Ewan MacColl - Biography

BY J Poet

Ewan MacColl was an actor, poet, playwright, and record producer, but will be most remembered for work as a folk singer, songwriter, and folklorist. He helped lay the foundation for the British folk revival and became one of its most outspoken champions, recording more than 100 albums of traditional folk song and his own compositions. In 1956 he began a lifelong collaboration and relationship with Peggy Seeger (Pete’s half sister) that produced dozens of fine albums, both traditional and of their own composition. His best-known song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” has been covered hundreds of times by folkies, jazz singers and pop stars including Elvis and Roberta Flack. His other hits include “Dirty Old Town,” “The Shoals of Herring,” “Freeborn Man” and “The Manchester Rambler.”


In 1987 he received an honorary degree from the University of Exeter and was awarded a posthumous degree by the University of Salford in 1991. There is a plaque dedicated to MacColl in Russell Square in London. The inscription reads in part - “Presented by his communist friends 25.1.1990.  Folk Laureate - Singer - Dramatist – Marxist. In recognition of the strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism.”


Ewan MacColl was born in 1915, the son of traditional singers and left wing political activists. His parents entertained family and fr9nds with the folk songs they’d learned from their families, which undoubtedly made a big impression on their son. In 1930, at the height of the worldwide depression, MacColl left school, sang in the streets and worked any job he could find. He started a group of agit-prop street performers called the Red Megaphones. MacColl was also writing for, and editing, newspapers as well as composing satirical political songs. In 1934 he met and married Joan Littlewood and they created The Theater of Action, a socially conscious group that produced and performed many plays. In 1936 they started The Theater Union another radical theater group that produced MacColl’s anti-fascist play Last Edition. The police raided their theater and they were barred from performing for two years.


After World War II, Littlewood and MacColl started The Theater Workshop. Littlewood directed, MacColl wrote and trained the actors. MacColl’s plays were popular and translated into German, French, Polish and Russian. At one time George Bernard said, “Apart from myself, MacColl is the only man of genius writing for the theatre in England today.” In 1950 he married Jean Newlove, and fathered two children Hamish and Kirsty, who grew up to be pop musicians. In the early 50s he saw the potential folk music had for educating people about social issues became a tireless champion of traditional music. He founded the Ballads and Blues Club, later known as The Singers Club, ground zero for Britain’s folk revival. (The club operated successfully until 1991.)


Like Alan Lomax, MacColl was a tireless collector and recorder of traditional songs. He discovered the singer Sam Larner on one collecting trip, and collaborated with folklorist and singer A. L. Lloyd to record one of the cornerstones of British and American folksong, a five- volume edition of the Child Ballads The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 1 – 5 (1956 Folkways). MacColl also cut dozens of great solo albums including Barrack Room Ballads (1958 Topic), Bad Lads and Hard Cases (1959 Tradition), Songs of Robert Burns (1959 Folkways) and Broadside Ballads, Vols 1 and 2 (1962 Folkways).


In 1956 MacColl met Peggy Seeger and they became musical collaborators for the rest of his life. They toured and recorded together from1957 until MacColl’s death in 1989. The continued collecting traditional songs and made close to 50 albums together including New Briton Gazette Vol. 1 (1960 Folkways), New Briton Gazette Vol. 2 (1962 Folkways),  Popular Scottish Songs (1960 Folkways) tunes that became folk standards of both the American and British folk revivals, Two Way Trip (1964 Folkways), songs common to both Britain and America, Traditional Songs and Ballads (1964 Folkways) and Kilroy Was Here (1980 Folkways) protest songs composed by MacColl and/or Seeger.


In 1958 MacColl was asked to write a series of plays about Britain’s working class. Instead of a straightforward narrative, MacColl and Seeger with collaborator Charles Parker combined recorded interviews with working people, folk songs sung by traditional singers and songs he composed and sang himself. The result he called Radio Ballads, and their mix of documentary, drama and song made them massively popular. They were originally released on Argo Records - Ballad of John Axon (1958), Song of a Road (1959), Singing The Fishing (1960), The Big Hewer (1961), The Body Blow (1962), On The Edge (1963), The Fight Game (1964) and The Traveling People (1964) – and are currently available as a box set The Radio Ballads (2006 Topic).


The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, a collection of MacColl’s songs complied by Seeger was published in the Summer of 2001 by Oak Publications. The Black and White (1991 Green Linnet) presents a good selection of MacColl’s best songs.

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