Remembering Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl, folksinger, socialist and giant of the folk revival was born 100 years ago this month. Bill Scott takes a look at his life Ewan MacColl was born Jimmie Miller in Salford (“Dirty old Town”) in 1915. His father, William Miller, was an iron-moulder and communist from Stirlingshire.

His mother, Betsy Hendry, also a socialist, was from Auchterarder in Perthshire. They left Scotland after William’s militant trade unionism resulted in him being sacked and black-listed.

Jimmie grew up in a lively household where political meetings and parties were held where he heard the ideas, songs and music his parents had brought with them from Scotland. Miller left school in 1930 and worked in a variety of labouring jobs and as a street-singer. That same year, he briefly joined the Workers’ Theatre but soon left and formed his own political street-performers group, the “Red Megaphones”.

Jimmie took part in hunger and unemployment marches (1932-33) and then met and married Joan Littlewood in 1934. She was a RADA trained actress and together they set up a workers’ theatre group in Manchester.

In 1936 they established the Theatre Union which produced successful plays such as “The Last Edition” (written by MacColl) dealing with the events leading up to the Munich pact. However the play was viewed as seditious and in 1939, a performance was halted by the police and Miller and Littlewood arrested.

Both were heavily fined and barred from taking part in any kind of theatrical activity for the next two years. That sentence and other members being called up to serve in the war curtailed Theatre Union’s activities for the next six years. The group reformed in 1945 as the “Theatre Workshop”.

Littlewood directed and produced the plays whilst Miller wrote the plays and trained the actors in technique. From 1945-52 Jimmy wrote eleven plays a number of which were acclaimed and translated into German, French, Polish and Russian.

By this time, the Scottish folk revival had begun and, inspired by figures such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Jimmie changed his name to reflect his Scottish roots and became, henceforth, “Ewan MacColl”. By 1950, Ewan divorced Joan and married the dancer Jean Newlove, by whom he had two children both of whom went on to become singers themselves (a hugely successful one in the case of Kirsty).

In 1951 Ewan and Joan Littlewood collaborated with Hamish Henderson, playwright Joe Corrie, Cllr Joe Kane and Norman Buchan in establishing and staging the first People’s Festival . This was a cultural festival for the ordinary folk of Edinburgh, who had been excluded from the International Festival by prices and snobbery.

The People’s Festival staged plays, recitals and musical performances at prices ordinary folk could afford and, unlike the main Festival, celebrated the Scottish folk tradition. The People’s Festival continued through to 1954 when it lost trade union financial backing after it was attacked by the Labour Party as being a “communist front”.

The Festival was revived and continued by the SSP in 2002.

 Though Joan and Ewan had continued to collaborate after their divorce this ended after the Theatre Workshop moved to the West End.Ewan then turned to his other love, traditional music. He played a leading role in nurturing the British folk revival by establishing one of the first folk clubs, the Ballads and Blues Club (later to become the Singers Club) in 1953.

Whilst running the club in 1956, he met and fell in love with the young American folk-singer Peggy Seeger (for whom he wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”). Peggy, like her half-brother Pete, had been blacklisted because of her left-wing politics and had decided to tour and perform in Europe.

Ewan left Jean Newlove and his young family and eventually married Peggy in 1959. They went on to become a great folk-singing duo and formed their own record company (Blackthorne) to publish theirs and others folk music.

In 1957 Ewan was commissioned by radio producer Charles Parker to write and appear in a number of musical documentaries for BBC which later became known as the “Radio Ballads”.

It’s difficult to now re-capture today how ground-breaking and influential these were at the time. Collaborating with Peggy, Ewan combined recorded interviews (with fishers, miners, navvies, etc.) with sound effects, specially written songs and traditional folk music.

Popular and critically successful many of the innovations MacColl used have become standard television techniques. For some while after this MacColl worked on school broadcasts and wrote scripts and music for BBC films, television and the stage.

MacColl also continued writing new songs as well as working with Peggy to collect songs from traditional singers such as the Gypsy Travellers of Scotland and England. Many of the 300 songs he wrote were ephemeral—in support of contemporary struggles and strikes. Others such as those already mentioned, “The Shoals of Herring” and “Freeborn Man” have become standards.

In 1979, MacColl suffered the first of several heart attacks and though his health became progressively worse he continued to tour. Throughout 1984/85 he performed with Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg to raise money for the striking miners. He died on 22 October 1989 following a heart operation.

By all accounts MacColl was a perfectionist who could be difficult to work with but his contribution to the folk revival was second to none and he left a legacy of great plays, songs and radio productions which documented working class life and struggle. Here’s to the memory of the Manchester Rambler.

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