My Brother, Mike Seeger:

Peggy Seeger Talks to FolkWorks

BY ROSS ALTMAN

mikepeggypete1995davegahr.jpgThe first time ever I saw her face I shoved a tape cassette into it-and she jumped up and hugged me. But more about that later.

When I proposed an email "interview" with Peggy Seeger to talk about her late brother Mike, I got an earful. "I absolutely don't do email interviews," she retorted; "I don't read anything online-not newspapers, not magazines, and not books. If I want to read I go to a nice café and find a quiet corner and bring something between two covers. I'm sorry, but that is still reading to me."

So needless to say, she had not read my tribute to Mike Seeger on FolkWorks web site, nor Peter Feldman's excellent obituary either."

"So how should we proceed?" I asked. "I'm happy to do a telephone interview," she continued; "I'm on tour in Canada-can you call me tomorrow at 12:00 noon, my time?" "I'll call you right on the dot," I said.

Before we hung up, though, I tried to express my condolences and sympathy for her loss, to which she listened with what seemed like growing impatience. Then, as we said goodbye, she added, "Tomorrow, not too much sympathy, though, OK?" "OK," I said. I heard the tear in her voice as she hung up.

The following morning I glanced at my turned off cell phone when I got up and noticed a new voice message from her number. She had called to ask me if I could call her at 12:30 PM instead because they (she and her partner, Irene Pyper-Scott) were still preparing the RV for the trip ahead, on the next leg of her tour.

I quickly returned her call to let her know I had gotten her message, and she threw me another curve by saying, "Why don't we talk now?" "You mean right now?" I gasped-still psyching myself up for our official interview." "We got through with the RV cleanup faster than expected," so she has a little time before they need to leave. "I'll need to call you right back," I said, trying to conceal the desperation in my voice. "I have to switch phones-cause the landline is hooked up to my tape recorder." (She had already agreed to be taped.) I also had to get my coffee, switch rooms, pull out my Mike and Peggy Seeger record collection, and find my dog-eared notebook, wherein I had scribbled a half dozen questions the night before.

Five minutes later I called Ms. Seeger-scion of America's first family of folk music-songwriter, folk singer, multi-instrumentalist, activist, trailblazing feminist, composer of I'm Gonna Be An Engineer and Springhill Mine Disaster, and modern muse. "Hello, this is Peggy," she answered; I took a sip of coffee, said the serenity prayer to myself, pushed the two-way record button on my telephone answer machine, and replied, "Hi Peggy, this is Ross."

SEEGER: Okay, are we ready?

ALTMAN: We're ready. Good morning.

SEEGER: Is it morning?

ALTMAN: I'm in Los Angeles, you know.

SEEGER: Oh, well I'm in an RV camp in, let me see, Hawk Stone, Ontario.

ALTMAN: Hawk Stone.

SEEGER: Well, you won't know where it is. It's on Lake Simcoe.

ALTMAN: I looked up the map and atlas last night.

SEEGER: Google.

ALTMAN: No, actually a book. The kind you recommended. And you're on your way to do a show today, as I heard.

SEEGER: On my way to Woods Camp, which is about an hour and a half from here.

ALTMAN: Oh, I see.

SEEGER: Okay, sir, shoot with the questions.

ALTMAN: All right. Before we get to Mike, I went on your web site again last night, and it has these beautiful pictures that all have dates underneath them, that float by. Have you seen your web site?

SEEGER: Uh huh.

ALTMAN: ... as the pictures were floating by, they all kind of had an air of familiarity to them until I got to 1960, and you were standing there, it looked like accompanying Paul Robeson on your guitar. And there were some signs in the background, but I couldn't make them out. Do you remember what that situation was?

SEEGER: That's Trafalgar Square.

ALTMAN: And was that an anti-nuclear testing demonstration or something?

SEEGER: I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I remember that the square was absolutely packed, but it would be for Paul Robeson, so I'd have to remember what was happening in 1960 to remember exactly what it was about, but I don't remember. There are so many issues that I've sung for; I don't remember that particular one.

ALTMAN: And it looked like you were actually accompanying him.

SEEGER: It also looked as if I didn't have a microphone. Did you notice that?

ALTMAN: I noticed that, but ...

SEEGER: I was supposed to be accompanying him. But I didn't have a mike. It wasn't planned at all. They just said, "Get up there and accompany him."

ALTMAN: [chuckling]

SEEGER: And as he came in out of his limousine, I said, "What are you going to sing today, Paul?" And he says, "Oh, I don't know." I say, "Well, how would I know how to accompany you?" He says, "Oh, just strum along."

ALTMAN: [laughing]

SEEGER: So I just strummed along, and it was very silly. Because he didn't need me at all. He didn't need me. Because he could sing up a storm.

ALTMAN: You got a great picture out of it. I remember in 1960, a lot of those demonstrations had to do with the test ban treaty and nuclear testing.

SEEGER: Anti-nuke - against the war - against nuclear bombs and things. That was ongoing, continual. And Paul Robeson would sing for anything that was progressive and good.

ALTMAN: Uh huh. Actually, that leads me into one of the questions that I had mapped out here.

SEEGER: Okay.

ALTMAN: So let me run that by you... Okay. I think of both of you and Pete, and Ewan MacColl for that matter, as overtly political artists in the mold of Paul Robeson, really. Whereas, I think of Mike as having been more of a covertly political artist, if anything, who preferred to let his music do his talking for him. Is that - is that an accurate contrast, and were there less public sides to Mike's politics that you'd feel comfortable sharing?

SEEGER: I didn't know Mike's politics very well, but I do feel that to champion traditional music was to go against the commercial music that is pushed upon us because with commercial music, you are a consumer. But with traditional music for the most part, you are a producer or you are a potential producer. But with commercial music, you can be a producer and get absolutely nowhere, you need to plug in as well. There's a whole almost macho thing that you have to be linked to the technology of - produce - of recording it and getting it out to the distributor, and then making sure the DJ's play it, and then making sure people buy it.

To me, this is industrial, you know. It's an industrial thing. But whereas the traditional music, no matter how good you are, sometimes unfortunately, you can play it. And you can learn from other people without them having a university degree, without them having a job in the business. It was just teach each other. So that is - that is a covert political act. Mike probably wouldn't have seen it that way. He just loved the music.

ALTMAN: Well, I thought there was a political implication to the choices of the music that he recorded, that what he referred to as - hold one second. I just want to make sure I pressed the right button on this machine.

SEEGER: Okay.

ALTMAN: Hold one second. Okay, Peggy?

SEEGER: Okay, I have two things to say. First of all, one of the reasons I put you onto recording at the end of August is because I would have a huge amount of time there, and today I have about twenty minutes.

Second of all, I didn't have that kind of conversation with Mike. You might have to approach his wife, Alexia, who seems to know the most about Mike of probably any of us. So I think approaching her might be good for this kind of information.

ALTMAN: Well, let me ask you - that's why I kind of came up with a few questions to give you to start with and see what might be your best way of approaching it.

SEEGER: Well, that's the way - that's the way I approach it for myself, for MacColl, and Pete, who went out and actually mentioned - gave names, worked for practically any progressive cause, right from Pete's advocacy for the New York so-called wasteland gardens, New York City.

ALTMAN: Uh huh.

SEEGER: Down to protesting against what happened in Bush's government. That's what I do. But Mike didn't involve himself in names.

ALTMAN: Well, he did sing in the anti-war - he sang an anti-war song that he made a good introduction to at the concert that I heard, and it was an anti-war song from World War I, and it was not - I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Solder, it was a more obscure song, very powerful, but he did it as a political statement about what was happening now.

SEEGER: Exactly.

ALTMAN: And I thought that that made a musical point, as well as a political point.

SEEGER: Yes, it did.

ALTMAN: ... and that's why I thought it was especially revealing of Mike. But let me just ask you a general question. And take it where you will. Tell me a good story about Mike, one I probably haven't heard before.

SEEGER: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

ALTMAN: And it could be from any period of your life, because I was interested also in the way you discovered music growing up, when you were, you know, in that remarkable home with Ruth [Crawford Seeger, Mike and Peggy's mother].

SEEGER: Mike was my buddy, but we kind of parted ways when I was 16 and he was 18, when he was a conscientious objector.

ALTMAN: He was a conscientious objector?

SEEGER: Yes, against the Korean War. I think it was the Korean War. That would be 1951-52. And they gave him a job in a tubercular hospital.

ALTMAN: Wow.

SEEGER: And that is how he got in contact with so many of the country singers. But I was never solidly in his company after that.

ALTMAN: Oh, I see.

SEEGER: So, I went a different musical route from him, and he was not always approving of my musical route. He stuck to very, very traditional ways, which Pete didn't and which I didn't. And I remember when Pete was playing the C9th, which is the C-B-G and a D above it, with a 7th in it on the B flat.

ALTMAN: Okay, I can get that from the tapes. C9th, okay.

SEEGER: Yeah, C7th with a 9th on the top.

ALTMAN: Oh, okay. C7th.

SEEGER: And I remember - yeah, with a D on the top.

ALTMAN: Okay.

SEEGER: And you put a major third on top of the B flat.

ALTMAN: Okay.

SEEGER: And I remember the first time I played that, Mike's head swiveled around.

ALTMAN: [laughing]

SEEGER: ... and he gave me a look. I was doing it on Michael, Row The Boat Ashore, because Pete did it. I followed what Pete did. I also followed what Mike did, but Mike and I learned the banjo at the same time. So I was doing this on the banjo. His head swiveled around, and he looked me straight in the eye, and this was a look that I got for the next, let me see.

ALTMAN: [laughing] 25 years.

SEEGER: So, no, no, no. He was about 20. I got it for the next 54 years!

ALTMAN: [laughing]

SEEGER: And it got diminished in the next 50 years, bit by bit, because I learned not to play those chords in his presence. He had great respect for what I did, but didn't want me to plunk those strings on top of the traditional music, because it's very easy to classicalize the songs. And Mike stuck very, very close to what the traditional singers did, and I didn't. So that look, in varying forms of severity, has accompanied my time with Mike for all this time. I shall miss it.

ALTMAN: What a great story. You know, Woody Guthrie once said that if you got too fancy in your chording on an old time fiddle stage, they'd throw you off the stage.

SEEGER: Well, that's quite right. You know, there's certain things you have to keep the same. I mean, they have a way of calling it Folk Nazi now, which is a very unkind way of doing it, but sometimes you need the - not sometimes. I think you need all the parameters. You need the purist, and Mike was a purist - to remind you of what the roots are, because it's very easy just to chop down the tree and forget all about it.

ALTMAN: Uh huh.

SEEGER: For example, if they performed the Posthumous Quartets on ocarina and a trombone and a ukulele, and a double bass, would it still be the Posthumous Quartets? No, because it wasn't meant to be that way. It was not created that way. But this is a long argument. This is a long talk and one can end up sounding like a Folk Nazi.

ALTMAN: Where do you think the drive came from in his ... music?

SEEGER: Mike? I think it came from him listening very, very closely as a child to the songs. He didn't take up banjo until he was 17.

ALTMAN: Oh, I see. Because Pete - you know, Pete's first record, Darling Cory, is very traditional. It's very close to the sources, and ...

SEEGER: That's because Pete himself was very close to the source. He was traveling with Woody Guthrie. He was among all of the people whose music this was ...this was their indigenous music. This was what he heard when he traveled across the country with Woody. But when he got involved in playing for colleges and playing for middle class audiences, which is what mostly Pete and I do, and Mike in the end did, because that's where the folk scene is now. It's among middle class people. A lot of those people Mike learned from, they're still sitting on their porches and playing ...

ALTMAN: Let me go back one quick question here. You said when he was working in the tubercular hospital, that's when he met some of those country musicians. Were they in these - in this hospital, because of coal mining problems that affected their lungs?

SEEGER: I'm not too sure. Mike has a biographer called Bill Malone.

ALTMAN: Oh, yes, I know his work.

SEEGER: Bill Malone will probably have recorded some of that stuff.

ALTMAN: But he actually met musicians while he was working ...

SEEGER: Oh, yes. Some of them were working as orderlies and as nurses. I remember he would say, "this is the way so and so plays it. This is the way so and so plays it." And he had a chance to observe and see how they did all those things.

ALTMAN: I see. That's a great story. Peggy, let me ask you this. I have what may be your first or second album here, before you recorded with Mike: American Folk Songs for Christmas.

SEEGER: No, my first one was Songs of Courting and Complaint.

ALTMAN: Oh. Was that with [Peggy's sisters] Barbara and Penny, too?

SEEGER: No, totally me.

ALTMAN: I see. Songs of Courting. . .

SEEGER: It's a Folkways album.

ALTMAN: So is this one. And this one has ...

SEEGER: Most of our early ones were.

ALTMAN: Yeah, and this one has notes by your mom, - no, by your dad [musicologist Charles Seeger].

SEEGER: We recorded that in Santa Barbara in 1955, in the summer.

ALTMAN: And when did you record the one with Mike that did your mother's book of children's songs? American Folk Songs for Children?

SEEGER: 1972.

ALTMAN: ... and that has all of the songs in her book?

SEEGER: It's one of three albums that we did-based on three books, and we've done all three. There's American Folk Songs for Christmas and American Animal Folk Songs for Children. And Rounder has all of them. If you go to my web site you'll see, you know, delve down in and among the CD section, you'll find them all.

ALTMAN: How did you find that recording experience?

SEEGER: With Mike?

ALTMAN: Yeah.

SEEGER: Oh, wonderful. Absolutely fantastic. He was lovely to record with. He was very generous, providing you didn't play a C7th 9th.

ALTMAN: [laughing]

SEEGER: And he had wonderful suggestions of what to do with them. We've recorded an album which is going to come out - we recorded it about a year ago. It still wasn't finished, but Mike said put it out as it is. It's right back to the basics. Songs we learned as children sung as close as possible to the way we sang them as children.

ALTMAN: Is that the title?

SEEGER: No. I have no title for it. He didn't give me a title. He didn't say. He just gave me instructions on which ones were not to go in and which ones were to be included; he never tracked when he recorded. He didn't do tracking. He recorded everything as is. All the musicians sat around a mike, and that was it.

ALTMAN: Live two-track, no over dubbing or anything.

SEEGER: No over dubbing. Four mikes. We have four microphones. Voice, instrument. And he did it, all of this album, which is going to be probably - it was going to be our last one.

ALTMAN: And when did you do that one?

SEEGER: We recorded the first lot last summer and we recorded last Thanksgiving.

ALTMAN:  In his home? Did he have his own studio?

SEEGER: We did the first recordings in his home, and then we recorded some of them at the home of mother's biographer, Judith Tick. They brought all the equipment up.

ALTMAN: Um, I know you have the time from - let me ask you one more thing.

SEEGER: There's no urgency. You can call me when I get home.

ALTMAN: Okay. Well, can you tell me real quick, how did Ruth Crawford come into your father's life after ... did Pete's mother pass away or?

SEEGER: Now what I'd like to say is get the biography and read it.

ALTMAN: Okay. Of your mother you mean? What's the title of that?

SEEGER: It's called Ruth Crawford Seeger, An American - if you go to my web site and just click on my mother's ...You'll find a biography of her. The person to phone for this is my biographer - is Judith Tick. And I can give you her number if you wish it.

ALTMAN: Okay.

SEEGER: Oh, wait a minute. I would have to ask her if I give it to you. I don't . . .

ALTMAN: You'll be back in Boston on the 29th?

SEEGER: Let's make it the 30th.

ALTMAN: The 30th. All right.

ALTMAN: Okay. Would it be okay if I called ...

SEEGER: We have another seven or eight minutes.

ALTMAN: Pardon?

SEEGER: You still have seven or eight minutes. But I realize this is not enough for you.

ALTMAN: Let me ask just another couple questions. Up until the age - you said after the age of 16 or so that you and Mike were - did not have as much time together. Did he go off and move somewhere else at that point? Or did you?

SEEGER: He went to the tubercular place. He lived in the hospital.

ALTMAN: And where was that?

SEEGER: It was in New Orleans somewhere, because we were living in Washington, D.C. I was nearby.

ALTMAN: Well that was certainly a political statement, being a CO in the Korean War.

SEEGER: Absolutely. Absolutely it was. I mean, he's a pacifist. He wasn't affiliated to any church, but my father had been a pacifist. I forget exactly what for. It think it was the First World War, and my Uncle John was a pacifist in the Second World War. It kind of runs in the family.

ALTMAN: Well, Pete was no pacifist.

SEEGER: No, he wasn't. No, he went off to fight. But the Second World War was something different publicly. Something different.

ALTMAN: Up until the time that Mike left to be a CO, tell me something about the way in which you discovered music before then, because you must have played together and listened to things together at some point.

SEEGER: Well, my mother was making her books. She was working with Alan Lomax for books, for an anthology, for folk songs, so my mother would go down to the Library of Congress and she'd get the records out of the archives, and she'd bring them home. We'd play them and try to transcribe the music. And we would be listening. We would be there playing while she as transcribing the music, line by line.

ALTMAN: Wow.

SEEGER: And she would - you know, we had folk music going in the house all day, and then she'd play classical music at night because she was a classical pianist and composer. So we heard all these bizarre prison songs, songs about murder, shanties, chain gang songs, love songs, ballads. We heard them all while she was transcribing them for the books. And that - the seminal time was up to the age of 8 because we moved away from that house, but our only playroom was where she worked. Once we had a bigger house in Chevy Chase, then she would be working in a different place from where we were. That was how, you know, we all got interested in the songs at that time, and Mike sang a lot. Mike was a lovely singer. He just didn't pick up any instruments until he was 17 or 18. Although I think he played the autoharp early on, because that's a fairly easy thing to play.

ALTMAN: And when did you start playing instruments?

SEEGER: When I was 6. My mother started teaching me piano.

ALTMAN: Oh, I see. I know you've told this story a million times, but the people who read my stuff on FolkWorks will not have heard it. I assure you. Tell me the story, at least a Reader's Digest version, of The first time ever [I Saw Your Face] and ...

SEEGER: That's a September story.

ALTMAN: That's a September story?

SEEGER: Or August 30.

ALTMAN: That's an August [laughing]. Okay. I'm going to call you.

SEEGER: All right.

ALTMAN: You are delightful.

SEEGER: Thank you.

ALTMAN: If you haven't read my email, what I said in it was that I brought you the tape that a friend of mine sent from England, the Black and White tape, Songs Against Apartheid. And that's what I showed you first down in San Diego. And when you saw it, you leaped up and gave me a hug.

SEEGER: Did I? I was so pleased that somebody had the darn thing.

ALTMAN: That's what I thought.

SEEGER: The anti-apartheid movement never used it properly.

ALTMAN: Well, I used it because I got to sing at a memorial in Los Angeles for a veteran of that movement, who had passed away in Los Angeles, and so I sang a couple of the songs from the album. And when you saw - when I showed it to you, you leaped up and you gave me a big hug.

SEEGER: Oh, gosh. I was very pleased. So you're that man, okay.

ALTMAN: I'm that one, and I never forgot it, and I quoted the poem, Jenny Kissed Me When We Met, in the email. Because that's what it reminded me of. Anyway, thank you very, very much for your time. And have a wonderful tour. And you'll hear from me. I think I may do this in two parts, and get something in the next issue, and then call you back.

SEEGER: Go to my web site and look up the biographies. That will help you. There's five biographies of all different lengths. You can go from literally three sentences up to four pages.

ALTMAN: Oh, you mean that are printed on the web site itself?

SEEGER: Yes.

ALTMAN: I see. Okay.

SEEGER: That means you don't have to ask me silly questions. All right?

ALTMAN: Thank you very much. You take care. Bye, bye, Peggy.

END OF PART 1 OF THE INTERVIEW

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Ross will be performing his 29th annual concert of labor songs in the tradition of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger at The Church in Ocean Park at 235 Hill St. in Ocean Park, at the corner of 2nd and Hill, on Sunday morning, September 6 at 10:15 AM. It is free and open to the public. For further information, call (310) 399-1631.

 

On Friday evening, October 9, Ross will be performing two programs of his original baseball songs as a part of Art Night in Pasadena at the Pasadena Public Library, from 7:15 PM to 7:45 PM and from 9:15 PM to 9:45 PM in the Humanities Wing of the library, which is located at 1240 Nithsdale Road, Pasadena 91105 (at Avenue 64). It is free and open to the public. For further information, call (626) 744-7271.

 

On Sunday, October 11, Ross will be appearing at 3:00 PM on the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Stage at the CTMS Encino Taste of Folk Music, at Ventura and Balboa in Encino.
For a full roster of performances visit the CTMS web site and/or The Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest web site . The event is in honor of slain Wall Street Journal journalist Danny Pearl. This performance is also free and open to the public.