Friday 19 October 2018

The left-wing firebrand who gave us some of our most popular tunes

Legendary singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, whose 100th anniversary occurs this year, was able to teach the Irish a thing or two about their own culture, remembers Joe Kennedy

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
Performance: Ewan MacColl, left, performing in 1970.
Luke Kelly performed many of Ewan MacColl's songs.

THIS is the centenary year of the birth of Ewan MacColl - real name Jimmy Miller - the left-wing firebrand, actor and writer who was the godfather of the popular song movement of the 1960s known in Britain and Ireland as the folk revival. In this country, unlike the UK, his songs became extremely popular, frequently aired on RTE radio - and one of them even became a number-one Top 10 chart hit.

The late Luke Kelly of The Dubliners was the most accomplished vehicle for MacColl's material, having studied under 'The Master' at an informal university at Beckenham in Kent where around 1960-61 he took courses in drama, voice projection and political philosophy and immersed himself in the contemporary social awareness song-writing movement.

When Kelly returned to Dublin he gave first public airings to MacColl's songs long before they were recorded by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem or by Kelly himself, when he became part of the group guided by Ronnie Drew which eventually became The Dubliners.

Small, enthusiastic audiences in one of the first folk song clubs over the International Bar in Wicklow Street, organised by the United Arts Club legendary figure the late Peggy Jordan, and in the back lounge of O'Donoghue's pub in Merrion Row became familiar with MacColl classics such as The Shoals of Herring, Freeborn Man (better known as The Travelling People), Dirty Old Town, Schooldays Over and the haunting love song, The First Time Ever I saw Your Face - which had some challenging lyrics for those days such as "The first time ever I lay with you/And felt your heart beat under mine…"

A Communist street agitator and actor-playwright who had been politically active since he left school at 14 in Salford, Lancashire with its slums and toxic factories, MacColl had little interest in the pop music scene, which he considered to be another aspect of capitalist decadence. But there is no doubt that the royalties from his work, especially from Irish radio airings, were welcomed.

Thousands of albums, which included his songs, recorded by the Clancys, sold throughout the US in the 1960s, and here in 1966-1967, a single disc of The Travelling People by fledgling folk teen group The Johnstons from Slane, Co Meath, sold enough copies to be top of the charts for months and attract a page lead story in the top UK music paper Melody Maker curious about how MacColl, the writer of serious, socially-aware material, could have a song in the charts.

"It could only happen in Ireland," the paper decided, not appreciating the significance of a song touching on the lives of Travellers - no matter how romantic - could have on the Irish public.

MacColl had classic left-wing credentials. He was the son of a Scots iron moulder whom, he said, had cried when he heard of Lenin's death. He was married three times, first to theatre director Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London, then to choreographer Jean Newlove and latterly to the US folk singer Peggy Seeger.

Three of his five children followed him into music - Kirsty, daughter of Jean and famous for her vocal work with The Pogues, was tragically killed in a swimming accident in 2000, and Neill and Callum, sons of Peggy, are gifted guitarists.

His most important canon of work was the series Radio Ballads produced for the BBC by Charles Parker which were narratives, interspersed with songs in the folk idiom, about the difficult lives of fishermen, miners, road builders, railwaymen, boxers and travelling folk. These were published by Topic Records and are now re-issued on CDs as BBC recordings.

MacColl had an abiding respect for traditional Irish song and for the work of collectors such as Seamus Ennis with whom he worked.

Seosamh O hEanaigh, the greatest sean nos singer of his day, appeared with him on many concert tours as well as on the Radio Ballads.

I remember vividly MacColl losing his patience at a midnight concert at the old Grafton cinema in Dublin in the mid-1960s when some pub turn-outs voiced disapproval of O hEanaigh singing a long classical ballad which was beyond their comprehension, being in Irish. From the stage, MacColl threatened direct action for silence, a case of shut up or get out. The audience hushed and many people learned something about their own tradition that night.

MacColl and Peggy Seeger played many concerts in Ireland over a 20-year period, many in Liberty Hall. Their last appearance was at the National Concert Hall in 1988. MacColl died the following year aged 74.

For all his marvellous lyrics he could not be described as an outstanding performer of his work.

The stirring voice of Luke Kelly, sharpened on the streets of north Dublin and honed on the British folk club circuit, put them, uniquely into the repertoire of Irish folk songs.

MacColl understood this and was undoubtedly flattered. It was, after all, part of the "folk process", as his brother-in-law the legendary Pete Seeger described it.

Veteran journalist Joe Kennedy wrote about arts and entertainment for the Evening Herald in the 1960s where he was features editor and, later, deputy editor. He was born in 1935

Sunday Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top