Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl photo 5

Ewan MacColl at The Singers Club 1975



Ewan MacColl playlist


Ewan MacColl photo 8

The Ramblers, Ewan and Peggy’s first group, in 1956,
top row (l to r): Alan Lomax, Bruce Turner, Jim Bray, Brian Daly,
front row: Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins


Contributor: Andrew Shields

Through the cover versions by groups like the Dubliners, Planxty and the Clancy Brothers and by solo artists like Christy Moore and Seán Keane, several of Ewan MacColl’s songs were not so much a backdrop to our lives growing up but were instead part of the air that we breathed. Later in my life, it would have been hard to find a pub singsong in Ireland which did not include someone singing Dirty Old Town, usually pretty badly. Songs like it and Schooldays Over, Freeborn Man, Moving On Song and Sweet Thames Flow Softly were so often played on Irish radio and sang in bars there that we absorbed them almost by osmosis. For a long time, my knowledge of MacColl’s songs came largely from such second-hand (as it were) sources. It was only when I discovered the music of the great Scottish folk singer, Dick Gaughan, and saw his frequent references to the influence which MacColl had on him, that I decided to go back to the source. And what a wealth of great material covering an extremely wide variety of styles was there.

Here might also be the place to acknowledge that, for all his undoubted brilliance, MacColl was undoubtedly a complex and sometimes difficult character. He was prone to being both domineering and dictatorial. Also, while he inspired an intense loyalty among some of his disciples, he alienated just as many people through his sometimes wrong-headed, if undoubtedly passionately felt, diktats and ordinances. While for me at least the positive aspects of MacColl’s legacy far outweigh the negatives ones, there is no doubt that in his lifetime he was a deeply polarising figure. At this distance, it is also clear that some of the political and musical choices he made during his lifetime were mistaken and overly dogmatic. Despite this, his contribution to the British folk revival was such an immense one that he deserves to be considered as one of its chief and greatest figures.

It seems to me that in order to understand MacColl’s life and work, his theatrical background has to be taken into consideration. His ability to create, and occasionally to shed, personas owed a good deal to it. Indeed, the character ‘Ewan MacColl’ itself was, in some respects, a creation. Rather than being Scottish, for example, as he usually claimed, MacColl was born in Salford in England in January 1915. At that point, he was not ‘Ewan MacColl’ either but instead was christened James Henry Miller. His parents were Scottish, however, and it was through them that he developed the love for the folk ballads from that country and for Robert Burns’ songs and poems which continued for the rest of his life.


Ewan MacColl photo 7

The boys of Grecian Street school in Salford in 1923,
young Jimmie Miller is sitting in the front row, second from right


For Salford itself, MacColl developed much more mixed feelings. Later in his life he told an ITN interviewer that his relationship with it was a ‘love-hate one’. While he couldn’t bear the place, he went on, “everything” he had done and “everything” he had ever written was to “some extent informed” by his experiences there. This ambivalence towards the place is perhaps best reflected in his classic song, Dirty Old Town.

Through his father, MacColl was also introduced to a form of militant left-wing politics, which underpinned his work from then on. This eventually inspired him to join the Young Communist League. He also became involved with small local theatre groups who were beginning to experiment with the type of ‘workers theatre’ then beginning to appear in Russia and in Germany. Such groups were also pioneering the use of songs for explicitly political purposes. Over time, MacColl’s engagement with such agitprop organisation led him into collaborations with the theatre director, Joan Littlewood, who he married in 1935. At this point, both were intent on developing a new type of radical theatre which would draw on a variety of different art forms and would reflect the realities of working class life. They were also concerned that the dialogue they used should reflect the real voices of ordinary people. Alongside this, MacColl was also determined that the new theatre on which they were working would provide a platform for his own ventures into political songwriting. In a sense, these priorities were to remain key to MacColl’s work when he later transferred his energies from the theatre into music-making.

The war years represent the most controversial period in MacColl’s career. Having been conscripted into the British army in July 1940, he essentially absconded from it in December of the same year. Why he did so is not entirely clear – he had been under suspicion by MI5 since enlisting because of his previous Communist activity – but his immediate superiors had viewed him as a model recruit. They described him as “cheerful and willing” and “almost ingratiating”. This is a rather murky period in his career, but it has been suggested that MI5 may have encouraged him to desert. The suggestion is that they did so rather than have the open scandal of acknowledging that they had let a known ‘red’ join in the ranks. Of course, these events took place before the Soviet Union altered its attitude towards war effort after the German army invaded it in June 1941.

Whatever the exact circumstances of MacColl’s desertion, its legacy provided a strong incentive for Jimmy Miller (as he then was) to adopt a new identity. The name he took on at this time, ‘Ewan MacColl’, was derived from a nineteenth century Scottish poet. As his biographer Ben Harker has argued, the name also gave him the opportunity to associate himself with the Scottish literary renaissance of the early-to-mid twentieth century. In Harker’s words, this represented “an act of cultural reorientation; MacColl was inserting himself into a vibrant and diverse literary movement that spoke to his political radicalism, latent Scottishness and literary ambition.”

After going into hiding for much of the war years, MacColl re-emerged in the late 1940s – after a traumatic but ultimately brief period of incarceration for desertion, followed eventually by his formal discharge from the army – as a key member of the newly-formed Theatre Workshop. In the early 1950s, he expanded his range by beginning a career as a recording artist. This opportunity came about through his meeting with the great collector, Alan Lomax, who had moved to England after being blacklisted in the USA.


Ewan MacColl photo 6

Ewan MacColl in 1957 at the Ballads & Blues Club in London
that he co-founded, later known as the Singers’ Club


In the early days of his involvement with folk music, MacColl made his name primarily as an interpreter of the great Scottish and English folk ballads. As we have seen, from his early youth he had also been a devotee of the great Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, and in this period he pioneered a new and for the times innovative method of interpreting his songs. For the purposes of this Toppermost, I have divided MacColl’s work into three categories, but it should be remembered that these divisions are not really hard and fast ones. For example, many of his own songs were based on pre-existing melodies.

He also saw the songs he wrote as being part of a broader project; a recovery of the ‘folk idiom’ and of the ‘methods of folk creation’. For MacColl, this also involved the rejection of the commercial imperatives of contemporary ‘pop’ music It also necessitated a close study of the few remaining ‘genuine’ (as he saw them) folk singers. It was essential, he believed, to try and approach folk music from the ‘inside out’ by understanding the techniques of such singers (one of those whom MacColl believed fitted this strict criteria was the great Irish sean-nós singer, Joe Heaney, from whom he collected and recorded many songs (there is a more detailed account of their relationship here).

I should also add that several of the songs in this first section include accompaniments devised by Peggy Seeger. We will look at her role in MacColl’s work from the late 1950s onwards in more detail in the next two sections.

And so to the music …


Ewan MacColl photo 1


The Rantin' Dog, The Daddie O't Songs Of Robert Burns
Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A NationThe Jacobite Rebellions
Sheepcrook And Black DogThe Manchester Angel
The Sweet KumadeeThe English And Scottish
Popular Ballads Vol.2
Sheath And KnifeBlood And Roses Vol.5

My first choice, The Rantin’ Dog, The Daddie O’t, is an early poem by Robert Burns. He later claimed to have written it for “a young girl, a very particular friend of mine, who was at that time under a cloud.” The “girl” in question is usually taken to be Elizabeth Paton, who is believed to have given birth to the poet’s first child in 1785. The lyric of the song includes a reference to the “creepie-chair” in which the parents of illegitimate children were forced to sit in their local kirk. This was designed to show their repentance for their ‘sins’ (more details about the song – including an English translation can be found here. MacColl’s version ranks among the very best renditions of the work ever recorded. He handles it here with a deft combination of lightness and irony.

Given the times we live in, I felt that the title of the next selection, Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation – and its aptness in describing political leaders in several parts of the world at the moment – meant that it had to be included. Burns wrote the poem on which the song is based as an attack on the Scottish political establishment of his day. He viewed it as having sold out his native country’s national interests for the sake of English patronage. As a result, the song has remained extremely popular with Scottish nationalists ever since. MacColl’s dramatic reading of the song clearly owes a good deal to his theatrical experience. It also has the kind of force and power which made him such an inspiration to later singers like Luke Kelly and Christy Moore.

In my opinion, Sheepcrook And Black Dog is one of the finest folk songs MacColl recorded. He collected it from the gypsy singer, Caroline Hughes – sometimes known as Queen Caroline Hughes – in 1963. The song itself, however, is considerably older, with some of the variant versions dating back at least to the late eighteenth century. MacColl’s version of it is an excellent one, which does full justice to the song’s beautiful melody.

The next selection, The Sweet Kumadee, is an extremely old ballad which dates back according to some accounts to the late seventeenth century. There are numerous variant versions of the song, including the much recorded The Golden Vanity and The Turkish Revelee. Despite the differing antagonists that appear in the various versions of the song (ranging from French to Turkish), its themes of individual bravery (usually shown by a relatively lowly member of the crew) and potential ingratitude/betrayal (usually on the part of the boat’s captain) remain consistent across most of them. Again, MacColl’s version shows the dramatic flair which no doubt owed a good deal to his experiences in the theatre.

My next choice, Sheath And Knife, is even more striking in this respect. As the record producer Paul Adams has argued, this is a “truly magnificent ballad which has all the stature of a Shakespearean tragedy”. Its storyline is a deeply grim one, which includes both incest and murder. This is one of MacColl’s finest recordings of a folk ballad which is entirely free of the occasionally affected and “contrived” (to quote A. L. Lloyd’s biographer, Dave Arthur) style which he used in some of his earlier recordings. Here, instead, he shows himself to be a master storyteller, with an easy mastery of the long narrative ballad



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The Shoals Of HerringSinging The Fishing
Moving-On SongThe Travelling People
Ballad Of The CarpenterThe New Briton Gazette
Ballad Of AccountingThe Angry Muse
Freeborn ManFreeborn Man
Thirty-Foot TrailerFreeborn Man
Sweet Thames, Flow SoftlyFreeborn Man

The Radio Ballads, which began in 1958 with The Ballad Of John Axon, rank high among MacColl’s greatest artistic achievements. As his biographer, Ben Harker, has pointed out, they were strikingly original for their time, “a highly complex synthesis of recorded speech, sound, music and song”. The Ballads also broke new ground by having working class people speak for themselves, rather than having their words spoken by actors. In this respect, they were designed, in Harker’s words, to “document working class experience and turn it into art”.

MacColl’s work on the programmes also unlocked a new vein of creative excellence which led to some of his finest work as a songwriter. This breakthrough resulted from his new belief that by paying close attention to the speech patterns of those working-class people who appeared on the ‘Ballads’, he would be able to establish a new type of folk ‘idiom’. True to his Marxist beliefs, MacColl was convinced that this would result in a new type of folk music, albeit one that remained true to its long-time role of representing the voice of ‘the people’. Whatever the merits of those arguments, this new-found conviction meant that MacColl’s own songwriting reached a sustained level of excellence which it had only occasionally touched before then.

In this work, MacColl surrounded himself with a group of trusted collaborators. The two most important of these were Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker. He had first met Seeger in 1956. That meeting eventually led to an enormously productive relationship – both personal and musical – that lasted until MacColl’s death in 1989. In a sense, their partnership bridged the divide between the British and American wings of the revival movement. Also, the combination of their individual strengths as artists (MacColl’s frequent brilliance as a songwriter and Seeger’s strengths as a singer, accompanist and arranger) helped inspire a sustained burst of creativity on both of their parts. Seeger’s role both in the Ballads and in MacColl’s subsequent work was hugely significant and their collaboration was so intertwined that, in a sense, it became difficult to know where one’s role ended and the other started. The other crucial individual in the making of the Ballads was Charles Parker, a BBC producer who proved willing to adapt himself to the demands of the new techniques that MacColl and Seeger employed.

One sign of the potency of Ewan MacColl’s new work was the way in which the best songs from the Ballads, ones like The Shoals Of Herring, Moving-On Song, Thirty-Foot Trailer and Freeborn Man, re-entered the folk tradition. Indeed, many of the people who sang them in later years had little idea that MacColl wrote them. In an interview with Giovanni Vacca, Ewan told the story of a visit that Peggy had made to the dentist. While there, she heard an Irish woman singing ‘The Shoals’. When she asked the woman how she knew it she replied, “Oh! That’s an old Irish folk song”. Ewan’s ability to write such songs owed a good deal to his skill at replicating the speech patterns of some of those people who appeared on the programme. An example was ‘The Shoals’ which owed a good deal to the fisherman and folk singer Sam Larner’s manner of speaking. Later on, he based Moving-On Song on the traveller woman Minty Smith’s description of the birth of one of her children. Both songs were masterpieces of the genre which I have included here. The other songs from The Travelling People programme I have selected – Thirty-Foot Trailer and Freeborn Man – display the same kind of fidelity to their subject’s lived experience.

Freeborn Man

As with Pasolini’s classic, The Gospel According To St. Matthew, MacColl used his song, Ballad Of The Carpenter to reclaim Jesus both as a radical socialist and outcast. The song features one of MacColl’s finest lyrics allied to an exquisite melody. For comparison’s sake, here is Phil Ochs’ beautiful version which appeared on his first album.

The next selection, Ballad Of Accounting is an equally brilliant song, which manages to turn the idea away of ‘accounting’ away from its narrow commercial meaning to a much broader consideration of what makes a person’s life worthwhile. It could be argued that the song is more topical than ever in the current context.

By contrast, Sweet Thames, Flow Softly is one of Ewan’s most beautiful love songs. It was originally written for an experimental version of Romeo And Juliet which the BBC broadcast to schools in 1966. As with a number of other songs here, I have selected the version from Ewan and Peggy’s classic 1983 album, Freeborn Man. As the Bandcamp Ewan MacColl site states, this superb record contains – as “acknowledged by the family and Ewan himself” – the ‘very best versions of his best-known songs.’



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My Old ManKilroy Was Here
Nobody Knew She Was ThereKilroy Was Here
Dirty Old TownThe World Of Ewan MacColl
and Peggy Seeger
The Manchester RamblerThe World Of Ewan MacColl
and Peggy Seeger
The First Time Ever I Saw Your FaceThe New Briton Gazette Vol.2
The Joy Of LivingItems Of News

Although Ewan MacColl was very far from being a ‘confessional’ songwriter, some of his very greatest songs did nonetheless have a strong autobiographical component. Two of the finest of these, My Old Man and Nobody Knew She Was There, are about his father and mother respectively. Both also seem strikingly topical given today’s circumstances and I have selected them for inclusion. My Old Man, for example, deals with his father’s experience of unemployment in the 1930s while ‘Nobody Knew’ talks about his mother’s invisibility in her job as a cleaner.

As mentioned earlier, MacColl had a very complex and ambivalent relationship with Salford, the town where he grew up. The song that best encapsulates this mixture of feelings, Dirty Old Town, is one of his most enduring masterpieces. Through the Dubliners’ version, it is also one that was a constant presence in my life since at least my teenage years. How ever often I have heard it, it retains its striking power as a keenly poetic evocation of a particular time and place.

One of MacColl’s few escapes as a teenager from the grim industrial landscape of that town was through ‘rambling’ – or ‘hiking’ as it would be described today – in the Pennine hills. At this time, however, many of the walks were in private hands and were patrolled by gamekeepers who sought to protect the game there. This clear example of what they saw as the inequities of the class system helped to fuel a determination on the part of MacColl and his political associates to try and continue ‘rambling’ there as they wished. Their campaign to do so culminated in the famous ‘mass trespass’ on Kinder Scout in April 1932. One of the legacies of that occasion was MacColl’s “first significant” song (to quote Ben Harker), The Manchester Rambler. As Harker points out, the song had a wit and a playfulness to it which was new in MacColl’s work. Indeed, it might have been a good thing if he had carried on in that vein, coating his political messages with that kind of good-natured humour in some of his later songs.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face had to be included, as it is clearly Ewan MacColl’s greatest love song. For me at least, Peggy Seeger’s version of the song will always remain the definitive one. As she has said subsequently, the song was always meant to be an entrée, not a main course. This is not the way it has been handled by many of those who have covered it and, in my view, their renditions have suffered as a result (my own favourites among later recordings of the song are those by Gordon Lightfoot – unusually for him Ewan actually praised it – and by Johnny Cash).

My final selection, The Joy Of Living, is an elegiac song, which MacColl wrote at a time when it was clear that he did not have long to live. It has always been a hugely poignant song given its celebration of his love for nature and the outdoors and for his family. Given present circumstances it seems even more so now. More broadly speaking, the song serves a fitting elegy to the career of this difficult and complex man who, for all his failings and, at times, unnecessary dogmatism, was both a superb interpreter of folk songs and – at his best – a magnificent songwriter.



I’m a freeborn man of the travelling people
Got no fixed abode, with nomads I am numbered
Country lanes and by-ways were always my ways
I never fancied being lumbered

O, we knew the woods and the resting places
And the small birds sang when winter-time was over
Then we’d pack our load and be on the road
They were good old times for a rover

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Peggy and Ewan



The Shoals Of Herring – Clancys – The Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Gordon Lightfoot – Lightfoot!
I’m A Freeborn Man – Liam Clancy – Liam Clancy
Ballad Of The Carpenter – Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marching Anymore
The Thirty-Foot Trailer – The Watersons – The Watersons
Dirty Old Town – The Dubliners – I Know My Love
School Days Over – The Dubliners – Revolution
Sweet Thames Flow Softly – Planxty – Planxty
The Lifeboat Mona – The Dubliners – Now
Moving On Song – Christy Moore – Whatever Tickles Your Fancy
Ballad Of Accounting – Dick Gaughan – Live In Edinburgh
Jamie Foyers – Dick Gaughan – Live In Edinburgh
Dirty Old Town – The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy And The Lash
Tunnel Tigers – Seán Keane – Turn A Phrase
Terror Time – June Tabor – On Air
I’m Champion At Keeping ‘Em Rolling – Martin Carthy – Joy Of Living
Dirty Old Town – Steve Earle – Joy Of Living
The Father’s Song – Martin Simpson – Joy Of Living
The Joy Of Living – David Gray – Joy Of Living
Cannily, Cannily – The Unthanks – Joy Of Living


Andrew writes: With the editor’s approval, this was to have been a Topper 18 but he added two of his own favourites – Go Down Ye Murderers (The Ballad Of Tim Evans) from Bad Lads And Hard Cases (1957) and Johnnie O’ Breadisley from The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol.1 (1961) – to the playlist making it a top 20! I haven’t mentioned Ewan’s collaborations with A.L.(Bert) Lloyd in this piece. They made several albums together in the fifties – including Blow Boys Blow and Whaling Ballads – and I will be looking at some of these in a forthcoming toppermost on Bert.


Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in the 1983 BBC2 TV series
“The Good Old Way”


I found my love where the gaslight falls
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town


I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wageslave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday


O the work was hard and the hours long
And the treatment, sure it took some bearing
There was little kindness and the kicks were many
As we hunted for the shoals of herring


So watch out for cops and slow down at the bend
Check all your gauges and watch your big end
And zing with your lights when you pass an old friend
You’ll be champion at keeping them rolling


The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the end of the skies


Ewan MacColl (1915-1989)


Ewan MacColl official website

Ewan MacColl Comprehensive Discography

Ewan MacColl Discography 1947-2009 by John Ross (at Mainly Norfolk)

Ewan MacColl Bandcamp
This site is maintained by the MacColl family, aiming to make Ewan’s catalogue available to download

“Journeyman: The Autobiography Of Ewan MacColl” (S&J 1990)

The Critics Group
Founded by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1965, this loosely organised company of revival singers ran for eight years

“Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan Maccoll” by Ben Harker (Pluto Press 2007)

“Legacies of Ewan MacColl: The Last Interview” by Allan F. Moore & Giovanni Vacca (Ashgate 2014)

Peggy Seeger official website

Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl Discography

A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl Discography (at Mainly Norfolk)

“Daddy What Did You Do In The Strike?” Part 1
Granada TV 1985 documentary about the life of Ewan MacColl on his 70th birthday

Calum MacColl official website

Kirsty MacColl official website

The Charles Parker Archive

Ewan MacColl biography (AllMusic)

Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger Archive
An archive relating to the music and work of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger was established by Peggy at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1991. It contains copies of most of their published recordings, together with correspondence, playscripts, photographs, videos, books and other documents and memorabilia relating to their work together, and as individual artists. There is an online index.

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #863


  1. Bert Wright
    May 7, 2020

    “At this distance, it is also clear that some of the political and musical choices he made during his lifetime were mistaken and overly dogmatic. Despite this, his contribution to the British folk revival was such an immense one that he deserves to be considered as one of its chief and greatest figures.” This very accurately sums up EM, I think. He WAS one of the great figures of the folk revival and most singer-songwriters would be delighted to have one or two of his great songs to their credit. He, on the other hand, wrote many many great songs which have become fixtures in the folk repertoire. On the other hand, having read the biography, I believe “overly dogmatic” is being kind to him. He was by all accounts, a tyrant and a bully with an ideologue’s puritanical devotion to his own way. This was antithetical to the democratic spirit of the folk revival and he pissed off many of the younger singers with his petty rules and regulations. There were a few would-be tyrants around at the time and the whole internecine battle between traditionalists V modernists was horribly tedious. Both strands could, and in fact did, proceed in parallel quite happily. This is a fine contribution exhaustively covered nonetheless. Might just say I’m surprised the great Archie Fisher was not mentioned as an interpreter of MacColl’s songs. Great job though – bravo!

  2. Peter Viney
    May 8, 2020

    I had a say on Jimmy Miller when I saw Sam Kenyon’s play “Miss Littlewood” about the Theatre Workshop. Can I just repeat it from my review my review?
    – Greg Barnett captured the essence of Jimmie Miller, Joan Littlewood’s first husband, and founder of the Communist theatre group The Red Megaphones. Jimmie changed his name to Ewan MacColl, and it’s satisfying to know that Ewan MacColl’s studied authenticity was fake. I saw him perform po-faced in a folk club in the 60s. Apparently, he was an awful blinkered man, flying into a rage at the mention of his greatest composition, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, as transformed and performed by Roberta Flack. She tweaked the melody too, turning an excellent song into a masterpiece. He couldn’t forgive her. He ran the Critics Group, inventing strict guidelines for “a folk performance.” Fun was not included. A recent story by Shirley Collins:
    – QUOTE: I first met him when I was 20 and my antenna went up straightaway. I genuinely don’t want to be unpleasant, but he was unpleasant to me, quite sexist, and pretentious and pompous – words that should never be applied to a folk singer. He said to me that I shouldn’t wear nail varnish. What a wretched thing to say to a young woman with an interest; what a way of putting someone down. He was self-invented; there seemed nothing truthful about him, and that’s always concerned me greatly. He was an actor, really, even as a singer. The way he’d turn his chair, sit astride it, put his hand to his ear… my heart would sink. I know it’s not fair as he’s not here to defend himself, but I’ve had my opinion since I first met him, and I’ve not seen any reason to change it. Shirley Collins, The Guardian 25 Jan 2015
    She is correct. He was an actor originally who increasingly became interested in folk music. Yes, he was a great folk archivist, and he also wrote Dirty Old Town, but he was also a pedantic man, and that came across. I found it particularly amusing that The Wanderer’s Lament as performed by Greg Barnett had the sort of intricate orchestration that MacColl eschewed. I thought it the best song in the show, and the backing was beautifully arranged. It broke away from that generic “stage musical” style for a change.

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 8, 2020

    Thanks for these comments. And thanks for the kind words, Bert.
    As I say in the piece Ewan was a complex and sometimes difficult character. I am, however, surprised at the level of vitriol he continues to attract given that he has been dead for over thirty years. He was hardly the only folk musician (or other type of musician for that matter) who could be accused of having serious personal flaws.
    Am not here to defend him but I would point to his generosity towards many other folk musicians – like Joe Heaney (who actually stayed in Ewan and Peggy’s home for a time, Willie Clancy, Dick Gaughan, John Faulkner, Christy Moore and Luke Kelly – some of whom had received little recognition or support up to that point in their home countries.
    Some of Shirley Collins’ animus towards Ewan (not all of it course) stems from her rather strange belief that folk music should not be ‘political’. For anyone who grew up with Irish or Scottish folk music, this is very odd indeed. She has also suggested that folk songs should not be adapted for ‘political ‘purposes which is also peculiar – where would it leave Robbie Burns for example?
    And, Peter, I do hear an ‘actorly’ tone in some of Ewan’s early performances. Later on in life, however – as shown by the magnificent versions of ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’ and ‘Sheath And Knife’ here – he has infused his theatrical background into his singing in a totally integrated way.
    As I researched this piece, it also became clear to me that Ewan’s songs were hugely important in detailing the lives of people who are often marginalised in contemporary society – travellers, gypsies, cleaners, fishermen, labourers, roadworkers, the unemployed etc. We may be beginning to realise just how vital their work is.

    • Peter Viney
      May 9, 2020

      You mention all the negatives in a very fair piece, Andrew. I’ve just ordered The Joy of Living, which I didn’t know about as so many favourite artists are on there. There was a generational thing in the 60s which doesn’t affect a younger generation. I went to see Ewan MacColl along with a young folk singer I knew who had been barred by Ewan from ever singing from the floor for having sung a Donovan song. The hypocrisy is that First Time Ever I Saw Your Face isn’t in any way a folk song, even when performed fast and jauntily by the Ian Campbell Folk Group (I have the single). It is a monumentally good melody and lyric. For MacColl, maybe the issue was that once Roberta Flack slowed it right down, put piano to it and made it into a soulful ballad, it became his meal ticket. It must have been easily his greatest source of income, and most of the covers (like Elvis) are post Roberta Flack and follow her arrangement. I guess with his politics, he couldn’t accept that.
      Shirley Collins sang backing on Dirty Old Town. As you’ll know, she is from East Sussex, the Copper Family area. I keep meaning to write on the link between English folk (as opposed to Celtic folk) and English prog rock vocalists. Incidentally, in the play Miss Littlewood, they insisted MacColl had a Salford accent. Joan Littlewood would have known!

  4. Giovanni Vacca
    May 9, 2020

    Hi, congratulations for this article. It would have certainly been more honest if you had written who the mysterious “interviewer” appearing at the beginning is, considering that a lot of information you give is taken from the long conversations I had with Ewan. Such conversations, the last and the longest interview of his life, later became the core of “Legacies of Ewan MacColl”, the book I wrote with Allan F. Moore in 2014 and which, I do not understand why, you did not deign to mention. Cordially yours, Giovanni Vacca (that was an editorial error Giovanni and we will attribute your book where applicable and in the links section … Ed.)

  5. Andrew Shields
    May 9, 2020

    Giovanni, thanks for your comment. I discovered your book just as I was finishing this piece and found it an excellent read. It’s fascinating – Ewan is such a remarkable character. So opinionated, prone to exaggeration (and occasionally outright lies), but at the same time so knowledgeable, passionate, engaged and interesting. His knowledge of the theatre and of folk song was remarkable.
    We fully intended to put links to your book and Ben Harker’s one at the end of the piece (and will do so) but, as the editor has pointed out, there was an oversight. Apologies.
    The quote you mention was taken from this fine documentary and not your book. It is at 16.01.
    Re-checked my copy of your book and the ‘quote’ you mention does not appear in it. There seems to be some kind of misapprehension on your part in relation to it.
    I relied mostly on Ben Harker’s book for the factual detail included here, as I did not discover your book “Legacies Of Ewan MacColl: The Last Interview” until late in the process. Also, I used the term ‘an interviewer’ here because I did not know who the person doing the ITN interview was.

    • Giovanni Vacca
      May 9, 2020

      Hi Andrew, Thank you for your kind reply. True, I was wrong there but I was certainly misled by the rest of the article: I’m sure Ewan discussed folk creation and methods in other interviews but certainly in mine he is particularly focussed on that as, at the time, I was really into it and willing to know where the ‘secret’ was…
      And when I read the anecdote of Peggy going to the dentist I flipped: “that’s in my book with almost the same words!” And, by the way, now that you have fixed it, it is not “according to Giovanni Vacca…” it’s him who says that… it is at page 33! So, please, give Ewan what is Ewan’s!
      Anyway I do appreciate, really: in the most recent years I have become a bit aggressive because I have often been plundered and blottted out, so I am really happy it has not happened again! That’s been settled, as far as I’m concerned. I hope we meet one day and have a drink somewhere. All the best, Giovanni

  6. Andrew Shields
    May 10, 2020

    Peter, thanks for this. Joy of Living is a superb record which is a fine demonstration of Ewan’s greatness as a songwriter. Just came across this quote from Dick Gaughan – arguably the greatest Scottish folk singer of recent times:
    “What I do have concrete evidence for is that at the time he is accused of trying to “hijack the genre” (whatever the hell that means in a language I can speak) MacColl was writing stunning plays which had a profound influence on British theatre, was deeply involved in a revolution in broadcasting, was helping to bring to the repertoire of a new generation a wealth of traditional songs which had been forgotten, and was writing songs of such power and durability that within a short time they had been absorbed and were being sung by people all over the place, many of whom claimed they were traditional. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few such hijackers around these days if they were capable of doing all that.”

  7. Andrew Shields
    May 10, 2020

    Giovanni, many thanks for your kind comment. And I highly recommend your book to anyone interested in Ewan’s career. It is great to have such fascinating insights into his work methods and his broader philosophies in relation to the theatre and folk music and much else besides.
    Also – given that Ewan is so often misunderstood these days – it is great to have his own testimony about his career.

  8. Merric Davidson
    May 11, 2020

    This doesn’t have a lot to do with Andrew’s selection of songs but I thought it was worth adding this link to Maxine Peake’s tribute to Ewan MacColl on the centenary of his birth (2015) of which this is an extract – “What should we make of his life and work? The celebrated folk singer tended not to think of songwriting as work at all, and not only because he’d been writing tunes for as long as he could talk. The very term songwriter jarred with him: it spoke of individual endeavour. He thought of song-making as ongoing conversation with what had come before…”

  9. Peter Viney
    May 17, 2020

    I’m enjoying “The Joy of Living” but find it amusing that Paul Buchanan covers First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in that hated (by Ewan) Roberta Flack arrangement. Also, on Kilroy was here (1980) had Ewan realized he had borrowed a phrase from The Beatles … eight days a week? I believe that’s a Ringo coining, like A hard day’s night. My favourite track is easily Rufus and Martha Wainwright on ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly.’ Another lovely melody.

  10. Andrew Shields
    May 17, 2020

    Peter, in Giovanni Vacca’s book, Ewan talks about The Beatles coming over to his house. One of the main questions they asked him was whether he preferred folk music performed ‘accompanied’ or ‘a capella’. Ewan also makes the big admission – for him – that they were ‘not bad as a pop group’.
    My favourite cover of ‘Sweet Thames’ is this great one by Planxty – and recently discovered this lovely version by Christy Moore and Sinead O’Connor – and, yes, it is a ‘lovely melody’.

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