The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber.
The Music Division’s collection documenting the Seeger Family continues to grow—this time, through the gift of a collection of the papers of Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. In 1956 a young Peggy met the charismatic British folksinger and songwriter Ewan, and soon sparks flew. For more than thirty years, until Ewan’s death in 1989, they created both music and a family (they would marry in 1977). The newly processed MacColl/Seeger series of the Seeger Family Collection documents both personal and professional aspects of their partnership.
This new series now comprises half of the Seeger Family Collection and provides a window into the entirety of Ewan and Peggy’s life and work together. In these papers we see Peggy as a working mother juggling her domestic responsibilities with her roles as a performing musician, songwriter, book author, producer, record label manager, and political activist. We also meet Ewan the communist agitprop playwright and folksinger in the years before he met Peggy, and then as a songwriter, author, song collector, performer, and pioneering radio balladeer. These materials were formerly housed at Ruskin College, Oxford, as the Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger Archive and donated to the Library of Congress by the Ewan MacColl Foundation in 2021.
Fully two-thirds of the series consists of Ewan’s and Peggy’s writings: books; scripts for plays, radio ballads, radio shows, and the Critic Group’s annual “Festival of Fools” performances; and songs, including those they collected in support of their books and recordings. There are many book and script drafts—including some for unpublished books, unproduced plays, and radio and television broadcasts. There are, however, significantly fewer working drafts of their songs.
Some of the most interesting material concerns performances of Ewan’s plays and scripts for the “Festival of Fools” productions. These provide information on staging; examples of Ewan’s wit, whimsy, and love of wordplay; and instances of traditional mumming techniques brought to mid-twentieth-century stages.
In the late 1950s Ewan (with BBC radio producer Charles Parker) conceived of and created the radio ballad, a format that told stories using the subjects’ own voices rather than plummy voice actors typically heard in BBC productions. Ewan accomplished this by interviewing and recording his subjects—fishermen, road builders, boxers, coal miners—and then weaving the recordings of their words (the actuality) into the program narration. The words, too, became song lyrics that Peggy set to music. One of Ewan’s best-known songs—“The Shoals of Herring”—relies on Winterton-on-Sea, fisherman Sam Larner’s description of his fishing experience.
Ewan wrote songs for many of his plays as well: “Sweet Thames Flow Softly” came from the Critics Group radio program of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and “Dirty Old Town” was written as incidental music for his 1951 play Landscape with Chimneys.
The collection of songs amassed in this series is important for its breadth—both chronologically and topically. Ewan and Peggy sang traditional ballads as well as contemporary topical songs, and both are found in the collection along with cards with notated music and transcriptions of songs used in publications. Many songwriters, previously known as well as unknown to Ewan and Peggy, submitted songs for their use. These contemporary songs provide a snapshot of the folk world of the 1960s-1980s.
Much of Peggy’s topical music came from the issues in her community. A number of the brochures, clippings, articles, and other resources that she used to create her songs on abortion, child care, divorce, domestic abuse, employment, marriage, sexual violence, and women’s health are also in the collection.
Because Ewan and Peggy ran a folk club (the Singers Club, in London) and were also performers in their own right, the series includes an extensive amount of ephemeral material related to the folk scene in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent in the United States, during the 1960s folk revival and its immediate aftermath. These include brochures and flyers, catalogs, clippings, directories and club newsletters, questionnaires on the state of the folk club scene, and songbooks.
The duo maintained detailed records of their performances in the form of their program books and set lists (both from their tours and at their home stage, the Singers Club). The program books in this series augment those in the Seeger Family Collection’s Peggy Seeger series to provide a career-long picture of her schedule. The set lists are detailed and include cards indicating songs Ewan was not allowed to sing at certain venues. Photographs of the duo and others performing at the Singers Club and other settings add visual interest.
The most personal material in the series consists of a small set of letters that Ewan wrote to Peggy while they were apart in 1958 and an extensive collection of family photographs. In the letters, Ewan writes of his longing for Peggy, the future they might have, and to some extent the work he was doing.
Photographs show the Ewan and Peggy and their children on family outings to the beach, local parks, hiking at Stack Pollaidh, and rock climbing in Mull. There are baby photos of all three children, kids playing, and all the usual family activities. These images provide an unguarded view of the famous performers. Other interesting images include snapshots taken by Peggy on late-1950s trips to France, Eastern Europe, Russia, and China.
Ewan and Peggy developed close relationships with traditional performers including fisherman Larner; the extended Stewart family of Travellers from Blairgowrie, Scotland; and the coal mining Elliot family of Birtley, County Durham, England. Candid photographs of these folks in their homes and at community events attest to the warmth of these friendships. Belle Stewart, the family matriarch regularly wrote to Ewan and Peggy, often sending songs with her letters.
This addition to the Seeger Family Collection opens up many new avenues for research into the Seeger family, to Ewan MacColl himself, and to the British folk revival, folk music, and mid-twentieth-century British political theater. Come explore the newest addition to the family.
Additional resources in the Library’s collections:
- Cox, Peter. Set into song : Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger, and the Radio Ballads. London: Labatie Books, 2008.
- Leach, Robert. Theatre Workshop : Joan Littlewood and the making of modern British theatre. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006.
- MacColl, Ewan. Journeyman : an autobiography; re-edited, and with an introduction by Peggy Seeger. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.
- Seeger, Peggy. First time ever: a memoir. London: Faber & Faber, 2017.