Many of you will already be familiar with the Radio Ballads which was put together by folk singers Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and ex-submarine commander turned recording pioneer Charles Parker. The first ballad ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ was aired on radio in 1958. It was the first musical documentary of its kind, it was revolutionary in that it combined music with the speech of working people. Whilst this may sound strange today documentaries were usually scripted and read by actors…you’d be lucky to hear any regional accent. This was all just before radio made way for television.
Peter Cox’s brilliant book ‘Set into Song’ which tells the story the Radio Ballads explained how those ballads had a huge impact upon documentary makers in the 60’s in both radio and television and were even used in BBC training courses. In 1971 Philip Donnellan adapted the Radio Ballad ‘Singing the Fishing’ into a TV documentary called ‘Shoals of Herring’ which was televised on BBC 2 in 1972. Donnellan wanted to to show the fishermens struggle and how they were being exploited, he felt the original Radio Ballad lacked political edge…something Ewan MacColl would never have taken kindly to. Whilst many Scots families owned their fishing boats Donnellan saw the English fishermen as wage slaves to the the big fishing industrial groups. He also blamed them for the fishing industry collapse…fishing for profit. Extra stanzas were added to the songs to reflect the decline.
I only recently discovered that the full documentary was on Youtube, you can watch it below (in five parts). I’ve also included an audio documentary featuring Peter Cox who wrote ‘Set Into Song’, it gives a great background to the Radio Ballads as well the main characters: Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger ad Charles Parker.
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Peter Cox: The Radio Ballads