Peggy Seeger and crossovers

Forgive the self-indulgence, but I have to share a coincidence. Bear with me – there is more than one PP-related point to it. I was walking yesterday on Hampstead Heath, listening as I occasionally do to Michael Berkeley’s programme of musical interviews, Private Passions. The guest this week was Peggy Seeger, the folk singer. At 86 she was sharp, full of humour and very open.

Towards the end of the programme, Peggy talked about one of her most famous songs, “I want to be an engineer“. She described its origins: she was doing the accounts when her partner Ewen MacColl came down and said they needed a song, urgently; Peggy wrote one in a couple of hours, took it up to Ewen, he said it was fine but needed a more upbeat final verse, she took it down and rewrote the last bit, took it back up, he said that’s ok, and she went back down to carry on with the accounts.

The song took off in a big way, and Peggy was frequently invited to sing it by women’s groups. Understandably so: you’ll find the full lyrics in the link above, but the closing lines give a good flavour:

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
Listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

Combative stuff, but yet Peggy said that she was nowhere near being a feminist. As a result, when she’d sung her engineer song and the women’s groups wanted more she had to revert to folk songs, most of which exhibited, shall we say, a quite traditional view of human relations. Some embarrassment followed.

Anyway, to the coincidence: when I got home I had some cooking to do, and reached for a CD to keep me company. My hand fell on one I hadn’t played for about a year, American Folk Songs from the Smithsonian Institute – with a song by Peggy’s half-brother, Pete. I thought that’s neat, so put it on. Not much of a coincidence, maybe – except that about half an hour later I suddenly realised that I was listening to ….’I wanna be an engineer’, with Peggy zinging through the song in terrific style.

Apart from her brilliant choice of music, Peggy had a fascinating personal story, with two high-end PP-relevant points. First, she talked about her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. Ruth was a highly talented modern composer, and we listened to a truly astonishing piece by her, titled ‘Piano Study in Mixed Accents’, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who has the slightest flicker of musical interest. But her composing talents were never recognised; her husband, also a musician but (Peggy implied, though I don’t think she actually said so) a lesser one, overshadowed her. Another case of under recognised female talent. Ruth died in her 50s, and Peggy has carried her spirit with her ever since, including writing a poem to her when she passed the age at which her mother died: My Mother is Younger Than Me.

My mother is younger than me.
She died at fifty-three
With plump red cheeks and black black braids.

My hair is grey now, my cheeks are lined.
She sits at my knee, her head inclined
To accept my care.
I comb and braid her hair
As she once did mine.
And as I sing
She tells me things
About her new school.

As I grew my wings
She opened the window
And out she flew.

I am seventy three
She is fifty-three.
Strange: my mother is younger than me.

I find the poem’s words quite banal, but the image of a daughter overtaking her mother on the age spectrum both moving and intriguing. In my current research I’m asking people about transitions to adulthood and to old age; one of the common themes in their answers on both these themes is the crossover when they as children took over responsibilities from their parents. Peggy could never practically do that with her mother, but the poem addresses the issue in a different and creative way.

Finally, to crossovers of a different kind. In the PP I used crossovers to refer to the points when women’s educational achievements overtook men’s, at different levels: in the 1970s for A levels, in 1980 for full-time further education, in 1993 for undergraduate education and 1996 for postgraduate. (These are UK figures, but the trends are similar in other OECD countries. The point of course is that these are a long way in the past, but pay and career rewards have yet to catch up.) Peggy, though, talked about a different crossover: years after Ewen MacColl died, she fell in love with a woman. She said she had loved Ewen (and had four children with him), but never been in love with him; this was different. She and (?) Isabel live on opposite sides of the globe but are loving partners.

Such a crossover of emotional orientation at later ages is, I think, emerging more frequently, and (again only an impression, I need the. evidence) it’s more commonly women who move from a straight to a gay relationship. In the PP I argued that in careers the tendency was for women to have to converge on the male pattern and we should be looking to far more reverse convergence: accepting typically female career patterns (interrupted and non-linear) as the norm and enabling/prodding more men to follow that norm. The crossover theme has a lot of mileage in it yet.

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