By Andy Hughes
[Editor’s note] Peggy Seeger is no stranger to folklore. Her father was the famed folklorist Charles Seeger; her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a trailblazing avant-garde composer. Her folk musician brother, Mike Seeger, co-founded the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most influential groups in the 1960s folk revival. And her half-brother, Pete Seeger, became one the most famous folk musicians of the modern era. In 1964, Peggy Seeger and her husband Ewan MacColl recorded the influential Folkways album Traditional Songs and Ballads, which included two songs from the American scholar and folklorist Francis James Child’s exhaustive compilation of 305 English and Scottish folk ballads, along with their American versions. For Seeger, that album marked the beginning of a lifelong association with The Child Ballads, which also would be recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span, to name a few. British correspondent Andy Hughes caught up with Seeger, 80, backstage at the 2015 Cambridge Folk Festival and discussed her connection to The Child Ballads, a treasure trove of folklore.
How did you find ‘The Child Ballads?’ And what have they meant to your music?
When I was a child, about three years old, I developed very bad croup. My mother put me to bed, and she put a kettle of boiling water next to my bed, because the steam was reckoned to help breathing for a child with croup. One day, I stepped out of bed, right into the kettle—I still have the scar on my right foot. I was raced off to hospital, where I immediately caught strep throat. I remember lying on a shelf, and they were feeding me Jell-O, which I couldn’t stand for years after, and my parents came to visit me, and I remember seeing them look at me through a window. They told me afterward that the way they had found me was by following the sound of a little voice singing “Barbara Allen.” That was the first ballad that I ever learned, and it has been a very good friend to me ever since.
I learned lots of The Child Ballads growing up, and I loved the stories—really loved them. Then I went to college—I was very much in demand at the local hootenannies. I attended the female equivalent of Harvard, which was Radcliffe, and so I had access to the Harvard Library. And that was where Francis Child had lived—his house is there. So I virtually lived in that library, and collected umpteen versions of ballads. I didn’t really think a whole lot about how to sing them, until I got together with Ewan MacColl, and we started to discuss the way that you sing ballads. It does matter because there are a lot of ballad singers who just deadpan their way through, and I think you have to do more than that.
You have to use your imagination when you sing these ballads, not necessarily to jazz them up. I started using theater techniques to sing a nine-minute unaccompanied song. It’s fascinating—you re-live it every time, you really do. I talk about it, and describe it in the memoir that I am writing, about how to think when you are singing these songs. It’s not just about words and music; it really isn’t. It’s a lot more than that. So I am a member of the middle class, singing songs that were written by the working class, and that talk about lords and ladies, so I have to work out the motivations behind the ballads—why they were written and performed in the way that they were.
The Child Ballads represent a big challenge to anyone who is going to sing them. At the Folk Awards this year, one singer, who is well-known, sang one of my favorite ballads, accompanied by a nine-piece band. And it was too much, it drowned the ballad, absolutely drowned it. There seemed to be very little concentration by the singer, and all anyone could think about was the instrumentation playing here and there and everywhere, and not a thought for the poor little ballad. This person is a good singer, I couldn’t figure out why anyone thought she needed nine instruments behind a Child ballad—I just found myself very distracted.
When you say you collected the ballads, did you literally write them down?
Oh, yes, I have a book that I have been collecting ballads in since I was about 15. It has a stave for the melody line, and I write the words in. I am a folklorist’s nightmare because a lot of the time I cannot remember where I have heard a ballad from. I also am unaware of how much I have changed it, but I have been listening to that method of singing all my life. I am not really a traditionalist. I sing folk songs, but I am not a folksinger in the traditional way.
Was it the appeal of ‘The Child Ballads’ that got you interested in folk music in the first place?
I loved the texts and the stories. I think in my early days, I over-accompanied them, and I sang them awfully fast. Now, in my dotage, because I can’t play such complicated guitar lines any more, I am paying more attention to the words, and I am singing them more soulfully. The important thing about The Child Ballads is that they are bones—they are the bones of songs, and the vital thing about the ballads is how sparsely they are clad. This was very clearly brought home to me when Ewan MacColl and I were working with the Critics Group [a master class for folksingers]. We had lots of discussions on the proper way to sing The Ballads, and the answer was, as simply as possible, without a lot of histrionics and changes of tempo, and rising and falling of pitch.
One of the members of the Critics Group was a teacher, and he taught 11 and 12 year olds. He sang “The Twa Sisters” (The Two Sisters) to his class [listen to the audio file of Peggy Seeger’s recording of this murder ballad], and then he asked them to draw pictures based on the ballad they had heard, and the result was mind-blowing. He asked them what color was the dress that the drowned sister was wearing? One said red, one said green, one said blue. That’s an example of the bones of the song, and each listener clothes it depending on what their vision is of what they heard. If you present the scenario where one sister is drowned, every listener will picture it individually and differently. He brought the pictures to the room where we met, and put them on the wall for us to look at, and the majority of pupils had remembered the sisters, and not the suitor who came to call.
The story, for those who don’t know it, is that there are two sisters who both fall in love with the same man. In the Scottish version of the ballad, the older sister is plain, and the younger sister is beautiful. The etiquette in those days was, if you came courting, you courted the older sister first—the youngest sister was not supposed to marry before the older sister had been spoken for and married. So the suitor comes to call, and falls in love with the younger sister, and the older sister pushes her into the river, and she floats down. Depending on which version you hear, the miller pulls the girl out of the river, steals her ring and her beaver hat, and pushes her back into the river again. In an older version, a fiddle player comes along and he makes a fiddle out of her breastbone, and he makes strings from her long yellow hair, and he takes it along to the wedding of the older sister to the suitor of the younger sister.
This is one of the major Child ballads, and this is why they are so strong—it’s because the words are just bare bones. The listener is left to imagine a whole lot, there is never too much detail telling us what to think. There is almost no descriptive language used. There is no heavenly choir of angels telling you to feel sad at this point. Of the pictures, I remember two of them. One is painted as though the artist is standing behind the older sister, who is looking down the river, and in the distance there is a hand waving, the drowning sister. The other picture, which was placed right next to it, is a close-up view of the drowning sister, and in the distance is a stick figure of the older sister, with a huge smile on her face.
You can identify with people in a ballad, and if the ballad is sung strongly, you can identify with this and that. I do go into this in some detail in my memoir. I have been singing these ballads for over 70 years, and at one point, I sang one of them at every concert I did for a three-year period. When you sing a song that often, you find different ways to clothe it in your own mind.
Is it fair to say that ‘The Child Ballads’ are a cornerstone of your work because you learned them so early on in your life?
I would say it is, yes. I have written several songs that sound like ballads, with that same bare aspect of description in them. The Child Ballads are very special. They are not like The Broadside Ballads—they are very different. The Broadside Ballads were cheap, and sold by the yard, so the more complicated and the longer it is, the better. The Broadside Ballads are very, very wordy, long lines usually, and many, many verses—too much information. The Child Ballads are the opposite—every line matters, every particle. In The Child Ballads, there is narrative, and there are verbs, there are hardly any adjectives, and no adverbs. And whether there’s an “a” or “the” matters. The Child Ballads need very careful handling when you perform them. They are a beautiful collection of stories that have been handed down and down and down through the generations.
What do you think about the influence of ‘The Child Ballads’ on other acoustic musicians? Do you think that they serve as a good grounding, or that they should?
I’m not sure that they should, but they are wonderful traditional songs, and sometimes I do think that traditional is best.
Learn to Play “O’ the Wind and Rain”
Contrary to the suggestion of their name, the Child Ballads aren’t songs for the young. Rather, they’re the work of the Harvard professor and folklorist Francis James Child (1825–1896), who in the mid- to late-1800s collected the 305 traditional numbers that appear in the 10-volume series The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Included in the collection is the haunting murder ballad “The Twa Sisters” (Child 10)—also existing under such variants as “The Cruel Sister,” “The Bonny Swans,” and “O the Wind and Rain”—about a fratricide in which the victim is reborn as a musical instrument. The song has been interpreted by everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits to Peggy Seeger.
This arrangement is based on Seeger’s recording of “O the Wind and Rain,” from her 2008 album, Bring Me Home (Appleseed). It could be played as an accompaniment or as a stand-along solo. Seeger’s version hasn’t any guitar and is dominated by a harmonium rendering a harmonically static backdrop in long tones. Here, the droning quality is captured on guitar through the use of open-G tuning and an alternating bass pattern that’s identical in every measure, lending a hypnotic effect.
Before you play the piece, note its unusual structure—a nine-bar verse, played 13 times. All of the verses have a sort of call-and-response pattern in which the first line is answered with the lyric “O the wind and rain” and the third line with “Cryin’ the dreadful wind and rain.”
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When you delve into the arrangement, pick the bottom three strings with your bare thumb or a thumb pick and the higher strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers. Give the chords falling on beats 1 and 3 of most measures a little roll, and let all of the notes ring for as long as possible.
Overall, the fret-hand fingerings should be pretty straightforward, but those in bar 5 could be a little tricky. Try grabbing the fifth-fret A with your third finger and the seventh-fret B with your fourth, making sure to play the notes in a smooth and singing way.