The Engineer: An American Folk Revival Essay

‘As a budding eco-feminist, I find the subject matter of many of the songs in this book very hard to deal with. A developed eco-feminist would probably not have undertaken this book at all. Ewan was a Marxist, a militant, gut-political product of the tail-end of the industrial revolution. In most of his songs, men are digging, slashing, cutting, building, re-shaping, raping, controlling, humanising the earth and being praised for doing so for the good of mankind. Humanity and the class struggle were Ewan’s main preoccupations but his songs deal with MEN: men’s work, men’s lives, men’s activities and many veiled (and not so veiled) references to the power of the penis. Even where it is obvious that both sexes are being referred to, Ewan (like myself in my early songs and like most people in our patriarchal society) employs the masculine pronouns.’ – Peggy Seeger speaking of The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook (2011).

Differing from her other fellow folklorists, Peggy Seeger not only paved the way for the folk revival in Britain, but she also was the first folk artist to discuss women’s issues amid union songs.

Born Margaret Seeger, June 17th 1935, New York, Seeger was raised by folklorist and musicologist father, Charles Seeger, and modernist composer, Ruth Porter Crawford. Becoming a creative, female folk artist may have been inspired to Seeger by her mother, who was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, a grant that awards those ‘who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.’

peggy seeger 7

Seeger performing in Russia

Much like her half-brother, Pete Seeger, Peggy soon found herself studying communism and socialism. Travels to Africa, Poland, Russia and China were flagged up by the CIA; the McCarthyism epidemic caused huge suspicion of any US citizen’s association with communism or socialism. Seeger’s and other left leaning travellers, such as Paul Robeson, had their American passports withdrawn, and their names added to a European blacklist. ‘I’d been invited to England to play five string banjo with a group of folk musicians on a new TV show. I met Ewan at the first rehearsal in a basement flat in Chelsea. I did later travel to America but that was on a British passport when I’d acquired British citizenship after I married. The USA did not allow me to have my American passport back until after 1992 – in President Clinton’s time!”

peggy and ewan

Seeger and MacColl

Ewan MacColl was still married to his second wife, Jean Newlove, when he first met and begun his relationship with a young Seeger. In 1958, threatened by an expired work permit, Seeger and MacColl decided for Seeger to marry folk singer Alex Campbell, gaining Seeger British citizenship. MacColl and Seeger were later married in 1977, following his divorce from Newlove. After meeting MacColl, the two soon fell in love and together founded The Critics Group, the workshop acted as a master class for young singers wishing to perform traditional songs, as well as to write their own. The group slowly evolved into an annual production called ‘The festival of fools’ (the name inspired by the traditional British Isles event, in which great freedom of expression was granted for the subjects of the King than was permitted during most of the year).  The festival was a mixture of satirical performance ensembles and theatre.

While Seeger and MacColl did perform and record pieces as a duo (always making the statement of the absence of any electric or electronic instrumentation in their music), Seeger did also record solo work, many of her songs became anthems of the Women’s movement; I’m gonna be an engineer.

Released in 1979, each verse of I’m gonna be an engineer highlights different forms of female oppression through all ages and aspects of life. Starting with the days ‘when I was a little girl I wished I was a boy’ already highlights how the awareness the protagonist has of genderism from an early age; ‘Mamma said…make me the mother of a pearl’, symbolising expectations of purity.  As the song continues so does the realisation of sexism outside of the home: in education and in the workplace. ‘History, geography and home economy’ are the only education that the girls received, which limit them away from high-level jobs, and therefore result in paths to lowly jobs such as catering, typing, or assistants (supporting roles). Ending with ‘I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady’ almost acts as a celebration of the achievement of the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who won the election in May of that same year.

Seeger still advocates for women’s issues till this day, through her folk work and radio interviews. In more recent years Seeger has also joined the LGBTQ community, through her contributing essay in Getting Bi: Voices of bisexuals around the world, in which she speaks of her relationship with Irene Pyper-Scott. Seeger’s song writing not only spoke of and inspired the working class, but also introduced feminism into folk music, which no doubt has been continued by the works of Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Hazel Dickens, and other folk inspired artists.

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