The New York-born folk musician Peggy Seeger, 85, has been working and touring non-stop since she was 17. In 1958 she wed a friend so that she could stay in the UK with her already-married lover, Ewan MacColl. She and MacColl went on to make more than 40 albums together, marry and have three children. Seeger’s partner of the past 30 years is the traditional singer Irene Pyper-Scott, who lives in New Zealand; Seeger lives in Iffley, Oxford. She has just released her 24th solo album, First Farewell – her first to be recorded solely with family members.
How has the pandemic been for you?
I was meant to be touring last year with my son Calum. Travelling with all our gear in the back: 26 dates, a fantastic tour, all slashed off, bang. I was doing tours on my own until I was 79, including standing at my merch table. That’s why I’ve got so many grey hairs. Now I grieve so much for the people who have died because of this pandemic. I also grieve for people of my age losing their last years to Covid-19.
Your partner lives in New Zealand. How has that been?
We talk twice every day in the three-hour windows where we’re both awake, trying not to despair. She couldn’t cope with living in the UK [before the pandemic]. It was too crowded for her and too cold, and I couldn’t live there. She is living a completely normal life over there – more of a normal life than ever before, I’d say. They’re lucky in New Zealand. Unlike us, they have a sensible prime minister.
Your new album, First Farewell, is moving and playful. One song, Lubrication, has a lyric about older bodies needing “grease to help ’em do their jobs”. You’re relishing the euphemisms as you sing, aren’t you?
I am! Folk is full of raunchy songs but they’re not often sung. I have another song called The Young Virgin, where a woman has 40 lovers who bring along the tools of their trade: a blacksmith’s anvil, the glistening pipe of a druggist, the lance of a doctor… [laughs]. I looked up things men called their penises when I did that and I was blown away. They’re all action. Women call their vaginas comforting things, about home, enclosure, hugs. Although my favourite is one from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues: coochie snorcher.
Another song, The Invisible Woman, is about women getting older and being ignored. What inspired that?
Walking down Oxford Street when I was about 60 with my daughter, who was in her mid-20s. I watched man after man approach us, look at my face, then move on to hers, then their eyes look right down her body and up again. It was a pattern, and I realised I didn’t get that treatment any more. It’s not that I liked it. I have been pushed up against a wall, flashed, been felt up on the underground, all of those things that we’re now rightly talking about trying to get men to stop doing. As an older woman, people also ignore what you say. It’s as if you’re not there. I keep talking.
You have long been an activist for women’s issues. Do the vigils that followed Sarah Everard’s murder make you hopeful?
We’ve been talking about this for hundreds of years. Hundreds. Meanwhile, another woman is murdered and another woman is murdered and another woman is murdered. Nothing will happen until men organise men to stop it. You’d think the men that don’t do horrific things would be pissed off enough to be tarred with the same brush [as physical abusers] to say to other men, “Hey, enough, guys!” They don’t listen. They should. Instead, they just wait for the anger to burn off and burn out.
Political folk is big again. What voices do you recommend?
I like [singer] Diana Jones, [guitarists] Grit Laskin and Jack Williams, but I also enjoy Portuguese fado, Cesária Évora – what a voice! – and Dolly Parton. She’s smart and a hoot. Have you heard her parody of Jolene, changing the lyric to Vaccine? That will save hundreds of thousands of lives. People will be going: “If Dolly thinks it’s fine, I’ll go do it.”
Kirsty MacColl, Ewan’s oldest daughter, made music that was as moving and playful as yours. Did you get to know her? [Kirsty was born to Ewan’s previous partner, Jean Newlove, only six months before Peggy gave birth to Neill, her first son with Ewan. Kirsty died in 2000.]
I didn’t know her well, but I recognised her musically. What a loss she was. Her songs were stunning – I love the ones where she rips a man to pieces, like England 2 Colombia 0 [from MacColl’s last album, Tropical Brainstorm]. I still play them for pleasure. Her mother was determined for her not to come to our house when she was little, which was hard. Then again, I’ve never had someone leave me for a woman 10 years younger.
Is First Farewell your final album?
The title has lots of meanings for me. My brother Mike’s band [the New Lost City Ramblers] would get together every year for an annual farewell concert and I loved the contradiction there. There are also always a few goodbyes when you take someone to an airport. One is when you’re in a hurry and drop them by the luggage trolleys. The second is when you watch them walking down the corridor, and just before they go, they turn and wave. This title opens up the possibility of that second farewell for me, although it might be the last one. Who knows? I’m still vertical and breathing at nearly 86. How much more could I ask for?
First Farewell is out now on Red Grape Music