the event are apparent, and the powerful songs are presented without any trace of self-importance or preaching - but they will teach a lesson or two.
One of the lessons that I took away from this comes from a remark Peggy makes to the audience during a chorus of one of the final songs - "Remember to sing when there are hard times".
We are lucky to have the opportunity to share and learn from Peggy Seeger. We desperately need more people like her.
(Photos courtesy of Peggy's website - www.pegseeger.com )