Attitude Festival, Redhouse Arts Centre, Merthyr Tydfil
There are good gigs and there are great gigs, and then there are gigs to which being present is a privilege. At the climax of Merthyr’s inaugural Attitude Festival – designed to showcase and explore the creative energies of the over 50s – was a gig of the sort that will remain in the memory alongside those very finest moments. Peggy Seeger, if you needed confirmation, is a towering figure in the musical parade of the twentieth century, no matter how quietly she may stand now. She connects traditions that are all but lost, those of the pre-recording eras, to those modern popular ideas which are quite often blissfully ignorant of their roots. Seeger is, as is on display in the somewhat anti-septic confines of the Plymouth Courtyard of the Redhouse arts centre, a writer of astonishing adeptness and inventiveness. Every movement in her hands is fresh, ideas-full – the songs bend and turn, at once surprising and familiar; the ambrosia of popular music.
Seeger’s songs are expected to melt into the background of what is now whimsically termed the ‘folk’ tradition, but they are so much more than that. What is folk music now, anyway? What does the term mean? Certainly when Seeger is singing 200 year old ballads on her box banjo the definition seems more within grasp, more familiar to us, than when she is skipping through the whimsical comedies of Lou and Pete Berryman. And again, where are we when she parodies Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ – the very definition of a twentieth century masterpiece – with new lyrics about drone strikes? It is an evening of understated surprises. Last year’s album, the sublime Everything Changes, may have woken many to the possibility of such surprises; but Seeger is an old-school jobbing musician, one of the last performing of the folk royal dynasties that stretched across the Atlantic in the fifties and sixties, and upturning lazy expectations is something of a tool of the trade.
The gig in and of itself is an odd thing. The Redhouse arts centre has a lot going for it, but it has a long way to go before it stops feeling like the municipal building it once was. There are few people in attendance (sixty or so), and you wonder at the silence in response to her one disparaging reference to the Tory victory whether many of them are her people anyway. And this begs many questions. She is very much enjoyed, but is she an entertainer rather than an icon, just a name alongside Palladium totty like Tom Jones or the Moody Blues? Is Peggy Seeger a relic of some sort, then? In the most regrettable way, perhaps she is. Could there be more stark proof that the politics of her and her ilk are now an historical footnote than those General Election results? So what of a festival for the over 50s? The old adage that young revolutionaries only live to become old conservatives is not displayed on the stage in the person of Seeger, but the suspicion falls heavily on the audience. So why are they here? For the same reason they’d be watching Ed Sheeran? Peggy Seeger is a cultural megalith – her performance proves it from top to toe – but let’s not pretend the people sat here, the over 50s, have some kind of upper hand. They sing along with the choruses, but they shuffle in their seats when she decries the meaninglessness of ‘perpetual growth’.
But Seeger has seen it all, and even if this registers with her, she takes it in her stride. Why would she be floored by yet another blow to the left? – her politics are the politics of the underdog, after all. The vastness of her experience is present throughout; not just from the wealth of songs she plucks from her mind – a ballad here, a waltz there, then a protest song, then a nursery rhyme – but numbers crop up everywhere. This song is was written 23 years ago; this one 50 years ago; this melody came to her when she was 9, the words when she was 75. It is a tragedy that she is mortal where music belongs to its own dimension, coming into ours only when we call it. But the tragedy has a knowing, wry smile.
To continue to refer to her as a some ‘Queen of Folk’ is all we have to make manageable her achievements, her rightful stature, and her importance. When Peggy Seeger stands to sing one of the most transcendentally beautiful songs ever written, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Saw Face’, she sings it as the person about whom it was written. The second half of the show, when she is more relaxed, when she is more obviously enjoying herself, is full of moments like this. Her award-winning song about the sinking of the Titanic , ‘Swim to the Star’, is delivered with a breaking vocal of awe-inspiring depth. Seeger’s voice is rich and brittle and powerful, and, importantly, it sounds its 80 years – rich and full and worldly. It needs looking after, to be treated with respect – it is a Stradivarius. ‘Everything Changes’ is slowed down, stepped through, and is a heart-breaking reflection on childhood from the other end of life’s long road. ‘I’m Gonna Be an Engineer’ is delivered as the perfect sugar-coated feminist pill. Closing with her brother Pete’s anthem ‘Quiet Early Morning’ is as euphoric as it is poignant.
Peggy Seeger plays just one night in Wales on this tour, and it is a great shame it was not a grander affair. If she is a relic, her beauty and genius will outlive the ugliness and cynicism that has made her one.
You can find out more details about Peggy Seeger’s tour dates here.
Photo credit: Vicki Sharp