She has incurred the wrath of the US government and fought for peace, justice and civil rights. But Peggy Seeger tells TIM HUGHES she is also focusing on issues closer to home

Peggy Seeger has always loved a good cause.

The veteran American protest singer has spent her career railing against everything from the Vietnam War to Cruise Missiles – and even capitalism itself. But for her latest show she is supporting a cause very close to home – a youth theatre in East Oxford.

Peggy, the half-brother of the legendary Pete Seeger, and the widow of socialist folk artist Ewan MacColl, is giving her time for free to help raise funds for the Pegasus Theatre and its work with young people.

Compared to her big campaigns for ecology and social justice, the Magdalen Street venue may be parochial, but Peggy, who lives in Iffley, remains a huge fan.

“I am a great supporter of Pegasus,” she tells me, at home, where she is part way through preparing dinner (she intermittently dashes through to the kitchen to check on her cooking).

“It’s a wonderful theatre and they do great work there.”

Peggy headlines the venue tomorrow as part of its Big Music Weekend, which also features sets by jazz-blues singer Kate Dimbleby (daughter of the broadcaster David), on Saturday, and comedy string quartet Graffiti Classics, on Sunday.

“I still travel up and down the country playing concerts, but in Oxford most of what I do is benefits,” she says. “If you want a benefit, come to Peggy!

“I firmly believe that if you have a commitment to improve what the human race does to itself and the environment, you should donate your services where you can. I either work for a proper fee or for nothing. I think you have to help improve the place you live in.”

Peggy, a whip-smart 78-year-old, was born and raised in the States, the daughter of folk music expert Charles Seeger and the composer Ruth Porter Crawford. Her brother is the folk musician Mike Seeger, while half-brother Pete went on to become one of the best-known protest singers of all time, writing or co-writing such classics as Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, If I Had a Hammer, and Turn, Turn, Turn! He also performed the spiritual We Shall Overcome, which became an anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement.

A political activist, Peggy settled in Britain in 1956 as a young woman when the US government threatened to seize her passport after she visited China. America was, at the time, wracked by anti-communist McCarthyist purges.

While living and performing in London, she met MacColl – best known for the songs Dirty Old Town and Manchester Rambler.

The two fell in love, MacColl famously writing the love song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for her. They married in 1977, had three children, and stayed together until his death in 1989.

She later pursued what she refers to as a “love partnership” with the musician Irene Pyper-Scott.

She has recorded 20 solo albums, 15 with Ewan MacColl, five with Mike and at least four with other artists. Her songs embrace many of her concerns, including women’s rights, as on the tune I’m Gonna Be an Engineer.

Although she moved back to the USA in 1994 – first to her native North Carolina and then to Boston – she returned to Britain to be near her children, choosing Oxford as her home.

“I went back to the US as I wanted to go back to my native country,” she says. “I went back to North Carolina but had cold turkey for London. I moved from there to Boston to teach, but I felt I had grown up in this country. I came here when I was 20, settled here when I was 23 and lived here until I was 58. I really loved it.

“I came to Oxford because of its old buildings. It’s a beautiful academic town, and although lots of people come here to study and leave, all around the edges are people like me. I also wanted to live in a town which was flat so I can walk around.”

She adds: “I have become part of the town and involved myself in a few causes.”

They include the campaign to save Temple Cowley Pools, for which she wrote a protest song and performed concerts.

Tomorrow’s show, alongside Oxford folk band Kismet, will give fans a chance to hear songs from her latest album Everything Changes, due out in March.

“It’s the kind of album I’ve never made before,” she says. “There are songs about ecology, domestic violence and love songs, but it’s not a folk album. We don’t hold to the folk label anyway. There are too many definitions. I prefer the term singer-songwriter.”

There will also be older tunes, including songs by Pete Seeger and her late husband. “I’ll sing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” she says. “I’ve heard it sung so many different ways by so many people, but it’s still a total pleasure to sing.”

And is it an emotional experience for her to perform? “I try to make it so every time I sing it,” she says.

Despite being only three years away from her 80th birthday, Peggy has lost none of her political zeal.

“If you are not angry about things, you should be!” she tells me. “If not, you are either not noticing or don’t care, and I’ve always cared. Anger can take different forms though.”

And does she still believe in the downfall of capitalism? “Capitalism is downfalling itself, and doing a good job of it,” she says. “We are at the end of an era and have to figure out how we are going to live on this world. It’s a huge problem. We are small planet and there are too many of us on it.

“I did my bit and had three children; I’m not saying I’m blameless, but I try to act globally.

“I’ve had a good life, I’ve been lucky and am doing okay so far – so I have to give something back.”

  • Peggy Seeger plays The Big Music Weekend at Pegasus, Magdalen Road, tomorrow. Tickets are £25 or £65 for the weekend. Call 01865 812150 or see pegasus