Last week, I went up to Salford, the city right next to Manchester, to the tribute to Ewan MacColl, who died just over 20 years ago. Born James Miller into a working class Scots couple who’d relocated to Broughton to escape a blacklist, he left school at 14 just as the 1930s depression was kicking in. He got involved in music, acting and playwriting, as well as left wing politics from a young age.
In terms of his music, he’s probably best known for his part in the British folk revival. He collected hundreds of traditional songs from Scotland and from other parts of Britain, recording new versions of them and rescuing many from obscurity. He also wrote prodigiously, and many of the songs he wrote became folk standards (often to the point that many people think they are far older). He also produced many protest songs, some of which became anthems for particular groups.
The three most famous songs he wrote are The Manchester Rambler, written around the time of the Kinder Scout mass trespasses of the 1930s, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, written for Peggy Seeger who he had an affair with in the 1950s and who later became his wife, and Dirty Old Town, written as a filler for a play but adopted by countless Irish bands (despite the ‘Old Town’ of the title being Salford, rather than Dublin as is commonly assumed).
Politically, he was for most of his life a communist. He even wrote songs extolling the virtues of the likes of Stalin and Ho Chi Minh. Despite that dubious allegiance, his politics did have a positive side – he was a long time peace campaigner and supporter of trade unions and civil liberties, and always held the cause of the common man and woman as paramount.
So, at the concert there were plenty of folkies, peaceniks and lefties. Peggy Seeger performed several songs, including The First Time… and The Joy of Living, which were incredibly powerful – the latter was written shortly before Ewan MacColl died as a farewell to the people and places he loved, and the only other time I saw it performed was around that time when he and Peggy played at the Hawth in Crawley.
There were other stalwarts of the ‘Critics Group’, the tightly knit collective of performers and writers who worked in London from the 1960s, and in which MacColl was instrumental. There were also some younger artists, including a particularly earnest American-Scot who writes lots of peace songs, and Jez Lowe, a sardonic and entertaining songwriter from County Durham.
The audience were encouraged to join in (which is not always that relaxing or tuneful, but did create a friendly atmosphere), and at the end everyone joined in with The Manchester Rambler – made all the more authentic with the dominance of the local accent producing the odd “Man-chus-TOH” in the chorus.
What struck me about it, coming as it did a few days after the fuss about the BNP appearing on Question Time, was that this was an event which was celebrating the life of a ‘white working class’ Briton, in a room filled with white British people, revelling in the sounds of traditional English, Scottish and Irish music and song.
Yet I can bet anything that not one of the people in that room would have any truck with the fascist BNP. What’s more, I bet they’d have had no time for MacColl, even if he’s done more to revitalise traditional English/British working class culture than any of that bunch have managed.