- Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics by Jean R. Freedman
When life stories place individuals and their experiences within a complex social web, they aid our ability to understand ourselves and others across time. The most effective biographies inevitably give way to broader social and cultural exchanges; Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics does this. Valuable contributions to American folklore studies from this book include “What Is a Folk Song?” and “What Is a Folk Revival?,” two chapters that flesh out the philosophy and overall chronology of Western folk music movements and deserve serious consideration on cultural studies syllabi. Freedman traces folk music debates to Johann Gottfried Herder, the eighteenth-century German philosopher who coined the term folk song to describe song repertoires that evidenced fully formed and distinctive folk groups. Inherent in this definition was the belief that folk products differ from other cultural products and are endangered by cultural change. Traces of Herder’s ideas circulate in the rhetoric of authenticity and preservation among twentieth-century folklorists. Indeed, this ethos fueled the revival movements; as Freedman reminds us, “the very act of naming a song a ‘folk song’ was itself an act of revivalism” (p. 296). Employing insights from Robert Cantwell, Alan Jabbour, and Tamara Livingston, Freedman represents folk music revivals as a search for cultural meaning. She argues that such revivals involve the commodification and recontextualization of previously noncommercial music and the creation of neo-traditional styles. She concedes that while practitioners and academics disagree about the criteria for “folk,” it is undeniable that “folk” music flourished in the twentieth-century United States, and we see that history reflected in Peggy Seeger.
Peggy was born into America’s most illustrious family of folk revivalists. Her father, Charles, founded and presided over the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Berkeley Music Department, where he developed his dissonant counterpoint technique. His social awakening at Berkeley inspired him to join the Communist Party, and his subsequent leadership roles in the Music Division of Roosevelt’s New Deal Re-settlement Administration, Federal Music Project, Pan-American Union’s Inter-American Music Center, and the International Music Council under UNESCO reflected his commitment to tooling music for moral and economic uplift. His second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was the first female composer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and when Charles’ employment shifted, so, too, did Ruth transition from modernist composition to arranging folk music. She transcribed songs from fieldwork by John and Alan Lomax, published her own books, and contributed to the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song.
The Seeger children were fortunate to enter into elite music circles from birth. Mike followed a similar trajectory to his parents, most notably in his musical touring of the American South, leadership role at the Smithsonian, formation of the New Lost City Ramblers with Alan Lomax, and Guggenheim Fellowship win. Pete, son of Charles and his first wife, Constance Edson, learned folk music from Ruth while she was transcribing. Pete collaborated with Woody Guthrie and also worked for Lomax at the Library of Congress and founded, with him and others, the People’s Songs organization to “[promote] folk music in tandem with progressive political causes” (p. 44). His fame soared after forming the Almanac Singers and the Weavers and collaborating with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan while advocating for the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam protests. Pete is represented in the book as a talented musician who was lucky in timing and privileged by a social network that enhanced his visibility during all phases of the American folk movement.
But where in the Seeger family tree does Freedman place Peggy? As the daughter of Charles and Ruth, sister of Pete and Mike, friend of Alan Lomax, and wife of the British folk singer Ewan MacColl, Peggy was ideally [End Page 241] positioned to participate in the American and British...