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Songs My Mother Taught Me: Peggy Seeger

Interview

Peggy Seeger recalls her mother, avant garde composer and folk music arranger Ruth Crawford Seeger, who she will be honouring on 11 May at Kings Place.

This event is called ‘Songs my mother taught me’, but did she actually teach you folk songs?

Not as such: but she made them available to us, and we absorbed them. My mother was a classical musician; she was a fine pianist, a composer and she taught me the piano. It was only in her thirties that she ventured into folk music when Alan Lomax asked her to transcribe and make arrangements of field recordings he was doing for the Archive of American Folk Song.

As she meticulously transcribed them, we four children listened and were drawn to them. She chose songs and I helped her transcribe some of those that went into her books, American Folk Songs for Children and Animal Folk Songs for Children.

How did you feel about your mother’s own composed music when you were growing up?

You have to remember that my mother died in 1953 when I was only in my teens; there was so much about her I didn’t know. In her lifetime I only heard her lovely, folk-inflected Rissolty Rossolty orchestral suite – it won a competition.

I came to understand her better in my mid-thirties when I heard the string quartet [being performed by the Ligeti Quartet, 9 May] and her piano music [performed by Christina McMaster, 6 pm, 11 May]. I was astounded: these works are so dissonant, so strange. I love some of her music now, for instance the amazing Study in Mixed Accents which Christina will play. I can see she wanted to innovate, and she had an exceptionally mathematical mind.

What will you be playing at this special event?

In the first half we’ll be performing American folk songs collected and arranged by my mother. It’s going to be wonderful to hear Christina start them at the piano, as my mother conceived them, and then my son, the guitarist Callum McColl, and I will take them over with guitar, banjo and autoharp. I’m not sure this has ever been done like this before.

Some you might recognise, like the Big Rock Candy Mountain or Mary had a Baby, but some are very rarely heard, like Mole in the Ground, Dink’s Song (one of Leadbelly’s, who used to visit when I was a child) and Snake Baked a Hoe Cake.

My mother had a penchant for long, gory ballads, so we’ll do one or two of them. In the second half we’ll perform from our own songs. I sang to my children when they were growing up too, so the singing goes on through the generations.

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