I don’t mind admitting that I was utterly bewitched by Peggy Seeger during her appearance as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature last night. I’ve never been bewitched by an octogenarian before.
Is that ageist? If so forgive me, I was born is less enlightened times, but it’s true. Have I been charmed before by an octogenarian? Certainly. Have I been infuriated by an octogenarian? Definitely. Have I been intimidated by an octogenarian? Often. But never have I been so hypnotised in such a way.
I wasn’t really that aware of Peggy Seeger’s life or career before. I was aware she was, and is, a renowned American folk musician and songwriter, and that the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face”, famously covered by Roberta Flack, was originally written about Seeger by her lover, and later husband, Ewan McColl.
I know a lot more about her now. She was completely candid. Almost nothing was off-limits. In fact she told Matt Holland, who was interviewing her: “You can ask me anything. Apart from one thing. And I won’t tell you what that is”. Matt seemed quite smitten with her.
Quite right too.
Seeger’s family was and is steeped in music. Her father, Charles, was a musicologist. Her mother, Ruth, was a composer and the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her brother and half-brother were well-known folk musicians. Two of her sons and four of her grandchildren “make music” as she phrased it. She left America in the 1950’s to escape McCarthyism and eventually settled in Britain where she makes her home to this day. She said that she adores the smallness of Britain compared to America.
Both she and Matt Holland read from her autobiography, ‘First Time Ever’, a book made up of 50 chapters – pithy and wise – and she also sang, some of her own music and some lost folk ballads, in a voice still nuanced and full of feeling. She told us that it’s all about the song and not the singer, but you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium when she sang.
Peggy Seeger said, at the end of her talk, that she wrote her autobiography to “make friends from a distance”. Her talk achieved that, I think. I remain bewitched.