London concert celebrates Peggy Seegers 70th

The Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank was packed on May 29 as legendary folk performers from both Britain and the U.S. gathered to celebrate the 70th birthday of legendary folk singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger.

Coming from a U.S. family of musicologists, but spending most of her performing career in Britain, Seeger provides a clear link with the politically progressive folk tradition on both sides of the Atlantic.

Welcoming the audience, Mike Harding set the scene by pointing out how, with the famous Radio Ballards of the 1950s, Seeger and her late partner Ewan MacColl gave expression to the experiences of working-class people in song. Both through her collaboration with MacColl and through her own compositions, Seeger has combined her singing career with support for left-wing causes, embracing women’s liberation, nuclear disarmament, anti-apartheid and trade union struggles.

This political commitment was much in evidence at the concert.

At different points during the first set, Seeger was joined by guest artists such as Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy, as well as partner Irene Scott and children Neill, Calum and Kitty MacColl.

And, for the first time ever on a British stage, she was joined in the second set by both of her brothers from the U.S. — Mike Seeger, who is known for his distinct interpretation of bluegrass and traditional mountain music, and Pete Seeger, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie and a mentor to 1960s U.S. protest singers such as Tom Paxton, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Using a combination of banjo, dulcimer and piano, Peggy Seeger performed some traditional songs taken from her new CD, “Heading For Home,” as well as older love songs, including MacColl’s song for her, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which is totally different in style from the Roberta Flack version that most people are familiar with.

In keeping with the pattern that she and MacColl always had at folk concerts, the traditional songs were interspersed with political songs about war, trade unions and women’s rights.

Now living back in the U.S., her song “The Caveman” is an indictment of U.S. foreign policy and details the countries that have been bombed by the U.S. over the years. On finishing, she explained to the audience that she never wants applause after singing the song as it doesn’t seem appropriate.

This, however, was the only occasion when the audience didn’t applaud.

It was a particularly emotionally charged moment when a rousing rendition of MacColl and Seeger’s “Song for Che Guevara” was performed with help from the Waterson-Carthy family.

Then the atmosphere reached boiling point when Pete Seeger appeared in the second set.

The composer of songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and the anti-McCarthyite “If I Had a Hammer” was quickly able to dispel any worries that, at the age of 86, he may have lost some of his singing ability or political passion.

With his legendary skills in encouraging audience participation, he soon had everybody singing along to the humorous “English is Cuh-Ray-Zee,” then to a recent composition about Martin Luther King and, finally, to his own classic antiwar song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

But by that time there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Towards the end of the concert, Peggy Seeger sang her most famous feminist song “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” and all the artists gathered on stage for a rendition of “Sing About These Hard Times,” a song of hope for working people.

Uniting the best of the progressive folk-singing community in both Britain and the U.S., this birthday concert truly was an inspirational musical and political experience.

— Morning Star, www.morningstaronline.co.uk