Saturday, March 18, 2017

Q&A with Jean R. Freedman

Jean R. Freedman is the author of the new biography Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics. She also has written Whistling in the Dark. She teaches at Montgomery College and George Washington University, and she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Peggy Seeger, and how did you research the book?

A: It seemed the perfect project for me: I have a Ph.D. in folklore, and my research specialties include folk music and the folk revival, particularly in the United States and Great Britain. 

I have known Peggy since 1979, when I spent my junior year in college in London and frequented the Singers Club, the folk club run by Peggy and her husband, Ewan MacColl. I was also part of the folk revival as a musician and have loved folk music all my life. 

And by a happy coincidence, Peggy and I have lived in several of the same places: I currently live in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Peggy grew up; I grew up in North Carolina, where Peggy lived for 12 years; and I spent two years in London, where Peggy lived for more than 30 years.

The circumstances of the book’s beginning were almost accidental. I was reviewing a book about Peggy’s mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, for the Journal of American Folklore and had some questions about it. I called Peggy, and in the course of our conversation, she asked if I knew of anyone who was interested in writing her biography. I immediately knew that I wanted to do it.

I used many different research methods: interviews with Peggy; interviews with her family, friends, and acquaintances; massive amounts of archival, library, and Internet research; and many hours listening to her music. 

When you write a biography, the outline of the story is limited by the parameters of the person’s life, so I began by interviewing Peggy. She was incredibly honest and generous. She gave me access to many of her private papers (including letters and diaries) and put me in contact with her family, friends, and acquaintances. 

She recognized that, as a scholar, I could not rely solely on her memories; I had to use written and archival sources as well as interviews with other people, some of whom might not agree with her. 

I sent each chapter to her as I wrote them. She read them carefully, corrected errors of fact, and offered suggestions. Some of her suggestions I took; others I did not. 

So while this is an authorized biography in the sense that she read it and approved it, she never tried to control it and she never told me what to write. This is my interpretation of her life and work.

Q: What do you see as her role in the history of American folk music?

A: This is a great question. In a sense, much of the book is an answer to this question, so I will give the condensed version.

Peggy came of age at the same time that the mid-20th century folk revival was starting to take off. She had been immersed in folk music all her life and was a talented singer and instrumentalist, and she quickly became one of the revival’s acknowledged leaders. 

Some revivalists concentrated on traditional American music (like Peggy’s brother Mike), while others were equally interested in modern, political music composed in the folk idiom (like Peggy’s brother Pete). Peggy is equally adept at both. She is also a prolific and highly regarded songwriter, and she uses many of the techniques of traditional music in the songs that she writes. 

She has lived in England much of her adult life, so she has spent much of her career performing and interpreting American music for an audience that did not grow up with it.

As a performer and a songwriter, Peggy respects the disciplinary boundaries of folk music and simultaneously pushes against them. She is trained in Western art music, and one can hear that influence in her own compositions and in her arrangements of traditional songs. 

At the same time, she has written songs about contemporary subjects – such as coal mining and domestic violence – in traditional ballad style. Ballads are folk songs that tell stories; they typically focus on the experience of an individual and are often told in poetic yet understated language. 

This turns out to be an extremely effective way to convey the personal experience of a social problem, an artistic expression of the feminist dictum that “the personal is political.”

Q: As you've noted, she is part of a musical family – what impact has that had on the music she creates and sings?

A: The Seeger family has been extremely important to her work. Her father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist, composer, and government employee who used folk music in many aspects of his work. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a composer who incorporated folk music into many of her compositions; she also compiled and arranged the music for three highly acclaimed collections of American folk songs. 

At a time when many believed that folk songs were inherently conservative or were dying out, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger believed that folk songs were living, breathing entities that were constantly being created anew; they also believed that folk music could be used for progressive political purposes. 

Peggy’s parents were always playing and singing folk music at home, and it was natural for the children to join in; there were songs that were sung while washing dishes or relaxing after dinner, and songs that were sung when it was time to go to bed at night. 

Her older brother Pete (technically her half-brother, by Charles Seeger’s first wife) was a frequent visitor, with his banjo and infinite patience. He went on to become the most famous folksinger in the English-speaking world. 

When Pete’s banjo book was published, Peggy and her brother Mike were teenagers, and they learned the banjo together from Pete’s book. Mike went on to become a virtuoso instrumentalist and one of the leaders of the old-time music revival.

Peggy’s husband, Ewan MacColl, and her musically talented children have also been influential. Ewan encouraged Peggy to sing the traditional music of her own country and at the same time to write new songs about contemporary concerns. 

Together, they produced an extraordinary amount of high-quality, innovative work: the BBC Radio Ballads series, which included interviews with and songs written about groups of people in Britain; folk theater, which included songs written on both topical and traditional themes; books of folk music; workshops on songwriting and performance; and many recordings and concerts of folk music. 

Her children have encouraged her to retain her focus on traditional American music and at the same time to incorporate new recording techniques, such as electronic and sampled sound.

Q: Has she read the book, and what does she think of it?

A: She has read it – from every step in the process to the finished product. When she received her copy of the book, she left a message on my voicemail, which I’ll quote in part: “The book has arrived. I’m really pleased with it. It’s clear as a bell. It’s lovely writing. I am totally delighted.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several new projects, most at the beginning stages. I am very concerned about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have begun interviewing Israelis and Palestinians about their experiences and writing monologues based on these interviews. I’m also starting to branch out into new genres; I’m working on a play and some fiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a brand-new website, which has lots of information about the book and how to get it. I hope this book will appeal to people who are interested in folk music, but also to people who simply like reading biographies. 

I included information for the scholar of music and folklore, but I tried to avoid academic jargon and write for the general reader. A review in Library Journal says that the book is “consummately researched and engagingly readable.” I like that!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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