Reviewed by Thomas Larson
Faber & Faber 416 pp.
Among the most artful duos to lift their voices in the cause and community of folk music are the singers Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. They fell in love in 1956—she, twenty-one, newly arrived in London from Maryland to play the five-string banjo on a television show; he a songwriter, actor, and communist, English-born of Scottish parents, twice her age (and married), whose balladry (“Dirty Old Town,” “My Old Man“) had helped ignite the British Folk Revival, ablaze in cellar club, busking corner, and studio single-takes.
Their voices were set—MacColl, the tufted wobble of an English dockworker, Seeger, the wren-like lilt of an Appalachian schoolgirl. Together, though, their alloy is like bronze. Listen to them synchronize melody and rhythm on the “Ballad of Accounting.” It’s an anthemic tune about taking ethical stock of one’s life, questions of moral pungency few bother with any more:
Did you stand there in the traces and let ‘em feed you lies?
Did you trail along behind them wearing blinkers on your eyes?
Did you kiss the foot that kicked you, did you thank them for their scorn?
Did you ask for their forgiveness for the act of being born?
Neither Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Fariña, nor Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sublimated so much of their personalities to the folksong calling as Peggy and Ewan. Brit and Yank strove to embody those moral pungencies, not as spotlighted celebrities with platforms and agents, but as principled artists who created and carried forth the people’s music, a conquest no more than one noisy union hall at a time. They sang songs that everyone sang and sounded only like themselves.
Their marriage—tallying three kids; hundreds of records; thousands of pubs, fairs, strikes, and marches—ended with MacColl’s death in 1989. While their thirty-three-year coupling encompasses much of Seeger’s 416 pages, she remains the “I” to whom it all happened. The prose style is often cheeky and impetuous but her theme is rare in hefty life-writing books—an honest sculpting of an artist’s relational life.
Seeger’s intimate geography is people by those she grew up and lived with, she sung to, and she cared for. The book’s main players, besides MacColl, include: the continent-traipsing, tape-recording song collector Alan Lomax; her half-brother Pete, the apotheosis of the singer activist, who died four years ago, at age ninety-four; her brother Mike, who claw-hammered for fifty years with the old-timey string band, The New Lost City Ramblers; and her maverick parents—Charles Seeger, folklorist and music theoretician who created ethnomusicology at the University of California-Berkeley in 1916, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, America’s first avant-garde woman composer and the meticulous transcriber of folksongs into a string of book compilations, who died in 1953, aged fifty-two.
No wonder Seeger comes at it all full tilt. The capaciousness is the point. Born in 1935, raised in suburban Chevy Chase, Seeger spent many a Sunday evening gathered around the songs and presences of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie. One of the family’s live-in housekeepers was the self-taught Elizabeth Cotton who wrote the tuneful “Freight Train” when she was eleven. Dylan and Baez sought Seeger’s autograph before she sought theirs. Social justice and lyric invention welded tight. None dare call it protest music. Rather, it’s the soundtrack of the dispossessed, noncommercial singalongs that suffer as many vanishings as revivals. In 1976, Phil Ochs, besieged by depression and alcoholism, hung himself, feeling abandoned with the end of the 1960s, while the stalwart Seeger verse/chorused about women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, and the have-nots—fomenting song as literature, “news that STAYS news,” in Ezra Pound’s maxim.
For anyone post-eighty and writing an autobiography, the undertaking becomes unwieldy and wander-prone because the life—Seeger’s life—feels massive, all-at-once, as though it can be assessed only through the wrong end of the binoculars: I was there during the radical protest era and the folk boom, during feminism and nuclear disarmament, during nostalgia for the radical protest era and the folk boom, during nostalgia for feminism and nuclear disarmament. Commentaries on a cyclic life.
The memoir’s title most won’t recognize. (I didn’t.) First Time Ever refers not just to the book-as-autobiography but also to an “almost folk song” MacColl wrote for his bride-to-be, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which he sang to her via a transatlantic phone call in 1957. As solo, she counter-paced the tune’s rambling melismatic melodic line with a rolling guitar accompaniment. She made “First Time Ever” her signature (the lyric emphasis on ever I saw, ever I kissed, ever I lay embarrassed her) until 1972 when Roberta Flack stroked the song into sensual being, a megahit, and soon MacColl cashed the first of many royalty checks, $75,000. She tells us:
One day, I told him a Los Angeles radio show had asked me for a very short, modern love song. How about this one? and he sang [it]. Yes, that’ll do nicely. Ewan never sang it again. Unspoken: it was mine to sing. I sang it folk style, gave it a wandering guitar accompaniment. When we first heard the Robert Flack version we were shocked. Ewan said he wrote it as an hors d’oeuvre and it had been turned into the main course.
This tune is just one of the “community,” four to five hundred songs that still sing out in her head, accumulating, eventually, into an Ars Poetica:
The songs: I am theirs and they are mine while I’m here. I call them mine since I have nurtured them like children and brought them forth with me in time. Like my physical children, they form my core. I revel in them, tasting the words as I sing, entering earlier eras and other people’s lives. Unlike my physical children, they have grown towards me rather than away.
Most of us think ’50s and ’60s folk music expressed a resolute time of camaraderie and artistic consensus. But that’s a romantic notion, that we, writ large, answered the moral crises of that time with song and solidarity. Seeger recalls a small, beleaguered, militant avant-garde “back then”: the scene was “peripheral,” “outside the cultural galaxy,” “in a black hole.” The singer-songwriter had not been invented. Rather, folk music, pre-CNN, brought too much of the bad news—anti-commercial, anti-capitalist, antiwar, not what the populace wanted to hear about.
Seeger and MacColl’s early road years involve concerts in socialist/communist countries where people hungered for songfests about workers and revolution, in part, as a respite from the work and the revolting: Russia, China, Cuba, Poland. The author never apologizes for any Jane-Fonda-ish consorting with the enemy. She persists in mauling the vilest among us. One j’accuse has her interviewing survivors of domestic violence and writing melodies about reported beatings and rape, about police and court failures to prosecute: “Winnie and Sam“ and “Reclaim the Night.” (The subsequent album is “Different Therefore Equal.”) Seeger’s battered wives and girlfriends refer to themselves as “inmates . . . . The perpetrators are free to circulate and the victims have to lock themselves up.” (Another gem is her feminist classic, “Gonna Be an Engineer,” an anti-patriarchal slap on behalf of underpaid and under-educated women everywhere.)
Throughout the memoir, Seeger dices existential questions endemic to the singer’s persona. Unresolvables we’ll call them: “Who am I? A performer? An entertainer? A social therapist, trying to mould a gathering of individuals into a temporary community? An opportunist chasing that elusive fifteen minutes? A seeker of a lifetime of royalties? A peddler of my own ego?” All performers suffer such quandaries but few live long enough to articulate let alone be weighed down by their hackle and bark as Seeger has.
A surprise—Seeger’s shadow side—awaits the intrepid reader. At fifty-five, mourning Ewan, she stops and accounts for her relational history: she’s been Charlie and Ruth’s daughter, her family’s mother after Ruth died, Pete’s sister, her children’s mother, Ewan’s wife, but still “not yet my own woman.” To own her own, she falls in love with a woman, yet another relationship. Not, she insists, as a lesbian. The affair is with Irene, “a particular woman,” a long-time friend who leaves her husband to gallivant around the world with “bisexual” Peggy.
By their age, both are comfort-zoned—to live, travel, partner, and blend families require continual negotiations. In 1994, Peggy and Irene return to America for festivals and fun with “Maggie-the-Van.” They keep it up until Irene’s slippers outwear Seeger’s bootheels. Then, Seeger caves and longs for England, the musty upholstery, the baked tomatoes, and the grandkids. She declares at last, “I am English, not American.”
Seeger proselytizes for the “folk” with the devotion of a convert. But there’s a cost. She realizes there’s a kind of a pirated authenticity (nothing insincere or career-ending) that’s germane to the folk revivalist who takes up the cause. She wasn’t born to a working-class family whose fireside tunes were their cultural rite. She’s not like Elizabeth Cotten, her housemaid. Or Ewan MacColl. Born in 1915, to a hardscrabble family, he’s the real-deal, a barrel-housing proletarian.
This acquired sense of self lets her understand that which “the performing circuit” often demands—caricature: “Paddy the Irishman, the music-hall Scot, the hick American southerner, the romantic, wandering Gypsy.” Another face in the crowd, she assesses the singer’s public evolution better than most memoirists I’ve read—from a folk musician as a necessary softener of family life (for millennia, music was amateur and homemade) to a folk musician as a competitive mainstay of our entertainment buy. Indicative is the single “stratospheric success” of “First Time Ever.”
Moreover, we need to remember that the metanarrative of folk art was not forced upon her or Ewan. They sought it out. They did the pub crawl. They were placeholders. Their star quotient was never an issue. Indeed, such bliss-following is the folksinger’s sole justification.
Still, saving the world has its inadequacies like any other profession. “The public,” she writes, “seemed to believe that as folk songs are The People’s Songs, The People shouldn’t have to pay a lot to hear them.” Nowadays, the cost of living brutalizes everyone, especially voluntarily poor artists, online writers, garage bands, and a growing number who dwell like human mice in tiny houses. Reading Seeger, one unhats a betranced time when a dollar earned went a long, long way and people were less self-interested—perhaps just as tribal but less cruel.
Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, coming April, 2019, from Swallow Press. He has also written The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman), The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ (Pegasus Press), and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative (Swallow Press). He is a twenty-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a six-year book review editor for River Teeth, and a former music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican.