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Ewan MacColl

Born James Henry Miller, 25 January 1915, Salford, Manchester, EWAN MacCOLL became, like the songs themselves, folklore; a singer who could sing sea shanties, political songs and the odd classic ballad from Scotland or south of the border.
Despite his origins, MacCOLL actually grew up influenced by his Scottish parents, developing his staunch communist views as a direct result of the Depression and its effect on his father, William Miller (also a singer, as was Ewan’s Auchterarder-born, Gaelic-speaking mother, Betsy Hendry) and the working men of his neighbourhood. Resolving to make a change through the arts, Ewan became actively involved in left-wing street theatre as a teenager. This eventually led on to the co-founding of the Theatre Workshop (with Joan Littlewood, who was to become his first wife), a touring project dedicated to awakening political consciousness in the provincial working classes. As playwright, actor, director and singer, MacCOLL doggedly pursued his cause for nigh on ten years, eventually losing interest in the Workshop in the mid-50s after it had secured a permanent base in Stratford.
A meeting with legendary blues/folk musicologist/folklorist ALAN LOMAX planted the seeds of a new mission for MacCOLL, to systematically revive the wealth of traditional British folk song as a political tool in the advance of the Socialist cause. Along with a coterie of sympathetic comrades (including DOMINIC BEHAN, A.L. LLOYD, ISLA CAMERON, RORY McEWAN, Isobel Sutherland, SHIRLEY COLLINS, Malcolm Nixon, Eric Winter and Karl Dallas), he set the groundwork for the huge upsurge in interest which traditional music enjoyed from the mid-50s to the late 60s. Winter and Dallas were both journalists whose increasing column inches in Melody Maker gave MacCOLL’s activities exposure. LLOYD, meanwhile, was the head honcho at Topic Records, a label originally under the aegis of the Workers Music Association which, incidentally, numbered both MacCOLL and ALAN LOMAX among its membership. Topic was to become a folk bastion throughout the revival and MacCOLL released his first recording, THE ENGLISH AND SCOTTISH POPULAR BALLADS {*6}, through the label in 1956. This, a collaboration with LLOYD, was a characteristically ambitious 9-volume set attempting a representative sampling of Professor Francis James Child’s huge canon of songs.
Subsequent albums found MacCOLL working with American banjo player PEGGY SEEGER, the half-sister of PETE SEEGER and by 1959 MacCOLL’s long-term partner; the pair had first met in 1956, although it’d taken an arranged marriage with Glaswegian folk singer ALEX CAMPBELL to furnish Peggy with UK citizenship and thus allow her to stay in the country. While MacCOLL was to maintain a prolific release schedule for Topic (mostly collaborating with either LLOYD or SEEGER), it was his celebrated late-50s BBC radio series, Radio Ballads, that was to really prove inspirational. This began with `The Ballad Of John Axon’, a programme documenting the history of the British railway network and its workers. A further seven instalments explored the lives of genuine working people through their own eyes and against a musical backdrop of specially written traditional song. The series’ forerunner was `Ballads & Blues’, a winning combination of British and American folk song which subsequently lent its name and concept to MacCOLL’s club. Opening its doors in the late 50s, The Ballad And Blues Club played host to the cream of the UK’s folk singers as well as visiting US legends like BIG BILL BROONZY. More importantly, it created a blueprint for folk clubs up and down the country, even though MacCOLL was to fall out with organiser Malcolm Nixon (who retained the name) and subsequently start another venture, the Singers Club.
While MacCOLL was the undisputed godfather of the scene and wielded an often intimidating authority, many found his intense, unpredictable temperament hard to bear (the rift between MacCOLL and ALEX CAMPBELL was especially prominent). What’s more, the man’s earnest, dour, almost puritanical approach to folk music created a schism as the revival gathered pace. Some accused MacCOLL of being a fake and derided what they perceived as an elitist, intellectual clique in his self-styled CRITICS GROUP, set up in 1964 to impart the knowledge of MacCOLL and company to up-and-coming youngsters via a series of records, books and research projects.
Nevertheless, there was no denying the man’s ground-breaking influence, his continuing domination of a large part of the London scene and his early work in the provinces and Scotland, ensuring his every pronouncement (usually controversial, critical and outspoken) was pored over. He provided a platform for ANNE BRIGGS, who made her recording debut singing a couple of songs on THE ANGRY MUSE (1968) {*6}, a SEEGER/MacCOLL quasi-concept set exploring the history of folksong in relation to industrial heritage.
Unsurprisingly, MacCOLL also played a major hand in the Centre 42 project of the early 60s, another touring initiative aimed at bringing culture to the working classes outwith the confines of London. Although the CRITICS GROUP disintegrated in 1972, MacCOLL continued his relatively prolific work rate through the decade when the shock waves from the 60s revival were still being felt. Although he fathered two children (one of whom, KIRSTY MacCOLL, was to carve out a successful pop career of her own before being tragically struck dead by a motorboat on a holiday in Mexico in 2000) to a second wife, Jean Newlove, Peggy remained his constant musical companion right up until his death on the 22nd October 1989. Together the pair formed the Blackthorne label in the late 70s, continued to perform regularly and were heavily involved in the miners’ strike of 1984 (MacCOLL was a vociferous critic of Margaret Thatcher’s government). As well as the incredible wealth of traditional song he unearthed and interpreted in his lifetime, a number of his self-penned pieces have reached the realms of pop music, notably the heart-rending `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ (most famously via ROBERTA FLACK) and `Dirty Old Town’, a classic The POGUES made their own.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD-MCS/BG // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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