McColl’s Gift

Jimmy and Finlay are presenting this show (a scripted talk with songs and slides) on
Ewan MacColl’s legacy to the folk revival. We chart his evolution from son of emigre Scots
in Salford through his involvement in radical theatre up to the 1950s and his subsequent
transformation from the acclaimed playwright Jimmy Miller to the folksinger, song maker
and collector Ewan MacColl. We will be performing many of Ewan’s own songs, songs he
collected and others he researched and introduced to the emerging folk revival. This style
of presentation is one of many topics we do under the heading “folkumentaries”. (See
elsewhere on our website)
We both met Ewan on many occasions from our involvement in the folk revival from the
60s onwards, as performers and folk club organisers. Ewan was great source of inspiration
to us, both in terms of the songs he popularised, wrote and collected and his commitment
to the indigenous music and songs of these islands. Ewan and his partner Peggy Seeger
ran workshops for young performers on various aspects of singing and accompanying folk
songs and we attended many of these. As a result of this we set up, with others, in the 70s
the Tradition Folk Club in Glasgow which featured not only Ewan and Peggy (many times)
but also “source” singers like Belle Stewart and Lizzie Higgins. Also for a number years we
performed a “folkumentary” with the late Alistair Hulett entitled “Ewan MacColl and the
Politics of the Folksong Revival” which dealt with MacColl’s political ideas and their
implications for his work and career.
We believe that folk music today owes Ewan MacColl a great debt which for the most part
goes unacknowledged or is recognised often grudgingly. A glance at his discography
shows the huge number albums that he and Peggy recorded, bringing neglected and
forgotten songs back popularity.. They brought into the folk repertoire many of the songs
that we take for granted today. Their books, “The Singing Island” and “Scot’s Songs and
Ballads” were indispensable in making a wealth of material available to young singers in
the pre-digital age. His own compositions, many of which like “Shoals of Herring” are now
often thought of as old traditional songs and have been recorded by a huge range of
artistes from Elvis Presley and Roberta Flack through to Martin Bennet and Dick Gaughan.
His work with Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger on the Radio Ballads still stands the test
of time both in the number of great songs they produced and the innovative quality and
freshness of the documentaries themselves.
Ewan took folk music very seriously and had an intellectual approach to it. This both
involved performance and singing in which he used techniques he brought from his work
as an actor/director and also of analysing and interrogating the material both textually and
musically. He formed a singing discussion group known as The Critics’ Group who
performed to each other and then analysed and criticised their performances with the aim
of improving their singing and communication. He, with Peggy, also wrote several books
about travellers and their songs which he had collected and, importantly, encouraged
young revival singers to explore sources for similar material in their own areas.
Alan Lomax was pivotal in MacColl’s development as a folksinger. It was Lomax who
persuaded him to take folk music seriously as a project. He also introduced MacColl to
both Bert Lloyd and Peggy Seeger, with whom he set up the first British folk song club. You
could say that it was these introductions that kick-started the British folksong revival. It is
also interesting to note that Lomax was responsible for the birth of the folk revival in the
US a decade earlier when he introduced Pee Seeger to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. It
is Lomax’s centenary also this year.

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