Jean R. Freedman
A Life of Music, Love, and Politics
University of Illinois Press 2017
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in BiographyNew Books in British StudiesNew Books in FolkloreNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network March 8, 2018 Rachel Hopkin
When folklorist Jean Freedman first met Peggy Seeger in 1979, Freedman was an undergraduate on her junior year abroad in London, while her American compatriot had been living in the UK for two decades. Their encounter took place in the Singers’ Club, a folk music venue that Seeger and her husband Ewan MacColl founded in the early 1960s and to which Freedman returned many times during her London sojourn. After Freedman returned to the States, the pair kept in touch for a while but their contact became increasingly sporadic. However, it began again in earnest when the folklorist emailed Seeger to check some facts for a writing assignment. During their subsequent exchange, Seeger asked if Freedman might know of anyone who would be interested in writing her biography. Immediately, Freedman volunteered herself. Eight years, many interviews, and much text-based research later, Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics (University of Illinois Press, 2017) is the result.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedman covers multiple aspects of her subject’s rich story, including Seeger’s upbringing within a privileged musical family; her relationship with the aforementioned leftwing folksinger and songwriter, actor and playwright Ewan MacColl; her involvement in the production of the groundbreaking BBC Radio Ballads; her musical endeavors, many of which were collaborative; her involvement in the establishment of various initiatives such as the Critics Group, a key aim of which was to help young singers perform folk material in an appropriate manner; and her political activism. Freedman also writes about Seeger’s return to America in the early 1990s following MacColl’s death, then her subsequent relocation to Britain in 2010 where she continues to live and be astonishingly active. Seeger’s most recent album, Everything Changes, was released in 2014, and when this New Books in Folklore interview with Freedman was recorded in March 2018, she already had another one in the works.
Freedman’s Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics is the first full length study of an important cultural figure and has been very well received since its publication last year. A recent review in the Journal of Folklore Research described the book as offering a comprehensive overview of Peggy Seeger’s life along with an absorbing history of the folk music revival. It also praises Freedman’s prose for being as approachable and entertaining as Seeger’s lyrics and informal, intimate performance style.
Rachel Hopkin is a UK born, US based folklorist and radio producer and is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.