Preview of a new 2-CD set honoring Ewan MacColl
and WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for September 13, 2015
This week’s show featured a spotlight on a new CD collection that celebrates one of the folk revival’s most influential artists in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Born in England, he was known as the “godfather” of the UK Folk Revival. During his lifetime he was also acknowledged as an actor, playwright, poet, producer and labor activist. As a folksinger and songwriter, his music reached and influenced generations. He was commissioned to create pieces for labor unions, political causes and the BBC. He was a lifelong socialist, Marxist and a onetime member of the Communist Party. His political beliefs caused him to be banned from touring the United States for many years, but he would win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year when Roberta Flack recorded his song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1972.
Despite his accomplishments, Ewan MacColl’s sometimes controversial views may have held back the accolades warranted for the body of work he left us. That is being rectified in 2015, the centenary of his birth, and a new 2-CD tribute collection, Joy of Living – A Tribute to Ewan MacColl (Cooking Vinyl- and to be distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Compass Records on October 30.) The collection showcases MacColl’s songs as interpreted by artists from across the globe.
MacColl was born James Henry Miller in 1915, but took the stage name of Ewan MacColl in 1945. His interest in acting led to a career in political theater during the 1930s and 1940s. His interest in folk music also grew, and he drew inspiration from Alan Lomax who was doing field work in Britain in 1950. MacColl became involved with Topic Records and began to collect record and perform traditional ballads. In 1953, the Theatre Workshop that he was involved with decided to relocate to another part of England, and MacColl left the group to focus his talents on singing and composing topical songs. In 1956 he fell in love with Peggy Seeger who had been working in England transcribing music for Lomax. This caused something of a scandal at the time as Peggy Seeger was 20 years younger than MacColl who was still married to his second wife.
Many of MacColl’s best known songs were written for use in the theater and radio. From 1957 through 1964, MacColl was involved with creating music for a radio series broadcast by the BBC. These songs became known as “radio ballads,” used to help illustrate the stories told by this ground breaking radio documentary series.
Joy of Living serves as a testament to MacColl’s command of using words as tools for provoking thought. This new collection was produced by MacColl’s sons Calum and Neill who chose a diverse group of artists from various countries with a variety of musical styles. Pop, rock and folk artists from both sides of the Atlantic are featured – Damien Dempsey, Martin Carthy, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman, Marry Waterson, Dick Gaughan, Billy Bragg, Chaim Tannenbaum, Steve Earle, Eliza Carthy, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Buchanan, Paul Brady, Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson, Christy Moore, Karine Polwart, Kathryn Williams, Jack Steadman & Jamie MacColl (Bombay Bicycle Club), Rufus & Martha Wainwright & David Gray.
The 21 songs in the collection may represent issues of previous eras, but they are given new life and relevance through the interpretations of these contemporary artists. The songs and their fitting performances also show MacColl’s wide range of subject and ability to influence varied artists.
While I normally listen to a new CD from first song to end, my eagerness and curiosity drove me to start with Steve Earle’s performance of “Dirty Old Town.” The song written in 1949 for use as an interlude in a play set in an industrial town in the north of England. MacColl used memories of growing up during the 1920s in the slums of Salford in Lancashire, England to create what would become one of his most recorded songs. The Dubliners made it a hit single in the 1968 and it has been performed by a variety of artists over the years including the Clancy Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Rod Stewart and a memorable recording by the Pogues. Steve Earle’s new interpretation show that the issues are still relevant, and unfortunately universal. Earle is also a link to the social relevant artist that MacColl encouraged and nurtured during his life.