A Rockapaedia Obituary
Ewan MacColl died aged seventy-four on 22nd October 1989 from complications following heart surgery in Hospital in London, U.K. He was survived by his third wife, Peggy, his sons Hamish, Calum and Neil, and his daughters Kitty and Kirsty.
Ewan MacColl was born as James Henry Miller on 25th January 1915 in Lancashire,U.K. and was brought up in an atmosphere of fierce political debate interspersed with the large repertoire of songs and stories his parents had brought from Scotland. He left school in 1930 after an elementary education, and began a lifelong programme of self-education whilst keeping warm in Manchester Central Library. During this period he found intermittent work in a number of jobs and also made money as a street singer.
He began his career as a writer helping produce and contributing humorous verse and skits to some of the Communist Party's factory papers. He was an activist in the unemployed workers' campaigns and the mass trespasses of the early 1930s.
In 1932 the British intelligence service, MI5, opened a file on Ewan MacColl, after local police asserted that he was "a communist with very extreme views" who needed "special attention". For a time the Special Branch kept a watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his first wife. MI5 intigated some of Ewan MacColl's songs to be rejected by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
During this period Ewan MacColl's enthusiasm for folk music grew. Inspired by the example of Alan Lomax, who had arrived in Britain and Ireland in 1950, and had done extensive fieldwork there, Ewan MacColl also began to collect and perform traditional ballads. His long involvement with Topic Records started in 1950 with his release of a single, "The Asphalter's Song", on that label. When, in 1953 Theatre Workshop decided to move to Stratford, London, Ewan MacColl, who had opposed that move, left the company and changed the focus of his career from acting and playwriting to singing and composing folk and topical songs.
Over the years Ewan MacColl recorded and produced upwards of a hundred albums, many with English folk song collector and singer A. L. Lloyd. The pair released an ambitious series of eight LP albums. Ewan MacColl produced a number of LPs with Irish singer songwriter Dominic Behan, a brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.
In 1956, Ewan MacColl caused a scandal when he fell in love with the then twenty-one -year-old Peggy Seeger, who had come to Britain to transcribe the music for Alan Lomax's anthology Folk Songs of North America. At the time Ewan MacColl, who was twenty years older than Peggy, was still married to his second wife , the mother of two of his children, Hamish and Kirsty.
Many of Ewan MacColl's best-known songs were written for the theatre. For example, he wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" very quickly at the request of Peggy Seeger, who needed it for use in a play she was appearing in. He taught it to her by long-distance telephone, while she was on tour in the United States, from which Ewan MacColl had been barred because of his Communist past. Peggy Seeger said that Ewan MacColl used to send her tapes to listen to whilst they were apart and that the song was on one of them.
This song became a Number one hit in 1972 when recorded by Roberta Flack and won Ewan MacColl a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, while Flack received a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
In 1959, Ewan MacColl began releasing LP albums on Folkways Records, including several collaborative albums with Peggy Seeger. His song "Dirty Old Town", inspired by his home town of Salford in Lancashire, was written to bridge an awkward scene change in his play Landscape with Chimneys. It went on to become a folk-revival staple and was recorded by the Spinners and Donovan in 1964, Roger Whittaker and the Dubliners in 1968, Rod Stewart in 1969, the Clancy Brothers in 1970, the Pogues in 1985, the Mountain Goats in 2002, Simple Minds in 2003, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists in 2003, Frank Black in 2006 and Bettye LaVette in 2012.
Ewan MacColl was one of the main composers of British protest songs during the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s. In the early '50s he penned "The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh" and "The Ballad of Stalin" for the British Communist Party.
When asked about the song in a 1985 interview, he said that it was "a very good song" and that "it dealt with some of the positive things that Stalin did". In 1992, after his death, Peggy Seeger included it as an annex in her Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, saying that she had originally planned to exclude the song on the grounds that Ewan would not have wanted it included, but decided to include it as an example of his work in his early career.
Ewan MacColl sang and composed numerous protest and topical songs for the nuclear disarmament movement, for example "Against the Atom Bomb"., The Vandals, Nightmare and Nuclear Means Jobs.
Ewan MacColl dedicated an entire album to the lifestyle of Gypsies in his 1964 album The Travelling People. Many of the songs spoke against the prejudice against Roma Gypsies, although some would also contain derogatory remarks about "tinkers", which is a word for Irish Travellers.
He wrote "The Ballad of Tim Evans" a song protesting capital punishment, based on an infamous murder case in which an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was condemned and executed, before the real culprit was discovered.
Ewan MacColl was very active during the miners' strike of 1984–85 in distributing free cassettes of songs supportive of the National Union of Miners, entitled Daddy, what did you do in the strike?. The title song was unusually aggressive in its language towards the strikebreakers. This collection was only released on cassette and remaining copies are rare, but some of the less aggressive songs have featured on other compilations. At Ewan MacColl's 70th birthday party, he was presented by Arthur Scargill with a miner's lamp to show appreciation for his support.
In his last interview in August 1988, Ewan MacColl stated that he still believed in a socialist revolution and that the communist parties of the west had become too moderate. He stated that he had been a member of the Communist Party but left because he felt that the Soviet Union was "not communist or socialist enough".
Ewan MacColl had been a radio actor since 1933. By the late 1930s he was writing scripts as well. In 1957 producer Charles Parker asked Ewan MacColl to collaborate in the creation of a feature programme about the heroic death of train driver John Axon. Normal procedure would have been to use the recorded field interviews only as source for writing the script. Ewan MacColl produced a script that incorporated the actual voices and so created a new form that they called the radio ballad.
Between 1957 and 1964, eight of these were broadcast by the BBC, all created by the team of Ewan MacColl and Parker together with Peggy Seeger who handled musical direction, conducted a great many field interviews, and wrote songs, either together with Ewan MacColl or alone. Ewan MacColl wrote the scripts and songs, as well as, with the others, collecting the field recordings which were the heart of the productions.
Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl recorded several albums of searing political commentary songs. Ewan MacColl himself wrote over 300 songs, some of which have been recorded by artists including Planxty, Phil Ochs, the Clancy Brothers, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. In 2001, The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook was published, which includes the words and music to 200 of his songs.
There is a plaque dedicated to Ewan MacColl in Russell Square in London. In 1991 he was awarded a posthumous honorary degree by the University of Salford.
In 1965 Ewan and Peggy formed the Critics Group around a number of young followers, with Charles Parker in attendance, frequently recording the group's weekly sessions at Ewan MacColl and Seeger's home. The initial aim of improving musical skills soon broadened to performing at political events, the Singers' Club where Ewan MacColl, Seeger and Lloyd were featured artists and theatre productions.