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Rhiannon Giddens on 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, provided an example, and inspired them to break down barriers. Peggy Seeger is an accomplished artist in her own right, following an unconventional path that has inspired Rhiannon Giddens’ life and music.

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

I can’t remember when I first became aware of Peggy Seeger. I remember knowing Pete Seeger’s work, and that name is such a household name. As I started to get into roots music, I became aware of the Seeger family. I had actually studied a little bit about her mom, Ruth Crawford Seeger, in conservatory. She was a composer. Then I got to see her. That cemented it for me. I started listening to her records and following her.

She was just uncompromising. I know she suffered for it and didn’t have the career that she should have had. She didn’t follow the track of a lot of folk stars into the commercial world, but she still has a great fan base. She’s putting on concerts, she’s teaching. She’s sharing with different generations.

She’s living her life, and it really was important for me to see that at that point, because there were many steps along my road 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 her whole life with such integrity.

She’s kind of been a lodestar for me. I’ve taken classes from her. I’ve sung on her show. I won’t say she’s a fairy godmother, but she’s been one of those mentors where I look to her like, like “What do you think?”

I think she should be more well-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, she started this next chapter of her life. She never did follow any playbook. She’s so clear in her beliefs and doesn’t back down. She’s definitely getting more kudos in her silver years. Let’s build on that. Let’s give it all to her.

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