Ewan MacColl – An Introduction to Ewan MacColl
Topic Records – 25 May 2018
It is nearly 30 since Ewan MacColl died and other recording labels have stolen a march in the issuing of compilation CD’s in the meantime so this collection of his recordings for the Topic label is perhaps long overdue. It is, nevertheless, an interesting collection and a worthy snapshot of his folk singing career. Sadly, the Radio Ballads, perhaps some of MacColl’s most influential work, are absent from this collection – they were issued by Argo Records – but there is still much here that reminds us of his powerful influence in the early days of the folk revival, an influence which prompted one obituary to describe him as the godfather of the folk revival. The material also reflects what Peggy Seeger has described as ‘the policy’ from The Ballads and Blues Club (a title that says much about the material that was performed in those early days of the revival) which MacColl founded in 1953 with a few kindred spirits, namely when you’re onstage you sing folk songs from your own culture. There are songs here which reflect MacColl’s highly politicised upbringing in Lancashire to Scottish parents and the lives of what politicians are wont to describe these days as ‘ordinary working people’ (sic).
The album opens with an early recording – it dates from 1952 – of perhaps his most famous composition, Dirty Old Town, written in 1949, about Salford, the city of his birth. Even at this early stage in his recording career, his characteristic quavering voice is very much in evidence, helped along with a slightly bluesy guitar accompaniment. It is interesting to compare this early recording with those that follow, all of which date from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, where his voice sounds more robust and confident as on, for example, his rendition of The Press Gang, recorded in 1966, sung a capella with such command that the listener is left with no illusions about the life of a pressed man.
It is no surprise, given their long association, that he is joined on many of the tracks by Peggy Seeger on vocals, guitar or banjo but it is also good to hear on a couple of the tracks the concertina playing of Alf Edwards, a professional musician and regular contributor to Topic recordings in this era. Much of the content of this CD comprises traditional songs which surely reflect Ewan MacColl’s research – he collected a number of songs from Sam Larner for example – and his ability to bring songs from the tradition to new audiences. And what an interesting mix it is too. You might struggle to hear The Black Velvet Band sung in a folk club these days (and recorded by MacColl nine years before The Dubliners version was released) but his rendition of Sheepcrook and Black Dog sounds as fresh today as it did when he first released it just over 50 years ago.
The early days of the folk revival were times of heightened social consciousness and a number of the songs in MacColl’s repertoire – and thus this compilation – reflect this. Songs such as (The Ballad of) Jimmy Wilson – a song about racism in 1950’s America – Fourpence a Day – a tale of mining life – and even the duped sailor in The Black Velvet Band are tales of the trials and tribulations of working people’s lives. All of this may give this collection a certain period charm to modern ears but it is important to remember that these were political times and performers like MacColl, inspired by the likes of Alan Lomax, were thirsty for songs that had meaning and message.
The contribution that MacColl and his contemporaries made to the early days of the folk revival can never be underestimated and this CD is a fair representation of the songs and style of performance which so inspired a generation of young singers and musicians. It is, of course, but a snapshot of MacColl’s recorded legacy given that he worked with other record companies during his singing career but it is nevertheless a timely reminder of what a powerful performer he was.
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