Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MacCOLL, Ewan

(b James Miller, 25 January 1915, Salford; d 22 October 1989, London) Folksinger, songwriter, playwright; one of the most important architects of the British folk revival. He grew up at a time when the British class attitude of 'them and us' was the only one on offer; he learned songs from his parents, saw his father's generation tossed on the trash heap during the Depression and became a life-long Communist, reinventing himself including birth in Perthshire, Scotland. The truth came out definitively only in a BBC documentary 'The Ballad Of Ewan MacColl', made with his assistance and completed shortly after his death.

He left school at 14 and was a street singer among other things; with his first wife, actress Joan Littlewood, he formed a Theatre Workshop in London '45 and wrote eight plays, many translated into several languages; Uranium 235 was compared to the work of Ibsen and Shaw. He fell out with Littlewood when her innovative theatrical work seemed to go soft. He turned to traditional music '50 and played an important role in its revival, recognizing the importance of folk clubs for disseminating it. He formed the London Critics Group with Frankie Armstrong and others for the study of folk music; they wrote songs and made albums; he collected songs and published anthologies. Jean Newlove became his second wife and among their children was Kirsty MacColl (see her entry).

With producer Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger and others he embarked '57 on a series of eight 'radio ballads' (documentaries about folk music), several issued on Argo. He was Chairman of the Pete Seeger Committee in London '61 when Seeger was being persecuted in the USA for his politics; Seeger's half-sister Peggy became his third wife. He was one of those who was disappointed when Bob Dylan turned out not to be a pure folkie, but by then UK folk music already owed MacColl an enormous debt. His song 'Dirty Old Town' was covered by the Dubliners, Rod Stewart, many others. Many albums issued/reissued on many labels included English And Scottish Folk Ballads (with A. L. Lloyd), Bundook Ballads, The Jacobite Rebellions, Steamwhistle Ballads, The Manchester Angel, all on Topic; volumes of Blood And Roses, Cold Snap, Kilroy Was Here, Different Therefore Equal, Hot Blast, Saturday Night At The Bull And Mouth all with Peggy were on Blackthorne, some on Folkways in the USA with her name first; plus Freeborn Man and At The Present Moment on Rounder. His best-known song was a love song for Seeger, 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' (a hit for Roberta Flack '71, won Grammys '72, became a cabaret standard); in the BBC documentary accompanied by her own autoharp and a discreetly strummed guitar, she sang 'Thoughts Of Time', one of the most moving things this writer has ever heard on the tube. Their son Callum MacColl is also a musican; he contributed to Eric Maddern's Ngatigirri Sunrise '85.

He finished an autobiography, Journeyman, not long before he died, first published in 1990. A new edition in 2009 had an introduction by Peggy. Paul Genders wrote in the Time Literary Supplement, 'Re-edited from MacColl's original manuscript, more to salvage what was not included first time round than to streamline its author's flow, this expanded Journeyman sometimes meanders, and is often torrential, but then so did the journey, and so was the man.'