Ewan MacColl

(1915—1989) songwriter, folk-singer, and playwright

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Born as Jimmy Miller in Salford, of Scottish parents, Ewan MacColl was one of the key architects of the post-war folk-song revival, and a dominant but controversial figure in its development for decades. A lifelong communist, his initial passion was workers' theatre, and in a series of influential groups throughout the 1930s and 1940s, culminating with the Theatre Workshop, he became well known in left-wing drama circles as actor, producer, writer, and propagandist. MacColl moved away from the theatre after the Second World War, although his expertise in dramatic production never left him and imbued much of his subsequent work. In the early 1950s, at the suggestion of American folklorist and collector Alan Lomax, MacColl teamed up with A. L. Lloyd and others to found the new British folk-song revival movement. The timing was perfect. By means of the Ballads and Blues club (which later became the Singers' Club), radio programmes for the BBC (including drama-documentaries in which MacColl's theatrical experience was evident), articles, innumerable concerts, talks, LP records, appearances at Trade Union meetings, clubs, and other venues, they laid the foundations for a highly successful national movement. MacColl's hardline political agenda had its devotees but also alienated many in the new movement, and his subsequent actions brought equal amounts of praise and vehement criticism. MacColl's partnership with his third wife, American-born Peggy Seeger, added an expert musical dimension to his career. In addition to researching British folk traditions, with particular emphasis on the songs and language of industrial and urban workers, MacColl also wrote hundreds of songs—political and otherwise—including one, ‘The First Time Ever I saw Your Face’, which was recorded by various pop singers including Elvis Presley and Roberta Flack, who topped the US charts with it in 1972. One particular triumph was the series of Radio Ballads (1958–64) programmes made with Seeger and Charles Parker, which broke new ground by their use of tape-recordings of ordinary people talking about their lives in a range of topics, including coal-mining, boxing, Gypsies, teenagers, and herring fishing. MacColl's entire career can be explained in terms of his fascination with language and attempts to understand, record, replicate, and utilize it.

Main folklore publications: Scotland Sings: A Collection of Folk Songs and Ballads (1953); The Shuttle and the Cage: Industrial Folk-Ballads (1954). The following with Peggy Seeger: The Singing Island (1960); Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland (1977); Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: The Folklore of a Family of Scots Travellers, the Stewarts of Blairgowrie (1986).

Ewan MacColl, Journeyman: An Autobiography (1990); Ewan MacColl, in Raphael Samuel et al. (eds.), Theatres of the Left 1880–1935 (1985), 205–55;Karl Dallas, ED&S 51:4 (1989), 11–14; Obituary by Pat Mackenzie and Jim Carroll, FMJ 6:1 (1990), 121–4; Interviews by Fred Woods, Folk Review (May 1973), 4–7; (June 1973), 4–7; (July 1973), 4–8; (Aug. 1973), 6–8.

Subjects: Music.

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