Ewan MacColl would have been 100 tomorrow. Dave Harbord invites you to celebrate
FROM tiny acorns, mighty oak trees grow. And when Ewan MacColl — who would have been 100 years old tomorrow — and his fellow folk enthusiasts began planting the seeds of traditional music in clubs and pubs in the late 1950s and ’60s, they could only have dreamed that it would blossom the way it did.
Folk music has recently undergone another exciting revival with new bands, artists and ideas — but it’s still firmly rooted in the songs and tunes rescued from dusty archives by the likes of MacColl, Bert Lloyd, the American song collector Alan Lomax and others.
Most of these early revivalists were left-wing and keen to give voice to the music of the people, but it is lifelong Marxist MacColl who shines out like a beacon.
Born James Henry Miller in Salford, Lancashire, this active Young Communist League member deserted from the British army five months after being conscripted in 1940, only to reappear at the end of the second world war as Ewan MacColl — a name which reflected his parents’ Scottish heritage.
At first he was more interested in the theatre, where he met and married his first wife Joan Littlewood in 1934 — but by the early 1950s he was drawn to folk music.
He opened his first club in London in 1957 and the renowned Singers Club in 1961.
His somewhat dogmatic approach to the music, insisting that singers only sang songs from their own tradition, brought him into conflict with many with a more relaxed approach. He famously threw a young Bob Dylan off the stage because he thought he was just a poor imitator of Woody Guthrie.
The Geordie singer Bob Davenport, quoted in the superb Singing From The Floor — A History of British Folk Clubs by JP Bean (Faber), said of MacColl and his partner Peggy Seeger: “For them to dictate was not for me. Traditional music was for entertaining, it wasn’t for a further education class.”
However, there was no disputing MacColl’s amazing talent as a songwriter. One of his earliest songs was The Manchester Rambler, about the 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout, followed by Dirty Old Town, written about Salford in 1949.
But it was in the Radio Ballads series with BBC producer Charles Parker that gave free rein to his song writing.
The series of eight shows, broadcast from 1958 to 1964 and focusing on different jobs and ways of life produced a stream of songs now fully absorbed into the folk tradition — Shoals of Herring, School Days Over, Go, Move Shift and Thirty-foot Trailer to name but a few.
Dozens of other great songs followed, and one actually topped the charts in 1972 — First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, sung by Roberta Flack and written for MacColl’s great love, partner and co-singer Seeger.
An oak tree stands as a memorial to the great Ewan MacColl. It was planted by friends and admirers in 1990 in London’s Russell Square, with the inscription: “Folk Laureate, Singer, Dramatist, Marxist. This oak tree was planted in recognition of the strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for peace and socialism.”
A group of those admirers will be there tomorrow to raise a glass to the great man. Happy Birthday, Ewan.
Comrades wishing to pay respects are requested to gather at noon on Sunday, on the north side of Russell Square, by Ewan MacColl’s oak tree.