Ewan MacColl to be celebrated in song

Singer Ewan MacColl. Picture: Contributed
Singer Ewan MacColl. Picture: Contributed
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TOMORROW will be the 100th anniversary of Ewan MacColl’s birth, and a major concert will celebrate his life’s work

For many of us it’s hard to conceive that Ewan MacColl, a pivotal figure in the British folk revival during the 20th century and the writer of such enduring songs as Dirty Old Town, Shoals of Herring and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, was born 100 years ago tomorrow – sharing a birth date with that other great songwriter and collector, Robert Burns.

Tomorrow night, Celtic Connections marks MacColl’s centenary to the very day with a major celebration of his work in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl will see luminaries of the folk scene and well beyond perform his songs, ranging from such folk stalwarts as Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and Martin and Eliza Carthy to Kate St John, Jarvis Cocker and the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan.

The evening has been curated by MacColl’s sons by his marriage to Peggy Seeger – Calum and Neill MacColl – both musicians themselves who will also perform at the concert. This centenary year will be a busy one for them as they’re involved in numerous commemorations including a four-album boxed compilation being released by Topic Records and a tribute album on Cooking Vinyl which will feature many of the guests at tomorrow night’s Glasgow event, as well as other luminaries such as Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg and Christy Moore.

“We’re doing a lot of events this coming year, and Celtic Connections seemed an obvious one – and it’s on Ewan’s birthday,” says Neill, who earlier in the month had been touring with Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterston’s Gift Band.

Choosing tomorrow night’s repertoire from his father’s estimated output of 300 songs must have involved a fair degree 
of head-scratching. Some are obvious choices: Dirty Old Town, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (which won Grammy awards for both MacColl and Roberta Flack, who topped the charts with it in 1972), Shoals of Herring and Freeborn Man.

Arguably lesser-known material will include the likes of The Battle is Done With, from The Fight Game, one of the groundbreaking Radio Ballads series that MacColl wrote with Peggy Seeger and BBC producer Charles Parker, as well as The Father’s Song and the powerful Terror Time, one of several songs MacColl wrote about the travelling people.

“We’ll sing a few songs as well,” Neill adds. “I’m going to sing The Joy of Living and Calum will sing Sweet Thames Flow Softly.” And in a nod to the traditional side of their father’s singing, they’re also planning a sequence of sea shanties they’ll perform with their own children.

Growing up in the MacColl-Seeger household, one might imagine that it would be well nigh impossible to become anything other than a musician. Neill, now 55, would hardly have grown up to be an accountant, I suggest.

He laughs: “I don’t know. People rebel in the opposite direction, don’t they? Frankly, I think it’s just a case of absorbing it and realising that people can make a living from music. So you go that way, and after a certain point you’ve spent so much time doing it as a teenager, and failed your A-levels because you’re playing music all the time, that there are fewer options.”

Born Jimmy Miller, in Salford, to fiercely politically minded Scots parents, Ewan MacColl adopted the name under which he would become famous in 1945 when he was deeply involved with Theatre Workshop, whose director, Joan Littlewood, became his first wife.

His talents, of course, stretched far beyond his singing and his politically driven songwriting. He and Seeger were avid song collectors, including from Scotland’s travellers, publishing a notable study of the Stewarts of Blairgowrie, Till Doomsday in the Afternoon. He was a playwright, actor and producer – not least as co-creator with Seeger and Parker of those Radio Ballads, which brought ordinary working people’s experience to the airwaves, combining their own accounts with songs written by MacColl which sounded so authentic that years later interpreters were claiming them as traditional.

He was a man with a reputation for having strong views on what people should sing and how, and I ask Neill what he thinks his father would have made of the line-up and repertoire for the concert.

“I’ve no idea,” he responds. “I would hope by now he would have mellowed slightly, at the age of 100.”

Neill, however, reckons his father’s reputation for being authoritarian is largely unjustified.

“If you look at his recorded work, after all, it’s hard to call him a purist. On his album of Jacobite songs, 
he’s accompanied largely on banjo by my mother. There’s nothing purist about that, and that goes for 
a lot of the rest of his recorded 
work.

“Although he was very affected, certainly on the Radio Ballads, by the English folk canon, if you listen to a lot of his other writing it’s influenced by the music he grew up with, including the popular music of the Thirties and Forties.

“I think there was a moment in time when he and Peggy were trying to explore singing from your own region and that kind of stuff. And he kind of got branded with that moment. Also, that whole thing of singing only from your place 
of origin was Mum’s idea, and it only really applied in their folk club [the famous Singers’ Club in London].”

His father, he agrees, could be dogmatic – “but with somebody that powerful it kind of goes with the territory”. “He lived for folk music, politics and the theatre, so these were never far from the home. But he was also a very funny man, a great storyteller. When he put you to bed at night he’d obviously spent an hour or two thinking about the story he was going to tell you.”

MacColl died in October 1989, aged 74. His passing, as fellow folk singer Ewan McVicar wrote in an obituary in this newspaper, “deprives us too early of a bonny fechter and a remarkable songwriter and singer who inspired countless others throughout the world of folk”.

The people’s music, he concluded, had “lost a champion”. The enduring strength of that bonny fechter’s legacy, however, in song and in spirit, should be amply demonstrated tomorrow night.

• For further details see celticconnections.com