Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Ewan MacColl

He lived through the Great Depression. He was there when Jazz was cool and folk was not. He heard the birth cries of nascent Rock and Roll and led the field when the early fifties Folk revival kicked-in. He was no fan of Pop music calling it all a capitalist plot so Christ knows what he made of The Beatles, The Stones or, gods help us, David Bowie.

This year is Ewan MacColl's centenary.

It seems odd to think he has been gone so long. He died in October 1989. Even harder to think of the influence he has had. From Steve Earle through to Elvis. The Pogues of course recorded one of his greatest songs yet still I wonder how many people have yet to learn of this much loved, hugely respected folk singer?
Yet somehow, in spite of this I bet a great many have heard 'The First Time Ever I saw Your Face.' No, not the one recorded by Roberta Flack, fantastic as it is, but the original written in 1957 and performed by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Or perhaps the Pogues terrific version of 'Dirty Old Town.' Surely a song that best describes in such eloquent detail industrial Salford.
Salford. Hardly the place you think of when mulling over towns or cities songwriters have written about.
New York?
For sure.
Paris? Mais oui.
Rome? Berlin? Dublin? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Salford though doesn't instantly spring to mind. And yet....
MacColl was born in 4, Andrew Street, Broughton in Salford, Manchester in 1915. His parents were Scot's. His birth name was James Henry Miller. He changed his name from Miller to MacColl when in his thirties. It was a thing many writers did and, make no mistake, MacColl was more than just a songwriter. He wrote plays too being much admired by George Bernard Shaw. It is by his huge body of songs that he is best remembered though.
He was a man like any other. Curmudgeonly at times, good natured at others, both patient and impatient, loved and feared for he had a wicked tongue along with a frightful temper. He was dictatorial at times insisting on a dress code for his club the Ballad and Blues club in Soho and forbad anyone wearing make-up. He even had the audacity to suggest Bob Dylan was '10th rate drivel.'
He was also massively talented.

"Apart from myself, MacColl is the only man of genius writing for the theatre in England today." - George Bernard Shaw



I get tired hearing of yet another genius. Nowadays one only has to fart in C sharp and that much misused description is bestowed upon them. MacColl certainly attracts that sort of acclaim.

His parents, William and Betsy Miller, were iron moulder and charwoman respectively. Both were Socialist. Both worked damn hard for a living. It was from this background that Ewan, as he was to become, set great store by. MacColl became an activist and communist later in life remaining such until the end of his days. He was of the cobblestone, terraced, side alleys slick with rain streets. He, like his father and mother, was as working class as it gets and proud to be so.

His heart naturally traversed the awkward ground of capitalism until it found sanctuary in communism. He was a life long socialist with many of his songs supporting that cause. His talent though was not in tub thumping. When he wrote a song it was not a protest song but mirror held high for all to see and to make their own minds up from. He didn't grandstand preferring a journalistic approach to make his point.

His passion for the downtrodden, those he saw as being serfs to a servile state, grew so great that in 1932 MI5 opened a file on him claiming him and his views to be 'extreme.'  His home was put under surveillance and his career as a children's programme presenter was severely damaged and the songs he presented to the BBC were all rejected.

Ewan was married three times. His first marriage with Joan Littlewood, one of that generations, any generations in fact, finest theatre directors. His second wife, Jean Newlove, was mother to the much missed Kirsty MacColl. His third and final wife, the one with whom he wrote such a fine body of songs was Peggy Seeger. The shook and outrage at the time of their marriage, him being twenty years older than her, was as ridiculous as it was overstated. What has a gap of twenty years to do with love?

The songs he wrote defy time. They are in the same vein as any song of virtue in that they transcend times, fads and fashion being infinitely adaptable to any given decade or period. 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' is a fine example. There are others, many, many others, after all he himself wrote over 300. That is without others he contributed to. John Lennon once said, around 1971, the gift of the album was to have fourteen great songs. He also said the best songs were those captured and defined in three minutes. Ewan MacColl was never an 'album artist. His gifts came ready wrapped as songs.

His voice was unremarkable in that it didn't bear any of those signs we like to glean from those who have lived. Unlike Dylan's broken voice or Tom Waits bourbon soaked, stone washed vocals. Ewan's was gentle, seldom ragged yet still untutored, still of the streets he came from.

But overall it was his way of wording songs, his lyrics that stand out. His oft underplayed politics that make their point so accurately without preaching. The way in which he wrote the truth without having to hammer it home to his audience. He allowed his words to paint a portrait, often bleak, so that they could them make their own judgements.

Even now, after more than twenty years since his death, his influence lives on.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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