In her illuminating autobiography ‘First Time Ever’, Peggy Seeger tells the story of her life and the history of folk music itself. Her family were legendary musicians and she explores the importance of that inheritance and how to keep the purpose of the genre alive today:
‘We need to capture the public imagination, sing to the fence-sitters, bring factions together…Let’s stop complaining and write – with as few clichés as possible – about hope, compassion, gratitude, cohesion and, above all, action. Sounds simple. It is.’
Her new album ‘First Farewell’ makes a bold attempt to live by this statement of intent. You can’t help but be impressed and inspired by this eighty five year old’s assertive musical ambition and deeply felt songwriting.
She begins in the past, aged seven, her lost childhood love haunting her life. Soon it will be all over, she concludes, with the theme of mortality central to many of these songs. The simple sparse folk arrangements and her kindly, wise voice are a comfort throughout.
The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face is a song most would recognise without knowing that Peggy was the face who inspired the sentiment. Living in that song’s shadow must have come with some weight, even more so as time passes. Invisible Woman traces the history of her childhood beauty, right through to the fading of her looks into old age. She aims to reconcile her feelings of increasing invisibility with the freedom and contentment aging has brought her. It’s depressing to see how women are overlooked and under appreciated in the music industry, especially as they get older and this song captures that perfectly. She finishes with a plea to women to keep fighting to be seen.
Even though she asks for the spotlight, she is willing to share it too, inviting her son Calum MacColl to join her for two songs. Collective songwriting and harmonising is central to the folk music spirit. All in the Mind offers advice on accepting the simple lot that life gives you, to stop striving for what is always out of reach. We Are Here offers a commentary on the perils of modern technology and relationships.
The Puzzle is a darker take on relationships, time and trust fading away. On Lullabies for Strangers, written with daughter in law Kate St John, she sings of separation and distance.
In the memoir she describes how after her marriage to Ewan MacColl she began a romantic relationship with a woman, and this is the subject of Tree of Love. Such an intriguing and well lived life really makes her songwriting all the richer.
Politics is still a central concern of her work, and on How I Long for Peace she takes a sharp look at violence, war, capitalism and the climate change disaster. The cause of such disharmony is placed firmly at the feet of men, although she also wonders as to why mothers, sisters and wives have so little influence. Her conclusion is bleak, there never will be peace. Not until men put away their guns, their fists, their sense of entitlement to the world. She’s waging heavy peace right until the end telling us to sit down, disrupt, do anything to make the whole world listen.
Optimism remains central to such struggle and to enduring life itself. The album finishes with Gotta Get Home By Midnight a sprightly, good-humoured song about a life lived backwards. An end can be a beginning again.
First Farewell is an inspirational listen from a remarkable woman still in her prime. Overlook her at your peril.