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Folk Legend Peggy Seeger: Ballad Of The Righteous Woman

By Robert Burke Warren

When folk legend Peggy Seeger graces Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington on Tuesday, March 18, she’ll be playing and singing as she’s done for more than 60 years, but she’ll also be on a mission to restore dignity to female characters in song. Seeger is billing this appearance as an interactive musical lecture entitled “A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs.” Before each number, she’ll offer critical insight into women’s roles in old folk songs, and she’ll compare these songs to contemporary pieces in which women are portrayed with more empathy, hope and depth.

Seeger, the daughter of Ruth Crawford Seeger and half sister to the recently departed Pete, is a folk singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and activist who has made 23 solo recordings and participated in more than 100 others. Her career spans more than six decades of performing, travel and songwriting. Her appearance next week is a special event to benefit the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and WBCR-LP (Berkshire Community Radio).

From her home in Oxford, England, Seeger tells Rural Intelligence how her husband, playwright-actor-songwriter-activist Ewan MacColl (he wrote “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for her) sparked her feminism. “It was 1969,” she says, “and Ewan had written the script for a stage show, and he said, ‘Peggy, write a song about women.’ And this rather complicated song, ‘Gonna Be An Engineer,’ just popped out of my head. I never wanted to be an engineer, but it sang well. The song took off and became a feminist anthem. I didn’t know anything about feminism, but I suddenly found myself at these feminist do’s, and when I finished they said, ‘Sing something else,’ and I didn’t have anything except bland songs in which women were unclaimed property, or being sent away because they nagged their husbands, or they were complaining single mothers with babies in their arms.”

Ewan and Peggy, 1977

Seeger realized many of the timeless tunes she knew portrayed women as a disempowered gender. In the following decades, as she and MacColl raised a family in England, the couple concentrated on using music to affect social change, with Seeger’s focus falling ever more on women’s issues. “I started to catalog songs,” she says. “I built up categories, and I still sing them, but I always say something before: these are historical pieces, with women singing about their position in society.”

At the Hevreh, armed with a variety of instruments — banjo, guitar, concertina — Seeger will perform age-old songs in which women are chattel and/or victims of male sexual desire; she’ll offer mother-in-law-as-laughingstock songs, and “fallen woman” ballads in which women who try to escape their condition suffer. To offset the narrow perspective of the public domain material, Seeger says, “I’ll play tunes featuring all kinds of subjects that these folk songs do not cover at all. There’s ‘A Stitch In Time,’ by Mike Waterson, about a battered wife who sews her husband into a bed and batters him. And in one of my own songs, a woman goes off and becomes a sailor, and the ship captain falls in love with her and they live happily ever after.”

Seeger has high hopes for the lecture. “I want people to look at the role of women in all the songs we listen to,” she says. “The language that we use when we refer to sex. Women are often portrayed as objects, clotheshorses, as a gender that things happen to rather than one that makes things happen.”

While Seeger’s engagement is woman-centered, she emphasizes her desire for a desegregated audience. “The lecture is for men and women,” she says. “We don’t thank men for coming, it’s their job to come. Men are in this bind as well as women.”

Peggy Seeger
A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs
Tuesday, March 18, 4 p.m.
Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
270 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
$10.00; $5.00 for students

 

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