by G. L. Worker
As part of our inaugural issue, New Masses set out to write stories about revolutionary folk singers and songwriters, what they did, and what they can teach us. We had the pleasure of sitting down with music legend and long-time activist Peggy Seeger to discuss her newest album, First Farewell, as well as her recent work and advice for the rising generation.
Note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview with Peggy Seeger
New Masses: Had you planned to release your new album [First Farewell] last year to coincide with your tour? Or was this more of a pandemic project?
Peggy Seeger: Oh, this was not a pandemic project. It was meant to actually go with the tour because for my previous three, four or five years of touring, we had another album of new songs called Everything Changes. So, yes, this was meant to go with the tour and then everything was canceled. Everything my son’s work was canceled. My managers kept me going. And there’s lots of people who are interested in the album. It’s a different album from any other than I’ve done different in a lot of ways, you know.
NM: The songs that I heard from the definitely seem different than some of the stuff you’ve done before, I’m excited about it. Speaking of pandemic projects, you started making weekly YouTube videos during the lockdown. Tell me about that. Is it something you’d like to keep doing after things ease up a bit?
PS: I don’t know, I don’t think I do it very well. I began it to keep myself going, and because some friends said, well, why don’t you do it? And it’s taken mea long time to get any way of doing it because, well, it’s a long story. But the album was not made to happen during the pandemic. It was actually made in pretty much two thousand nineteen about July till about early two thousand twenty. And it was called First Farewell kind of tongue in cheek. My brother Mike …every year for the last four or five years of their [The New Lost City Ramblers] rambling together as a group, they had an annual farewell concert. And I love the contradiction in that. So, it’s an album that is very emotional. It plays a lot on the state that I’m in now. I’ve been in lockdown. … for nearly a year now, nearly a year. I broke out of it yesterday to do a showdown in London and it felt very, very strange. But the album itself… was not written in lockdown. It was written — some of the songs — with my son Callum, some of them one with my son Neil, two with my daughter in law, Kate Saint John. … The other six by myself and looking into where I am in life and feeling a real empathy with everybody who’s now in the same boat. In more ways than one, there are huge crises.. The most important, in my view, is climate change. Human beings are going to come and go. We’re going to be swept off the earth in hordes, but climate change, I don’t think I don’t think the human race has really grasped what it’s going to be like. And that’s your generation, your time, and it’s a good time to be old and to be on your way out, because it is so frightening. But I don’t write songs that directly talk about it. One of the songs… [is called] “Lubrication.” And of course, immediately people say, oh, OK, lubrication, we know about that. And then it turns out to be about climate change. The lubrication of the tectonic plates and we’re removing the gas in the air and the oil and the plates are just clanking together, so it’s looking at things slightly different and there aren’t any should songs. It’s just trying to see each issue as related to everything else, and a lot of the reading that I’m doing recently is tying down the way the whole world works, the way nature works… it’s like a living, breathing being. And it runs itself, it knows how to do it, and they say no man, no woman can handle their life as well as a tree can. Or the planet, we just mess everything up. So, I don’t say that on the album, but just pointing out I’ve been here eighty-five and a half years. And you do see things differently at 85, you definitely do.
NM: That kind of ties into my next question about the songs from the new album. In your New Year’s Eve video, you played “How I Long for Peace,” and here again just recently you released “The Invisible Woman.” Is this going to be an album of more contemporary original songs or a little bit of everything?
PS: Original all .. they’re not folk songs; there’s two or three of them that sound as if they might be like folk songs, but I don’t think they ever will be. Although this one, there may be some hope for it. I wrote it 15 years ago. And I wrote it to a different tune, “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I don’t know if you know that. “Will ye go, Lassie, go?” That’s really true. But then I didn’t want to use that tune. So, I made another tune that is kind of reminiscent of it. And essentially, it’s a political statement in five verses … It’s like a folk song, in a way. And people don’t want to be told what to do. We all have to come into each of these battles at our own level and then move up intensity and purpose. But the point is to come in at some point. 5o, I say sit down, disrupt, do anything, whatever you can, whatever is at your level of understanding, your level of energy. But do something.
NM: Yeah, that’s a good way to think about it. You recently also performed, “Song of Choice” for BBC Scotland, and it’s really as especially after the attempted coup in Washington, D.C. in January. In your experience, what’s the best way for artists to fight reaction? Or as Woody Guthrie might ask, how many fascists has your banjo killed?
PS: Well, he [Woody Guthrie] and Pete [Seeger], during the Depression, they lived closer to the actual physical battles and music was used quite a lot at that time because of Pete and Woody, and Cisco Houston, and the whole communist movement. They used songs and they made songs. That’s not the way it is now … For some reason, when they have a strike, they think singing “here we go, here we go, is enough. We need songs, but people don’t learn them anymore … But then maybe they never did. The old leftists, when everybody stands up at a strike meeting or at one of the meetings of the leftist parties, they’ll stand up and they’ll sing the chorus of The International and then they’ll kind of limp through the first verse and that’s it. They just don’t know the rest of it, so maybe what we need is songs that people listen to that have choruses. It’s hard to know what to do right now and you never know, there’s surprises. When I saw the Million Women March in Washington |in 2016], there was a group of women singing all six verses of my song, “Reclaim the Night.” … It’s virtually a political theory, a political statement saying, “this relates to this, relates to this, relates to this.” And they — all six of them sang it perfectly .. They were just marching and singing it together. So, what to write for … That is the business. It is also big, Gabriel. It’s hard to energize ourselves because it is so big. At present I’m involved in trying to save two little green fields … in the village where I live. This is an iconic village because its church goes back to the 1100s and it still has an intact high street. And in the last 70 years, it has donated 10 of its green fields to housing projects. And now they want the last two fields that are in the middle of the village. The committee that I’m working with, they are absolutely fantastic because there’s a lot of loopholes in what the council has done and they’re picking at .. every single little inconsistency or illegal thing [the village government] has done. People have won these battles. They have actually won. They’ve saved their green fields. They’ve saved their national forest. And it makes you feel good to do something … When you look at the entire complete ecological systems that are in both of those fields. I mean, we have badgers living there. We have foxes and deer living there. We have the entire underground communication systems of trees and grass and all of that. We have trees talking to each other in the wind overhead because that’s what they do. They talk to each other, trees do.
NM: There’s a lot of issues like that here in West Virginia with the coal mines. They just don’t know when to quit, but they stopped the pipeline. Thank God, for now.
PS: Yeah, so anyway, a song or a poem. And memorable slogans, I think are important, memorable things, poems that the average person can understand. Because poetry is like music, there’s music that the average person just can’t understand … It’s good stuff. But it’s not something that you can grab hold of and take to a demonstration or sing for pleasure or speak for pleasure … it should be spoken out loud; poetry should be like songs. You can’t “think” songs.
NM: The way we talk about it in communist circles is you can’t have theory without practice and being involved in the material struggle with people, you know, otherwise you’re just thinking things. It doesn’t connect to reality. I think art is the same way.
PS: I wrote a song about the West Virginia mine disaster you know. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, it’s called “Buffalo Holler.”
NM: I think I’ve heard the name of the song. I don’t know that I’ve heard it.
PS: This was one that there was a fellow named Paul Knighton who lived down there. He was a union organizer. And he said, “you’ve made songs out of people’s words. If I recorded somebody here, would you make a song out of her words?” Well, I did. That’s what it is.
NM: Oh, that does sound really awesome. I’ll Rukeyser’s, The Book of the Dead?
PS: No, I haven’t.
NM: Well, she was a poet. I think she wrote it back in the nineteen thirties and forties. She went to West Virginia and it was like it was sort of a documentary, sort of a book of poetry. And she interviewed survivors of the Hawk’s Nest tunnel disaster… made a record in poetry of the corruption of the bosses and like what they did to the workers, knowingly exposing them to toxic chemicals. Well, speaking of activism and art, you’ve seen and done a lot in your time in worker’s movements. Just how long have you been involved in political action and what are you most proud to have been a part of and why?
PS: Well, I’ve been on more marches than I’ve had Sunday dinners, I’ve actually been on the front line once inadvertently and I lost a tooth and glasses and got a fractured wrist. I’ve seen what the police do… haven’t been a physical activist… I was with the Greenham Common, I was down there a lot, but that was… 1 won’t say “gentle” because we weren’t handled easily, nicely. But it took 15 years to get cruise missiles out of there. And it was grindingly pouring cold, wet, and we were harassed by an awful lot of men and by the police. Some of us went to jail because of it. But for the most part, I have been a songwriter. My song for Greenham Common is one of the anthems there. I have trouble referring to myself as an activist. To me, an activist is Nelson Mandela, you know, and Molly Jackson. It’s the ones who go the whole length. But I’ve never been a shouter, Billy Bragg is fantastic at it. And I don’t have the common touch. I can’t stand up in a demonstration and really rally people; it’s just not what I feel I can do. I don’t have a strong voice. But as I said before, I think probably my strength is because of my songs. “I’m Gonna be an Engineer,’ apparently, has energized a huge number of women to become engineers. And they write to me and say that that was my story. I mean, I never wanted to be an engineer. I just wrote the song, you know. So I consider that my function is to write songs and things, hopefully that people can sing on picket lines. I try to write songs of different types. I got involved in fighting nuclear power, so I wrote five songs about nuclear power to sing at different types of get-togethers. Because you can’t go to a group of fence sitters and sing a song that was meant for the far left, it doesn’t work. You have to tailor your song sometimes as to who is going to be listening .. If I’m unique in any way, it’s the fact that had classical music education. And I had an excellent music education in Anglo-American songs. I missed the stuff in between. The pop songs and … the hip hop, and the ska, and the Bob Marley; I missed all of that. I love it, but I never wrote anything for it. That was for other people to write. And because I’ve got these two parameters of music and I try to write different songs, different styles. I have managed to do that a reasonable amount. And you’ll find different styles on this album. They’re quite different.
NM: I think we’ve seen that just in the difference between “The Invisible Woman” and “How I Long for Peace.” They both have kind of a different approach. “The Invisible Woman” sounds like a marching song to me.
PS: I wrote that with my son, Neil. He said he felt invisible at sixty-one and it turned out he felt invisible to younger women.
NM: That’s so funny. Speaking of what’s going on these days, what’s the most promising trend in recent activism or political movements in general? What gives you hope? Are there artists or musicians that are getting involved now that inspire
PS: There are small groups. I don’t think there’s one central group or one central publication that ll help us. There are not a lot of songs being written for sit-downs, although Extinction Rebellion, I think is fantastic. They’ve actually brought the city of London to a dead stop … when they occupied Waterloo Bridge for three days. And the police were very careful with them because a lot of them were middle class kids and they don’t treat them like they did the miners during the miners’ strike. Our union movement is more or less dead. Margaret Thatcher sold some of the teachers off, and the printers off, and the miners off, and the steel workers off, and sold away a huge amount of our industry to abroad. |It gives mehope when the younger people are doing what they’re doing, and I think a lot of that is due to Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough. Theyre the two that are there at the two different sections, the different parameters of the climate change action and its really important that everybody does something on their home turf. And God knows there’s enough.
NM: Well, we’ve talked about this a little bit already, but I guess for the sake of the question, do you have any advice for young comrades who are getting involved in the class-climate-gender struggle for the first time? And what’s important to keep in mind when times get tough?
PS: Oh, gosh. Well, you need other people. There is a time that comes when you will have to work on your own, but you need other people .. Find something close to home. Look into where you are, your core is actually what it is you’re most interested in. Because if it’s only a secondary interest or an academic interest, well, that’s not going far. I think one has to have knowledge and passion. Because, the fate of the Earth is paramount. It’s unbelievable what is going to happen and people in far flung countries are realizing it now when the water rises and they have to move all of their people to another island … And, in a way, you have to be a step ahead. People are already beginning to move away from the coast here because it’s where most of our big cities are … New York is talking about building a seawall. What? Are they nuts? You won’t be able to build a seawall against what’s coming; it’s just not possible. And we don’t think well enough in advance. I do think that the human race never learns. I do.
NM: You know, we might just have to learn how to adapt as best we can to a new dark age. I don’t know that we can prevent it, but just try to survive in as good a way as possible.
PS: If there was advice, I’d say learn to grow vegetables. I’ve tried and I’m lousy at it, really dreadful. And eating locally… and learning where the herbs are and what the things that grow in the fields that you can eat.. nature has given us everything we need. It’s all out there, you know.
NM: Looks like we’ve got to the last question. Last but not least, where can we buy your new album, First Farewell? And where are you most looking forward to going on your upcoming tour?
PS: You can get the album from Bandcamp. And you can either buy a physical one, which I will send out from here signed, or you can buy a digital [copy]. You might want to go to the website PeggySeeger.com and put yourself on the mailing list … I’ll send out [a newsletter] about once a month saying, I’m doing this, I’m doing that .. And where would I like most to go? So far, I like every place that I go. I just like being there. I’ve been asked to go there, so obviously they want what I have. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m not looked on necessarily as a folk singer anymore. I’m an entertainer who happens to sing folk songs, and who sings contemporary songs. I appeal more to older people than I do to the younger ones. And by older, I mean kind of over forty-five. But some people will turn out; women will turn up most. A lot of women say, “I heard you back in 1961, that was in Stroud, and it was in a church hall. And I remember you sang such and such.” And to me, that’s amazing. And nearly every place that we go, there are marvelous people that come up and talk at the merch table. And I’m always the last one to leave, I wait till the last person leaves. Every place is a treat the same way as every morning is a treat that I’m still around to wake up.