Peggy Seeger recounts when she “realised men had destroyed the Earth”

The folk icon reveals how her younger self finally found true love, how she loved music too much to do it as a career and how Joan Baez and Bob Dylan chased her for an autograph

I was intrigued by a lot of poetry as a teenager; I loved Shakespeare. My parents didn’t have a lot of time to spend with us but the special thing my family brought to me was folk music. I started learning guitar when I was six, and the banjo when I was 15. And I played the piano quite well, though I didn’t have the nerve to play for other people. But it was a long time before I started writing my own songs, not until I was 25. When I was a teenager I didn’t think of doing music for a living. I liked it too much. As a job it seemed like very hard work.

There were four of us kids. My mother [Ruth Crawford Seeger, regarded as one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century] was a piano teacher, my father was a music administrator. We lived in a large house in a very select area of Washington DC which we couldn’t afford and we often went into debt. My father was a communist in the 1930s, though I didn’t learn that until I was 35. My mother was a closet feminist, which she had to dampen down when she married my father. We never talked politics in the house. We had black women working in the house because my mother taught 12 hours a day. The black women did not sit down at the dinner table with us. When I had live-in help with my children in Beckenham [in South London] everyone sat together for dinner. My father was intrigued by that when he came to visit.

My mother died of cancer when I was in my first year of college and my father had to retire because of McCarthyism. The family fell apart – my mother had been the love of my father’s life. Everyone had to move to my college town and live in a tiny apartment, but there was no money for my education. Then my father fell in love and married again and he wasn’t terribly keen on having his children around. So he decided I should go to Holland to live with my older brother. He was a bit of a selfish man. I didn’t really get on with my stepmother but I think that was because I was a terrible teenager. She wasn’t a bad person at all. If I could go back I would apologise to her profusely.

I hitchhiked around Holland, then Belgium, where I was picked up by a Catholic priest. I lived with him in his tiny little village, looking after a group of displaced children he’d brought back from East Berlin. He tried to convert me. I was cold and depressed and overworked, and I almost converted until some friends came to visit, saw I was ‘turning Catholic’, kidnapped me and took me in their little Fiat to Denmark. That’s where I was when Alan Lomax [the music ‘field’ recorder who had worked with her half-brother Pete Seeger] tracked me down and took me to London to sing and play banjo on a TV show he was making. I was a scruffy tomboy then but just before he introduced me to his friends his model girlfriend re-dressed me; she did my hair into a beehive and put make-up and earrings and high heels on me. And I tottered into that room and met a group of musicians Alan had very knowingly brought together. And that’s when I met [legendary folk singer/songwriter] Ewan MacColl.

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Ewan MacColl fell head over heels in love with me. He chased me for three years. I thought he was funny looking. And he was 20 years older than me, with a wife and child. And that was a no-no for me. But he tracked me down and two days later we started an affair. His wife had already been unfaithful twice and he had been unfaithful too. She loved him though, the way he wanted to be loved. Which I didn’t. I loved him but I wasn’t mad about him. I wasn’t intending to stay with him or marry him. In the end though, he was the right person for me, definitely; the father figure my father had never been. And he was very intelligent and fascinating to be with.

One of the first songs I wrote was I’m Gonna Be an Engineer. After that women started asking me to perform other feminist songs so I had to start writing them! And I started researching the issues and became a radical feminist. The more I read the more I realised how privileged I was. And how unequal my life at home with Ewan was. I did the shopping, the cooking, all that. After Ewan died I got more and more passionate about ecology alongside feminism and I realised how much men had destroyed the Earth. Women look after things. We don’t take our sons out and dress them as soldiers. It’s men who are violent. It’s men who torture. It’s men who rape, and kill and go into schoolyards with guns.

Joan Baez came for my autograph in 1961, at the Newport [Folk] Festival. We’ve never had a proper conversation but I’d have loved to. I’d like to do a concert with her but she’s too high up for me. She’s the folk goddess of America. Dylan wanted our autograph too, in Minnesota, when he was still a student wearing a tie and carrying a little briefcase. Two years later, when we went back to Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman had become Bob Dylan. And the promoter who’d brought us back said, “Remember that funny little guy who followed you around a couple of years ago…”

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be my mother. I would want to know more about her. Because she … oh, when I hear her compositions I am completely blown away. Because the person I knew as my mother is not someone I thought could write anything like that. She had so many hopes and dreams that she wrote about when she was still in college. She was close to her own mother, she wrote to her every day when she was away at music school. But my mother never talked about her mother. And I don’t know that I talked about my mother to my children. Because I never really knew who she was. But now I talk to her in my head.

I’ve only been in love once in my life, and that was with my present partner, Irene Pyper-Scott. I don’t think I was in love with Ewan. I loved him dearly but the head-over-heels love he had for me made me aware that I didn’t love him the same way. But I love Irene in that way. That kind of love is dangerous. It’s like an illness. To me it felt atomic. And it came at a very difficult point in my life. I fell in love with her before Ewan died; he was ill for the last 10 years of his life. She was my best friend and I fell in love with her. Ewan and I were together for 30 wonderful years, and now Irene and I have been together for 30 years. Ewan MacColl made me who I was with him. But Irene Pyper-Scott made me who I am without anybody.

Peggy Seeger plays the Celtic Connections festival with sons Calum and Neill MacColl at Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre on January 18. celticconnections.com

Image: Vicki Sharp Photography