Peggy Seeger is the woman who inspired Ewan MacColl to write “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a breakthrough hit for Roberta Flack in 1972 and subsequently a fixture in the repertoire of countless other singers. That, however, was just about least of the claims that could be made on behalf of the daughter of Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Ruth Porter Crawford, a classical composer, and the half-sister – younger by 16 years – of Pete Seeger, who would become a founding father of the folk music revival.
Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy was pretty much a one-woman folk revival herself. A fine singer and an accomplished practitioner of the banjo, the guitar, the autoharp, the dulcimer and the concertina, she absorbed a vast repertoire of traditional material that grew even more extensive after she moved to London at the age of 21 and quickly hooked up with MacColl. As she relates in her gloriously open and generous autobiography, First Time Ever (Faber), they shared a purist approach: at their folk club, performers were not allowed to deliver material from outside their own culture – meaning, for example, that no English singer could have a go at the blues. Their activities included travels to the Soviet Union, communist China and Castro’s Cuba, and a collaboration with the BBC producer Charles Parker on the influential Radio Ballads series, mixing songs, ambient sound and recorded testimony to evoke the lives of miners, boxers, travellers and others.
MacColl wrote the song that Flack made famous in 1957, when his relationship with Peggy was new. The couple went on to have three children before marrying (for tax purposes) in 1977; they remained together, even though he failed to share her developing interest in feminism and ecology, until his death in 1989. By then Seeger had fallen in love with the woman, Irene Pyper-Scott, with whom she now lives; the account of that transition, and its concomitant joy and pain, is among the book’s many memorable passages.
Of her repertoire of traditional songs, she writes:
I am theirs and they are mine while I’m here. I call them mine since I have nurtured them like children and brought them forth with me in time. Like my physical children, they form my core. I revel in them, tasting the words as I sing, entering earlier eras and other people’s lives. Unlike my physical children, they have grown towards me rather than away.
The lengthy description of her childhood is rich in characters and incidents, such as the arrival one day in 1948 of a tall, middle-aged black maid named Libby, who picks up the family’s guitar and sings a song she has composed, called “Freight Train”. In that moment the career of Elizabeth Cotten, a key figure of the folk revival, is born. There is also the day when MacColl opens the mail and suddenly goes quiet. The initial royalty cheque for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” has arrived. It is for $75,000 and represents “the end of 12 years of scraping, worrying, having to take every paying job”.
David Bowie had a moment as a would-be folkie in the early 1960s, like so many of his generation, but it didn’t last. As the photographer David Bailey says in Dylan Jones’s David Bowie: A Life (Preface), Bowie always knew how to disguise himself. The masks and the man behind them are on view in the least self-indulgent and most informative of the many books published since the singer’s death last year. Via interviews with 180 friends, colleagues, lovers and others, Jones constructs an oral-history mosaic that will engage even those whose lives were not changed by the appearance of Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops in 1972.
Without Bowie, there might have been no Lou Reed; without Reed, there certainly would have been no Bowie – at least in the guises in which they became famous. Their first meeting, in London in 1972, was that of an unacknowledged prophet and his acolyte. The standings were reversed when Bowie supervised “Walk on the Wild Side”, the hit that bundled an ambivalent Reed into the mainstream. With Lou Reed: A Life (John Murray), the Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis delivers a serious and comprehensive account of a figure of legendary cantankerousness, whose own literary and musical heroes included Hubert Selby Jr, Delmore Schwartz and Ornette Coleman.
Summarising Reed’s gift as a chronicler of the Lower Manhattan underworld, De Curtis describes him as “a speed-addled, leather-clad Virgil”. Why Dylan Matters(William Collins) finds Richard F Thomas, a Harvard classics professor, identifying the correspondences between Bob Dylan’s lyrics and those of Virgil, Homer, Catullus, Ovid and other ancients. “Allusion, reference, plagiarism – these are names for the phenomenon known as ‘intertextuality’, a term that is most convenient in its neutrality for describing the process by which poets, songwriters, painters, composers or artists of any genre produce new meaning through the creative reuse of existing texts, images or sound,” he writes. It’s a plausible claim for Dylan’s place in a tradition thousands of years old (and hence, coincidentally, his right to consideration for Europe’s greatest literary prize). For anyone lacking the time or temperament required to monitor the websites devoted to Dylanogical exegesis on a regular basis, this is a compact and thought-provoking alternative.
Reed, Bowie and Dylan are featured in books by two of the best British rock writers. In Uncommon People (Bantam), David Hepworth shrewdly charts the rise and fall of the rock star phenomenon via carefully chosen moments in each year from 1955 (Little Richard recording “Tutti Frutti”) to 1995 (the disastrous launch of Netscape). Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down (Bloomsbury) is Allan Jones’s wildly entertaining account of observing the excesses and eccentricities of rock stars at close quarters throughout the boom years of the 1970s and 80s, and barely hanging on to his health and sanity in the process.