About the Artist
(over) The Seeger family tree for the last century has soaked its roots in music and sprouted no fewer than three major performers in the folk world. The paterfamilias was composer/ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger (1886-1979), whose first marriage produced the iconic musician and activist Pete Seeger and two other sons. His second wife, composer/arranger/musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for Music, gave birth to Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny, who later married John Cohen, Mike's bandmate in the New Lost City Ramblers. By the time the Seegers moved from New York to suburban Maryland in 1936 after Charles was appointed to the federal New Deal ad ministration, they were already acquainted with song collectors John and Alan Lomax, whom they'd met through left-wing political organizations. With Ruth hired to transcribe the Lomaxes' field recordings of rural American music for the Library of Congress, little Mike (1933 - 2009) and his younger sisters were imprinted with those songs through repeated listenings and Saturday night singalongs. Mike taught himself various stringed instruments in his late teens and soon teamed with already adept instrumentalist Peggy (born in 1935) in performing at local square dances. Soon Mike was traveling the Washington, D.C., area looking for traditional musicians to record and "new" old songs to learn. One of his major discoveries came about by coincidence in the late '40s when he learned that the Seegers' Southern-born housekeeper, Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten, was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who had put music aside for the last 25 years. Mike taped her singing and playing and produced her first album in 1957, containing her classic "Freight Train." Tapped by Folkways Records owner Moe Asch to record and assemble an album of banjo players, Mike made his own recording debut on the resultant 1956 LP, American Banjo, Three Finger & Scruggs Style, the first of many documentary albums he made as a "sort of aural historian," capturing previously obscure American musicians and spreading their songs to new generations of players and listeners. In 1958, Mike and like-minded musicians John Cohen and Tom Paley (later replaced by Tracy Schwarz) formed The New Lost City Ramblers, a revered group that specialized in obscure rural and working class music of the 1920s through early '40s. Drawing their repertoire from Library of Congress field recordings and old 78rpm records, the Ramblers recorded a remarkable 12 albums between 1958 and 1962 and continued to perform and record periodically through 2009. Mike's first solo album, Oldtime Country Music (1962), was followed by more than 40 other albums of his own music, solo and with others, and he toured internationally with the Ramblers and on his own. "He played . . . the full index of old-time styles," wrote Bob Dylan in his autobiography, and "he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes." "His impact on the shape and perception of American music is truly incalculable," eulogized England's Independent. Mike's work earned him the National Endowment of the Arts' highest honor, a National Heritage Fellowship, and the Ralph J. Gleason Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rex Foundation, established by the Grateful Dead, as "one of our great musical and cultural resources." At the time of his death, Mike was working on a documentary of what he saw as a "revival/survival" of specifically Southern old-time music in progress, interviewing and recording 20 banjo players. His widow, Alexia Smith, is working to complete the project.
In a childhood surrounded by her musical family and such visitors as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Peggy (born in 1935) hit the ground singing, learning piano at seven, transcription at eleven, and the guitar soon after, later adding banjo, dulcimer, and concertina. Studying music at Radcliffe College and starting to perform professionally, in 1955 Peggy traveled abroad, having just recorded her first album, Songs of Courting and Complaint, a 10-inch record on Folkways. Backpacking across Holland, Europe, Russia and China, Peggy arrived in the UK, where she immediately fell in love with the leading figure in the country's folk music revival, singer/ songwriter/ playwright/political activist Ewan MacColl. Peggy moved to London, became a British citizen and joined MacColl in his efforts to reconnect Britons with their musical history, singing and lecturing about folk music's place in modern life and activism. The highlight of their creative collaborations was the development in 1958, with BBC producer Charles Parker, of the innovative Radio Ballad form, a mosaic of spoken-word field recordings, instrumentation, sound effects, and new songs written in the folk idiom. MacColl and Seeger also recorded numerous albums, ran the controversial London Critics Group, operated and performed at one of England's best-known folk venues, The Singers Club, and formed their own record label. Somehow Peggy found time to raise her three children by MacColl (future musicians Calum and Neill and artist/vocalist Kitty), to write songs for and perform in films, TV shows, and radio plays, to establish and edit a magazine of contemporary songs, "The New City Songster," from 1965 to '85, and to collaborate on anthologies of folk songs with MacColl and others. In 1971, Peggy was the subject of a BBC documentary, and in 1995 BBC Radio 2 broadcast an award-winning five-part series about her life, with additional episodes presented in 1996 and '97. In 1983, Seeger began singing occasionally with Irish traditional vocalist Irene Pyper-Scott, with whom, after MacColl's death in 1989, she formed a professional and personal relationship. The duo recorded and performed for several years as No Spring Chickens. In 1994, Peggy returned to the States with Irene, settling first in Asheville, NC, then moving to Boston in 1996 to enable Peggy to teach songwriting at Northeastern University. In 2006, Peggy and Irene entered into a civil union partnership in England, but American visa policies obliged Irene to leave the US. Peggy moved back to England last year, and their two-country relationship is solid and satisfactory. Peggy has forged a reputation as "one of the most authoritative voices in American and English folk. . . an esteemed interpreter of traditional material and a gifted instrumentalist...[and] perhaps best known for her observant and caustic original songs... (Billboard). 149 of Peggy's best pre-1998 compositions have been published in her "Peggy Seeger Songbook: 40 Years of Songmaking."