sun 19/05/2024

Seeger MacColl Family, Cecil Sharp House review - keeping the folk tradition alive | reviews, news & interviews

Seeger MacColl Family, Cecil Sharp House review - keeping the folk tradition alive

Seeger MacColl Family, Cecil Sharp House review - keeping the folk tradition alive

Great folk clan convenes at Cecil Sharp House

A small family business: Neill MacColl, Calum MacColl and Peggy Seeger

The family that sings together stays together… At least that’s true in folk music. Think of Waterson- Carthy and Seeger-MacColl. And last night at Cecil Sharp House, citadel of British folk music, Peggy Seeger and her sons Calum and Neill stepped out for a family concert.

The fashions may have changed but the audience would be recognisable anywhere, and how comfortable it always feels to be among. Old friends, even if you don’t know them – though many of them knew Peggy and she them, as the stage banter proved. Singer, song-maker and activist, Seeger is 82 now but, rather like her half-brother Pete Seeger, who played on into his nineties, she seems ageless. In velvet trousers and lacy blouse topped by a quilted gilet, she looks more glamorous now – sparkling, literally, in a way she perhaps felt inappropriate when she was on the road with Ewan MacColl, her long-time partner in life and music, who probably disapproved of glamour. With her neat silver hair, she looks like any respectable grandmother – yet she, like Pete, was demonised during the years of America’s red scare. Goddamit, she toured the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War! Uncle Sam was reluctant to renew her passport, though she was eventually able to return to the States, living there for a time after MacColl’s death in 1989.

Her remarkable life is recounted in her recently published memoir, The First Time –  its title of course taken from MacColl’s song, made into a chart hit by Roberta Flack – from which Peggy and her sons read extracts. She talked of her mother, the pioneering composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, who became ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger’s second wife. Seeger family life, in New York City and Washington DC, was at the intersection of art music and folk music. Woody Guthrie, folk singer and songwriter, and Alan Lomax, folk song collector, were frequent house guests, and a black woman named Elisabeth Cotten, whom Peggy had encountered in a DC department store, visited every weekend. A musician forbidden to play once she’d married, she took down the guitar that hung on the Seeger kitchen wall and performed a song she’d written. Thus did “Freight Train” enter the public consciousness – thanks to the Seegers.

Peggy Seeger“Freight Train”, and the story behind it, was among the songs contributed by Neill MacColl, his mother and brother singing along. He recalled how he’d gone to stay with Libba, as she was known, in the1970s at her home in Carolina: she’d nourished him with both music and vast helpings of chicken and dumpling stew. Calum’s solos included “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime”. Both men began their careers in the family trade but went on to become successful musicians in their own right – as did Kirsty MacColl, their half-sister, though her life was cut tragically short.

Not the least among the joys of the concert was the sense that we were all part of a great family singalong, the best sort of home entertainment, as everyone swapped songs and stories. What it emphasised was the great folk music continuum: Peggy singing songs that her mother had transcribed from Lomax, “Omi Wise” for example”; songs she herself had transcribed from cassettes sent to her for her various New City Songsters collections, including “Up in Wisconsin”; and the light-hearted song Calum sang that had been taught to him by Martin Carthy while the two men were jam-making. “Eliza was vacuuming upstairs.”

Ewan was present in anecdote and in spirit, his sons affectionately recalling “our Dad” in prefatory remarks to one of his last songs, “The Joy of Living”, in which he bade farewell not only to his beloved Lakeland peaks but to his family, for “my time is almost done”. The encore was Peggy’s “Sing About These Hard Times”, written in 2003 about the 1920s but no less relevant today.

While Calum played acoustic lead throughout and Neill guitar and mandolin, Peggy swapped between her treasured 1929 Martin, five-string banjo, accordion, autoharp and keyboard.

Liz Thomson's website

Among the joys of the concert was the sense that we were all part of a great family singalong


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