The defining moment of a wonderful gig at Cecil Sharp House last night was when Peggy Seeger introduced one of the last songs penned by her late companion, Ewan MacColl. Written as he ambled round the lower reaches of a Peak District escarpment, watching Peggy and his daughter, Kitty, make a much-loved climb that he was now unable to undertake, MacColl wrote ‘The Joy of Living’. “Farewell you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye.. Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done.. Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine / And we’ll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living”. Despite its poignancy it seems to perfectly sum up the live-life-to-the-full approach of this incredible woman, even if she didn’t write it herself.
Markontour was drawn to see this octogenarian perform as a result of reading Billy Bragg’s history of skiffle, ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers‘. Arriving in Britain in 1955 as a nineteen year-old in 1955 fleeing McCarthyite persecution back in the USA, she and her banjo became a fixture at the cross-section of the skiffle, folk, blues and jazz scene, mixing pop and politics with equal vigour, to steal one of Bragg’s lines.
There has been much water under the bridge since then. Skiffle arguably had as much influence on the birth of British rock ‘n’ roll as Elvis. But Seeger, like her half brother, Pete, didn’t board that train and remained firmly part of the folk scene. Markontour’s knowledge of this genre doesn’t extend much beyond the likes of Dylan and Springsteen, but if Peggy Seeger is anything to go by being a folkie means loving a good story-song; demanding audience participation, and being part of pretty much every progressive cause in the last sixty years, from feminism, to peace activism, and environmentalism!
Now in her ninth decade and performing with her children, Neil, Callum and Kitty (although the latter was too full of cold to take to the stage in London), Peggy Seeger is equal parts raconteur, singer and activist. At times her voice wasn’t up to the material and Callum deputised, but Seeger remains a musical virtuoso, constantly switching between a 1929 Martin acoustic guitar, an electric piano (on which she had inadvertently hit the samba setting at a previous gig!), and something that looked like a small harp but elicited a country twang. The songs spanned the early 20th century to 2017, including the witty ‘Donald’s in the White House. Some of the early ones, including ‘Freight Train’, the only song I had ever heard before, were taught to her by Libber, an African-American woman who found her lost in a department store aged nine, and went on to become a life-long friend.
The stories also ranged across the decades, as Seeger has an autobiography to promote, ‘First Time Ever’, a reference to the song Ewan MacColl wrote after meeting her for the first time. I can’t wait to read it. But for now, it’s time to put ‘The Joy of Living‘ back on the turntable and lie back.