The First Time
This instrument kills hate

The First Time


     In 1957 Ewan MacColl wrote a song for his mistress.  

     In 1972 the song, which currently has been recorded by nearly 100 artists, reached no. 1 in the United States and Canada and won a Grammy Award for Roberta Flack, launching her career. 

    I was born in 1973 and wasn't even aware of Roberta Flack's recording when I first heard The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face sung by Mary Travers on the Peter, Paul & Mary album, See What Tomorrow Brings  but instantly fell in love with it. 

     I also have a love affair with the intricate threadwork woven within the tapestry of life. These threads intertwine, touching other threads, creating stories.  This will be little more than focusing in on some of the intersections and following a few strands of those threads.

     Although he died 11 years before this incident, Ewan McColl is possibly better remembered by most as the father of British pop singer, Kirsty MacColl whose tragic death in a diving accident in Cozumel, Mexico (she was struck by a motorboat that supposedly improperly invaded a restricted area) caused a worldwide uproar since the boat was owned by a powerful multi-millionaire businessman.  Someone, who was observed not to have been steering, was allegedly paid to take the blame for which he was fined £61 and had to pay the equivalent of  $2,150 in restitution to the MacColl family. [See details].

     However Ewan MacColl had far more accomplishments, musically and otherwise than his daughter and in the process of helping create the folk movement in the UK during the 1950s and 60s, he influenced a generation of future artists. . MacColl divorced his first wife, Joan Littlewood around 1945.  Littlewood became a highly successful and influential theater director.  She was also an overt, high profile communist who was blacklisted along with her husband in the early 1940s into the 1950s.  MacColl married another extraordinary woman, Jean Newlove, in 1949.  Newlove was a dancer and choreographer at Littlewood's and MacColl's highly regarded experimental Theatre Workshop. She had also worked as first assistant to Rudolf Laban when he came to England (Sophie Taeuber-Arp, one of the founders of the Dada movement had been a Laban dancer in Switzerland during the first world war-- see: Da-da-da-Dancing).  Newlove was Kirsty MacColl's mother and the wife of Ewan when he penned  The First Time for his lover, Peggy Seeger, who was 20 years his junior.  


     Peggy Seeger was the daughter of composer and progressive musicologist, Charles Seeger and  half-sister of Pete Seeger (Pete's mother was Constance Edson Seeger, a concert violinist).  Her mother was Ruth Crawford Seeger, a renowned female composer of modern music.  Peggy's brother was Mike Seeger, founder of the Lost City Ramblers, a versatile instrumentalist and a folk revivalist.  

     Peggy's father was a good friend of John and Alan Lomax, the father-son folk music preservationists who travelled the country, even the world, writing down words, interviewing and recording local musicians, and collecting and cataloguing songs that may have otherwise disappeared from memory.  Alan Lomax went to England in 1951 and in 1953 met Ewan MacColl (who had changed his name from Jimmy Miller after the war, allegedly because he had been a deserter).  MacColl had taken up folk music in the late 1940s and soon became immersed in the genre.

     Peggy, who was going to school in Holland and travelling throughout Europe, was enticed to come to London by Alan Lomax, a close friend of all the Seegers, who had a job lined up for her singing and playing the banjo for an eventually scrapped TV project of his called Dark of the Moon.    Lomax next wanted her as part of another TV project called The Ramblers.  She captivated one of the singers in The Ramblers the first time ever he saw her face.  They became a couple despite the fact he was already married.  In 1957, MacColl opened the Ballad and Blues Club and in 1961, the Singers' Club where all performers were required to only play songs from their native lands or cultures.    

    Peggy married the Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell in 1959 (on Ewan's birthday) to avoid deportation.  While married to Campbell, she lived with MacColl.   MacColl and Seeger didn't marry until 18 years later. 

     MacColl was an unapologetic communist and an avowed Marxist. 

     Peggy's had communist connections, though the intensity of her political involvement is hard to determine.  Still, it was probably these associations with communists that resulted in her visa being revoked followed by her fake marriage to Campbell.    

from the U.S. Senates July 11, 1958 staff study on passport frauds.


Peggy Seeger in Moscow in 1957

     Peggy Seeger was one of a group of 160  American students invited to participate in the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students, hosted by the Soviet Union and organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students [along with 34,000 other students from 131 countries].  The USSR tried to invite people with socialist views or sympathies. Seeger said she sang Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land to blank stares from the Soviet big shots who comprised the audience and received a similar response when she switched to a children's song.  Later, at a performance for a a more receptive group at the Bolshoi Theater, she got a standing ovation for Kumbaya and Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  The U.S. couldn't prevent Americans from attending, but warned them it was a Soviet propaganda trap (the Soviets, in turn, warned their youths not to take the Americans seriously).  Peggy was one of the Americans (along with along with Larry Moyer and Guy Carawan) who also visited China --after being offered an all-expense paid opportunity-- a country with no diplomatic ties to the U.S. and to which travel was forbidden.  That visit was the immediate source of her visa/passport problems.  [see The Week's How Folk Rock Helped Crack the Iron Curtain by Emily Ludolph]

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger

     At any rate, Peggy Seeger did have leftist leanings, but her association with communism seems mostly by association (with MacColl, her family and her behavior) and tenuous at best.  She was more a pre-feminist women's advocate than a socialist activist. 

     Back in 1941, her half-brother Pete, who was in fact a communist and at that time a supporter of Stalin, formed a group called the Almanac Singers.  The line-up wasn't fixed but it originally consisted of Pete Seeger,  Lee Hayes and Millard Lampell (Haye's roommate). Shortly after they were joined by Woody Guthrie, Bess Hawes and Sis Cunningham. 

pictured left to right:
Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger, Arthur Stern and Sis Cunningham. 

     Other erstwhile members, or just people who joined them onstage, included Burl Ives, Cisco Houston, Josh White,  Sam Gary (a member of Josh White's Carolinian band), Sonny Terry and Lead Belly among others.  The Almanac Singers were highly political. They were ant-war, pro-union ant-Roosevelt, anti-fascist and pro-civil-rights

Guthrie with his famous guitar motto

They dressed in workers' clothes and often performed as a racially mixed group, something almost unheard of at the time.  Josh White, Sam Gary, Sonny Terry (the blind harmonica player) and Lead Belly were all men of color.  They performed at union halls, strikes, political fund raisers even church socials - anywhere their voices could be heard. 

The Almanac Singers
(Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Josh White, Sam Gary, Carol White and Bess Hawes)
Union Maid

     The Almanac Singers' debut album was the antiwar Songs for John Doe.  At the time this album was recorded the group was against the U.S. involvement in WWII.  They were pro-Soviet but since Germany and the USSR had a non-aggression pact,  Seeger & Co. saw no reason for the U.S. to get involved.   When Hitler invaded Russia, suddenly everything  -- remember Seeger was both a communist and a Stalinist at the time.  He felt compelled to take Russia's side and focus on defeating Hitler -- which would, in fact, require U.S. involvement.   So, Songs for John Doe was seen now as a mistake and pulled from the shelves.  They even tried to buy back the copies already sold.  The pacific Almanac Singers were now pro-war.  

     Their second album was Talking Union.  This one was more in their area -- Labor and unions (although unions were backed by the American Communist Party and union roles swelled with Afro-Americans  -- this empathy for the common man during the Great Depression was one of the main appeals of communism for many).  The song Union Maid, shown above, was on that album as well as five other pro-union songs (an album in the truest sense as it was comprised of three 78 rpm records).  In total, they released four albums in 1941 and one in 1942.  Then the government came down hard on what they termed seditious groups --with the Almanac Singers as one of their prime targets.
     That same year Pete Seeger was drafted into the Army.  He trained to be an airplane mechanic at Kessler Field in Mississippi but wrote a letter asking to be transferred to the war zone.  Instead he was put into the Special Services as an overseas entertainer.  His girlfriend at the time, Toshi Aline Ohta, whom he married in 1943, was Japanese-American. Her father had been detained and questioned, though not put into a detention camp.  Hearing of a resolution by the Californian American Legion to deport all Japanese and their descendants whether a citizen or not, Seeger wrote a strongly worded letter criticizing the resolution. This put him directly in the government's radar and the military thoroughly investigate him before letting him go abroad. [see Billboard, Nov. 19, 2015]

     But back the Talking Union.   The Almanac Singers had disbanded after a year or so. In 1947 Seeger, along with Almanac alumnus Lee Hayes formed The Weavers.  The Weavers were tremendously popular in the beginning of the 1950s until they were blacklisted and forced to temporarily disband in 1952.

     In 1955 Folkways Records wanted to re-issue an expanded version of  Talking Union.  Seeger was recommended four girls from Elizabeth Irwin High School [which is the secondary school part of the famous Little Red School House] as well as four other young singers to accompany him on seven additional songs for the re-issued Talking Union album.  This little band of singers became known as the Song Swappers.  They accompanied Seeger on several more albums.   One of the Song Swappers was a young Mary Travers (whose cover of The First Time was my first time hearing the song).   Here is the distinctive voice of Mary Travers singing Hey, Tswana as a Song Swapper on Seeger's 1955 album Bantu Choral Folk Songs :

     When the Weavers defiantly reunited for a performance at Carnegie Hall on December 24, 1955, starting the great folk music boom of the 50s and 60s,  Mary Travers was in the audeince, as well as Peter Yarrow, whom she would later meet and with Noel Stookey form Peter, Paul & Mary.

So, just what is Folk Music?

     I'm not sure anyone has a catchall definition. Traditional folk music seems to be music of an area, a country or a culture that's so much a part of those things that it's owned by everyone and is enduring.  The traditional songs are changeable in melody and verse [see how many versions there are of the ballads Little Mattie Groves/Little Musgraves or of Barbara Allen] and the since they belong to everyone, their authorship is inconsequential.  Often these songs tell stories or are laments.

North Carolinian Doc Watson playing a backwoods  Little Mattie Groves

Art Garfunkel singing a simply gorgeous rendition of Barbara Allen using lyrics à la Joan Baez

     There is also a type of music whose roots are in traditional folk music, but the authors are known and the subject matter is more topical, usually a protest or activistic (though often times they do borrow from or mimic the traditional music in content and style).   Some of these more contemporary songs have even seeped into the pores of national identity.  

     I suppose musicologists or folklorists could break down, categorize and stratify all the various examples of what we often call folk music today.  I'm not capable of that, nor am I particularly interested in academicizing my favorite genre.  I love the simplicity of it.   But I do think Pete Seeger got it right.  He collected and played traditional folk music and created new folk music.  He considered this music truly to be the music of the people and recognized the power of music not just to spread ideas but to effect changes. 

     Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land or Seeger's own The Hammer Song,  Turn, Turn, Turn,  or Where Have all the Flowers Gone have become the peoples' songs and part of America's collective identity. 

     "The peoples' songs" sounds a bit like a communist adage, doesn't it?  I struggled with the idea that so many 20th century folk musicians were left-wing activists, or in some cases just riding that bandwagon.  But activism is a good thing and songs that make us look at ourselves critically are important.   Since this blog isn't meant to be about political differences other than to recognize that which seemed to drive the folk movements in the U.S. and the U.K. during the middle of the 20th century, I won't even try to delve into the philosophical side (not that I know much about it anyway).   

       Pete Seeger claimed he quit the Communist Party in 1950 and in 1994 he made a public statement that his captivation with Stalin had been a mistake.  Some people don't believe he ever actually disavowed communism and/or that his statement on Stalin was too little, too late.  

     Personally,  I think these activist folk singers were embracers of a social ideology in search of the perfect political vehicle. Communism, even a naïve Stalinism, offered them hope for a more perfect world, one where all people are treated equally, where each person has dignity and value and where peace is a better option than war.  Communism failed them; they moved on and the earth still turns.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Peter, Paul & Mary