Rhiannon Giddens pays tribute to her “Lodestar” Peggy Seeger

For this year’s Icons & Influences issue, we asked 10 artists to pay tribute to the women who have shaped their sound, set an example and inspired them to break down barriers. Peggy Seeger is an accomplished artist in her own right, following an unconventional path that inspired the life and music of Rhiannon Giddens.

I’ve been Peggy Seeger for years. What I immediately liked when I heard her was obviously her vision of life. She has such an influence on me, because I saw her at the beginning of my folk career, [after] I had left the opera behind me. I was trying to figure out, “What exactly am I doing in this? What am I going to offer? So seeing a strong, super smart, sharp female banjo player was really impactful for me.

I don’t remember when I first discovered Peggy Seeger. I remember knowing the work of Pete Seeger, and that name is so familiar. As I became interested in roots music, I became aware of the Seeger family. I had actually studied his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a bit at the conservatory. She was a composer. Then I could see her. It cemented it for me. I started listening to her records and following her.

She was just uncompromising. I know she suffered from it and didn’t have the career she should have had. She hasn’t followed in the footsteps of many folk stars in the commercial world, but she still has a large fanbase. She gives concerts, she teaches. She shares with different generations.

She lives her life, and it was really important for me to see her at that time, because there were a lot of steps on my path where I could have taken different paths. But I didn’t, because I wanted to stay close to what I felt like I was here to do. That’s what she’s done all her life with such integrity.

She was a kind of North Star for me. I took lessons with her. I sang on his show. I won’t say she’s a fairy godmother, but she’s been one of those mentors where I look at her like, like, “What do you think?”

I think she should be better known. I think part of what happened is that she was ahead of her time. She didn’t play the games. She was so solid in the folk world and with [her husband] Ewan MacColl. When he passed away, she began this next chapter of her life. She’s never followed any playbook. She’s so clear in her beliefs and doesn’t back down. She definitely gets more kudos in her silver years. Let’s build on it. Give it everything.

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