Music from Below: Ewan MacColl & Urban Roots Music

British folk musician Ewan MacColl’s repertoire spanned the entire human experience of the peoples that inhabit the Atlantic Isles and played no small part in a radical reinvention of folk in the mid-20th century. Working in parallel with better known American folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete and Peggy Seeger, he resuscitated a previously moribund musical tradition in the industrial age and championed a homegrown urban roots music that gave a voice, in modern times, to the forgotten travails of displaced Irish labourers, the struggles of Scottish metalworkers and the plight of the unemployed of England’s industrial cities during the Depression.

Liverpool Road Gasworks, Dirty Old Town (Stephen Campbell, 2015)

This English-born, second-generation Scottish singer, songwriter, poet, political activist, playwright and producer performed a socially engaged, heartfelt music that encapsulated the essence of Scottish, English and Irish folk traditions and fused its social concerns and political ideals to those of a new generation in a contemporary urban context. His influence can be heard in the subsequent work of highly respected folk artists such as The Dubliners, second-generation Irish band The Pogues (both acts covering MacColl originals during their careers, the latter getting to number 1 in the UK charts with “Fairytale of New York”, a duet with MacColl’s daughter Kirsty in 1988), Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan, English protest singer Billy Bragg and even the UK anarcho- punk scene in the early 1980’s.

From Salford to London: 1930’s – 1950’s

Ewan MacColl was born James Henry Miller in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1915 into a Scottish immigrant family. His father had been a militant trade unionist in his native land and was subsequently blacklisted in Scotland, forcing the family to emigrate to England in search of work. The young MacColl’s formative years were spent in the fiercely politicized social environment of Depression-era England, immersed in the rich Scottish folk music tradition and self-educated in Manchester’s public libraries. By the age of 17, MacColl was performing as a street singer, engaged in political activism in unemployed workers’ campaigns and writing polemical articles for left-wing papers. All this activity certainly didn’t go unnoticed in Establishment circles. In 1932 MI5, the British intelligence agency, opened a file on the teenage MacColl labeling him “a communist with extreme views” who needed “special attention”; like father, like son…

MacColl gained further notoriety around this time for his involvement in the “mass-trespass” of ramblers on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in Derbyshire; a protest against the enclosure of common land. MacColl and the ramblers’ protest highlighted the fact that ordinary citizens were denied free access to the countryside. What is today a popular spot for ramblers and day trippers was then prohibited to ordinary men and women and was the focus of concerted popular struggle to gain elementary access rights and freedom of movement.

The tale of his experience was told in one his most famous songs “The Manchester Rambler”. Written in 1932 and finally recorded in 1956, its hearty, lilting melody is countered by direct, uncompromising lyrics delivered in MacColl’s nasal Salford accent where he proclaims, “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday” and “no man has a right to own mountains, any more than the deep ocean bed”, echoing the sentiments of Woody Guthrie and the American Depression-era radicals. MacColl defends the earth as a common treasury for us all, with the song encapsulating the essence of his music: homely and heartening whilst simultaneously tough and uncompromising.

MacColl was also involved in London socialist theatre group The Clarion Players from 1931. He then joined the Red Megaphones collective in 1934, which later became Theatre of Action, performing agitprop theatre pieces throughout the 1930s. The company’s activities were suppressed in early 1940 as World War II loomed menacingly over Europe, its anti-militarist stance sitting uncomfortably with the British war effort.

It was through his acting that he met his first wife, British theatre producer Joan Littlewood. The couple soon separated and he would later marry choreographer Jean Newlove in 1949. His second child from that subsequent unhappy marriage, Kirsty MacColl, would later go on to record the UK Top 10 hit “A New England” in 1985 (written by the MacColl-influenced Billy Bragg) and “Fairytale of New York” with The Pogues which reached number 1 in December 1988. Later he would rock the folk fraternity in 1956, embarking on a relationship with Peggy Seeger, (half-sister of American folk singer Pete Seeger), a woman 20 years his junior. It was with Peggy that Ewan MacColl would establish his most enduring musical and emotional partnership, lasting until his death in 1989.

In the early 1950’s MacColl moved away from theatre and further developed his already avid interest in folk music. He was in no small measure inspired by American folk singer, musicologist and activist Alan Lomax, who had chronicled the North American, British and Irish folk and oral traditions throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Engrossed in the Scottish and Irish folk tradition, all the while tempered by a robust Manchester non-conformism, MacColl signed to legendary folk label Topic in 1950 and released his first single “The Asphalter’s Song”.

MacColl recorded and produced over 100 releases, as well as establishing fruitful musical collaborations as both writer and producer, most notably the “English & Scottish Popular Ballads” series (also known as the “Child Ballads”), a series of 8 LPs together with English folk singer A.L. Lloyd. He also recorded with firebrand Irish folk singer Dominic Behan, younger brother of maverick Dublin playwright Brendan Behan.

From Broughton To Broadway: “Dirty Old Town”

One of MacColl’s best known songs is undoubtedly “Dirty Old Town”. Written in 1949 as part of a play “Landscape of Chimneys” and released as a single in 1957, it was inspired by the industrial landscape of his native Salford, a tender tale of love and its struggle to survive in soulless conditions. This later re-recording, a duet with Peggy Seeger, has a more whimsical delivery with lovely ragtime jazz tones and is a world away from the more edgy, melancholy version popularized by The Dubliners in the 1960s and later still in the 80s by The Pogues.

Throughout the 50s and 60s MacColl demonstrated his versatility and power as a vocalist and his eminent ability to interpret the British oral folk tradition. His take on the English ballad “Press Gang” for instance evokes the suffering of English conscript sailors – this plaintive tale of the slave warriors of the British Crown is available on “The Manchester Angel” LP, released in 1966.On “Jamie Raeburn’s Farewell” MacColl interprets, with poise and sensitivity, a Scottish folk tale recounting the trauma of the prison ships and the brutal justice of His Majesty, that cast the unwanted of the British Isles to the four corners of the world.

In 1957, Ewan MacColl released “Shuttle and Cage”, a collection of industrial ballads. MacColl regenerates the spirit of the originals for a contemporary audience, exemplified by the miner’s refrain “Fourpence a Day” which recount the bitter struggle against debilitating working conditions and starvation wages in the mining communities of northern England.

“The Gairdener Chyld”released in 1961, invokes the influence of MacColl’s Scottish heritage. Sang in Scottish dialect, the performance is otherworldly, melancholy and exquisitely arranged.

Possibly MacColl’s best known and most covered composition is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Recorded in 1957 (and later a deserved worldwide hit for Roberta Flack in 1972), the original version features Peggy Seeger’s visceral vocal performance and lyrics of a seldom-heard fragility and beauty.

Though capable of such moments of searing beauty as “The Gairdener Chyld”, MacColl always maintained an abrasive, political edge to his music, giving a voice to the dispossessed and marginalised of Britain and Ireland at every opportunity. “Moving on Song” was written in 1964 for a radio programme “The Travelling People” and dealt with the uncomfortable theme of Britain’s Romani community as they are hustled on from town to town in a country where human life takes second place to property prices. Later covered by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan, the song proved that MacColl was continually prepared to pose the questions that often no one else dared to.

Political Blind Alleys in Changing Times

Although undoubtedly a significant exponent of “music from below” and a defender of working class political causes throughout his life, MacColl’s unquestioned accommodation with Stalinism remains a deeply contentious blind spot in his political outlook. Back then, this unwavering “absence of reflection” characterized large sections of the “orthodox Left” and was also prevalent in the more politicized sections of the British folk scene. By the mid- 1960’s, the folk scene that MacColl had helped nurture was often accused of insularity, cultural snobbery and a certain puritan asceticism (arguably imposed by MacColl’s force of character) and as a result was often fettered creatively by its own self-imposed shibboleths. Ironically, MacColl and his fellow folk purists in this period proved hostile to the music that the “people” were actually listening to and were disparaging towards their “consumerist” aspirations and lifestyle. The folk scene was effectively sidelined in this period by social developments and shifts in popular culture. Furthermore, on a political level, MacColl and his fellow “entrenched traditionalists” sadly could not find sufficient common ground with the libertarian urgency of new radical movements that challenged authority in both East and West in the late 1960’s.

Going Back…

Today, however, reflections on MacColl’s politics tend to take second place in favour of his contribution to the regeneration of folk music in Britain. Even as he entered his twilight years in the 1980s MacColl had lost none of his enthusiasm and passion for music, nor the emotive affinity with his Salford roots. Recorded for Granada Television in Manchester, “My Old Man” was a stark, poignant tale of his father’s life and influence upon him; a time of struggle and hardship during the Depression, of close-knit communities that resisted yet were ultimately broken by unemployment and poverty. The old man’s advice “they’ll rob you blind if you don’t fight” rang uncomfortably true in the bitter social conflict of 1980s Britain.

In 1983, MacColl the songwriter again demonstrated his capacity to extol beauty and tenderness in an urban environment on “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly”; an emotive musical narrative telling of a magical journey along the Thames in London. The song celebrates the splendour of the everyday and is a poignant testimony to the endurance of his love for Peggy Seeger, who provides a fittingly tender backing vocal.

Ewan MacColl’s journey into the soul of the Atlantic Isles proved invaluable to subsequent generations of British and Irish musicians, reaffirming a long-disowned musical heritage and restoring the narrative of ordinary working people to its rightful place in popular culture. MacColl artfully reinterpreted a longstanding radical tradition, performing folk music with a contemporary, urban edge that proved to be both highly influential and profoundly moving.