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A true folk legend

Folk musician and political activist Peggy Seeger
Folk musician and political activist Peggy Seeger

A check on Peggy Seeger’s tour dates before she visits Sheffield reveals a benefit evening for a threatened Oxfordshire nature reserve and a session about 100 years of women’s protest in film.

At the age of 83, the pioneering American folk singer, multi-instrumentalist and social and political commentator still finds plenty to stand – and sing – up for.

She brings songs and stories from a remarkable life to Hallam Students’ Union, the Hubs in Paternoster Row, on Saturday, October 20.

Billed as Peggy Seeger and Family: An Evening of Song and Conversation, she will be joined by son Neill.

Previous visits to the city – to the Boardwalk and the Greystones – have shown her ability to use traditional ballads and contemporary songs in support of her commitment to a more just and humane world.

She can turn her hand to guitar, five-string banjo, autoharp, concertina, Appalachian dulcimer and piano.

At a time when performers are routinely described as legendary, New York-born Seeger offers a welcome sense of proportion,

The half-sister of Pete Seeger, renowned as the great-grandfather of the American folk revival, she was a major contributor to the burgeoning British folk scene from her arrival in the mid-50s. She worked alongside her late husband, Ewan MacColl, the folk singer, songwriter and activist.

Her message remains unchanged. “I believe it's my job to put into song what many people are feeling these days: that there is a better world up ahead of us there and there's nothing more worthwhile doing than to envision it and make it happen. Each in our own way.”

She’s rubbed shoulders with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Paul Robeson, visited Moscow and China, meeting Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, written for documentary films and taught songwriting to university students…

She is especially forthright on women’s issues. One of her most famous songs, I'm Gonna Be An Engineer, written in 1971, became an anthem for the women’s movement.

Yet the song most associated with Peggy Seeger is perhaps The First Time Time Ever I Saw Your Face, written for her in 1957 by Ewan MacColl who sang it down the phone to her after she had returned to America, leaving him behind.

It prompted the title of her life story, First Time Ever: A Memoir, which was published a year ago by Faber & Faber and is now out in paperback.

She soon became a staple of the emerging British folk clubs, alongside MacColl, helping to give enthusiasts their own authentic voice and encouraging young singers to perform traditional songs or to compose their own songs along traditional lines.

Her early visits are recalled in the late Sheffield writer J P Bean’s History of British Folk Clubs, Singing From the Floor (Faber & Faber).

“I remember that the folk clubs felt very fresh and there was a huge amount of enthusiasm,” she told him.

“I think they began to give me the most pleasure when our policy kicked in, singing songs in our own language. All of a sudden everybody was singing English songs and Scottish songs, instead of the American ones.”