Ewan MacColl was born James Henry Miller in Salford, England in 1915 of Scottish parents, his father was an iron moulder , socialist and labour union activist. The family was living within a Scottish community in Salford – Manchester, after being blacklisted in Scotland.
Maximilien Luce: Charleroi Foundry, Casting (1896)
oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm
Ewan MacColl left school age 14, founding a political theatre troupe he became a dramatist and actor. In the early 30’s he met and married actor Joan Littlewood. The family was under MI5 surveillance from 1932 also preventing some of MacColl’s song from BBC airplay.
My old man he was fifty-one – What was he to do?
A craftsman moulder on the dole – In nineteen thirty-two
He felt he’d given all he could give
So he did what thousands of others did
Abandoned hope and the will to live – They killed him, my old man
Besides MacColl’s playwriting and acting, he became increasingly interested in working class music, and inspired by American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax he began to collect and perform traditional folk songs. Leading MacColl to open the Ballads and Blues club in Soho in 1953, giving birth to 50’s Brittish folk revival.
MacColl met only 21-year-old Peggy Seeger, half-sister of American folksinger Pete Seeger, she had relocated to Europe warned that McCarthy era US State Department would withdraw her US passport, after she had visited China against official advice.
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger together on Dirty Old Town:
I found my love where the gaslight falls
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town
MacColl is clearly a debatable figure, hardcore communist and even Stalinist, but honestly how many of us today can relate to how life must have been growing up in working class slums in the early 20’s, not to mention pre-revolution Russia. My grandfather was a foundry worker too and just as loyal to Soviet Union as MacColl.
Every soldier is a farmer
Comes the evening and he grabs his hoe
Comes the morning he swings his rifle on his shoulder
This is the army of Uncle Ho.
Anyway no matter what you may think about his somewhat outdated political views, Ewan MacColl influence on folk music is unquestionable and his best songs have been covered by many different artists, from Roberta Flack, Johnny Cash and Rod Steward to Irish-British punk band The Pogues.
Miley Cyrus version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”