Ewan McColl

Ewan McColl

born on 15/1/1915 in Salford, Greater Manchester, United Kingdom

died on 22/10/1989 in Beckenham, London, United Kingdom

Alias Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Ewan MacColl

Born James Henry Miller
January 25 1915
Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, England
Died 22 October 1989 (aged 74)
Brompton, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England
Occupation Playwright, folksinger, labour activist
Years active 193089
Spouse(s) Joan Littlewood (1934-1950; divorced)
Jean Newlove (divorced); 2 children
Peggy Seeger (25 January 197722 October 1989; his death); 3 children

James Henry Miller (25 January 1915 22 October 1989), better known by his stage name Ewan MacColl, was an English folk singer, songwriter, communist, labour activist, actor, poet, playwright, and record producer. He was thrice married: to theatre director Joan Littlewood, to Jean Newlove, with whom he had two children including the singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl, and to American folksinger Peggy Seeger, with whom he had three children, Kitty, Calum and Niall. He collaborated with Littlewood in the theatre, and with Seeger in folk music.

Early life and early career

MacColl was born as James Henry Miller at 4 Andrew Street, in Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, England, UK,[1] to Scottish parents, William and Betsy (née Henry) Miller, both socialists. William Miller was an iron moulder and militant trade unionist who had moved to Salford with his wife, a charwoman, to look for work after being blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland.[2] James Miller was the youngest and only surviving child in the family of three sons and one daughter (one of each sex was stillborn and one son died at the age of four). They lived amongst a group of émigré Scots and Jimmy 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 was educated at Grecian Street School in Salford. He left school in 1930 after an elementary education, during the Great Depression and, joining the ranks of the unemployed, began a lifelong programme of self-education whilst keeping warm in the Manchester Public Library. During this period he found intermittent work in a number of jobs and also made money as a street singer.[2]

He joined the Young Communist League and a socialist amateur theatre troupe, the Clarion Players. 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. One of his best-known songs, "The Manchester Rambler", was written after the pivotal mass trespass of Kinder Scout. He was responsible for publicity in the planning of the trespass.[3]

In 1932 the British intelligence service, MI5, opened a file on MacColl, after local police asserted that he was "a communist with very extreme views" who needed "special attention".[4] For a time the Special Branch kept a watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his wife Joan Littlewood. MI5 caused some of MacColl's songs to be rejected by the BBC, and prevented the employment of Littlewood as a BBC children's programme presenter.

Acting career

In 1931, with other unemployed members of the Clarion Players he formed an agit-prop theatre group, the "Red Megaphones." During 1934 they changed the name to Theatre of Action and not long after were introduced to a young actress recently moved up from London. This was Joan Littlewood who became Miller's wife and work partner. In 1936, after a failed attempt to relocate to London, the couple returned to Manchester, and formed the Theatre Union. In 1940 a performance of The Last Edition a 'living newspaper' was halted by the police and Miller and Littlewood were bound over for two years for 'breach of the peace'. The necessities of wartime brought an end to Theatre Union. MacColl enlisted in the British Army during July 1940, but deserted in December. Why he did so, and why he was not prosecuted after the war, remain a mystery.[4] In 1946 members of Theatre Union and others formed Theatre Workshop and spent the next few years touring, mostly in the north of England. In 1945, Jimmie Miller changed his name to Ewan MacColl (influenced by the Lallans (This link needs clarification. It only refers to lallans as a language, not a political movement.) movement in Scotland).[1][2]

In Theatre Union roles had been shared, but now, in Theatre Workshop, they were more formalised. Littlewood was the sole producer and MacColl the dramaturge, art director, and resident dramatist. The techniques that had been developed in Theatre Union now were refined, producing the distinctive form of theatre that was the hallmark of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, as the troupe was later known. They were an impoverished travelling troupe, but were making a name for themselves.


During this period 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, 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 relocate to Stratford, London, 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 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 of more or less the complete Child Ballads. MacColl produced a number of LPs with Irish singer songwriter Dominic Behan, a brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.

In 1956, MacColl caused a scandal when he fell in love with 21-year-old Peggy Seeger, who had come to England to transcribe the music for Alan Lomax's anthology Folk Songs of North America (published in 1961). At the time MacColl, who was twenty years older than Peggy, was still married to his second wife, the dancer Jean Newlove (b. 1923), the mother of two of his children, Hamish (b. 1950) and Kirsty (1959-2000).

Many of 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 MacColl had been barred because of his Communist past). This song became a No. 1 hit in 1972 when recorded by Roberta Flack and won MacColl a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, while Flack received a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.[5]

In 1959, 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 (1949). It went on to become a folk-revival staple and was recorded by The Spinners (1964), Donovan (1964), Roger Whittaker (1968), The Dubliners (1968), Rod Stewart (1969), the Pogues (1985), The Mountain Goats (2002), Simple Minds (2003), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (2003), Frank Black (2006) and Bettye LaVette (2012).

MacColl was one of the main composers of English protest songs during the folk revival of the 1950s/60s. In the early fifties he penned "The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh" (well known even today in Vietnam) and (less presentably) "The Ballad of Stalin" for the British Communist Party.

Joe Stalin was a mighty man and a mighty man was he
He led the Soviet people on the road to victory.

MacColl soon became ashamed of this and it was never reissued. In 1992, after his death, Peggy Seeger included it, rather apologetically, in her Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook.[6]

MacColl sang and composed numerous protest and topical songs for the nuclear disarmament movement, for example "Against the Atom Bomb".[7] He also wrote "The Ballad of Tim Evans" (also known as "Go Down You Murderer") a song protesting capital punishment, based on a famous murder case in which an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was condemned and executed, before the real culprit was discovered.


MacColl had been a radio actor since 1933. By the late 1930s he was scripting as well. In 1957 producer Charles Parker asked 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. 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 MacColl and Parker together with Peggy Seeger who handled musical direction. MacColl wrote the scripts and the songs, as well as, with the others, collecting the field recordings which were the heart of the productions.

Songwriting, teaching and theatre

Seeger and MacColl recorded several albums of searing political commentary songs. MacColl himself wrote over 300 songs, some of which have been recorded by artists (in addition to those mentioned above) such as Planxty, The Dubliners, Dick Gaughan, The Clancy Brothers, Elvis Presley, Weddings Parties Anything, and Johnny Cash. In 2001, The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook was published, which includes the words and music to 200 of his songs. Dick Gaughan, Dave Burland and Tony Capstick collaborated in The Songs of Ewan MacColl (1978; 1985).

There is a plaque dedicated to MacColl in Russell Square in London. The inscription includes: "Presented by his communist friends 25.1.1990 ... Folk Laureate Singer Dramatist Marxist ... in recognition of strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism". In 1991 he was awarded a posthumous honorary degree by the University of Salford.

His daughter from his second marriage, Kirsty MacColl, followed him into a musical career, albeit in a different genre. Kirsty MacColl died in a boating accident in Mexico in 2000. His grandson Jamie MacColl has also developed a musical career of his own with the band Bombay Bicycle Club.[8]

In 1965 Ewan and Peggy formed The Critics Group around a number of young followers, with Charles Parker in attendance, frequently recording the groups weekly sessions at MacColl and Seegers home. The initial aim of improving musical skills soon broadened to performing at political events, the Singers Club where MacColl, Seeger and Lloyd were featured artists and theatre productions. Members who became performing folk singers in their own right included Frankie Armstrong, John Faulkner, Sandra Kerr, Dennis Turner, Terry Yarnell, Bob Blair, Brian Pearson and Jack Warshaw. Other members, including Michael Rosen, joined primarily for theatre productions, The Festival of Fools, a political review of the previous year.

As the theatre groups importance grew, members more interested in singing left. The productions ran until the winter of 1972/73. Members' differences with MacColls vision of a full-time touring company led to the groups breakup. The offshoot group became Combine Theatre, with a club of their own mixing traditional and original folksongs and theatrical performances based on contemporary events, into the 1980s.

Later years

After many years of poor health (in 1979 he suffered the first of many heart attacks), MacColl died on 22 October 1989, in the Brompton Hospital, in London, after complications following heart surgery.[1][2] His autobiography Journeyman was published the following year. The lifetime archive of his work with Peggy Seeger and others was passed on to Ruskin College in Oxford.


  • MacColl, Ewan(1963) Ewan MacColl- Peggy Seeger Songbook. New York: Oak Publications, Inc Library of Congress Card Number, 63-14092
  • Samuel, Raphael; MacColl, Ewan; and Cosgrove, Stuart (1985) Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul ISBN 0-7100-0901-1
  • Goorney, Howard and MacColl, Ewan (eds.) (1986) Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop, Political Playscripts, 1930-1950. Manchester: Manchester University Press ISBN 0-7190-2211-8
  • MacColl, Ewan (1990) Journeyman: an Autobiography; introduction by Peggy Seeger. London: Sidgwick & Jackson ISBN 0-283-06036-0
  • Littlewood, Joan (1994) Joan's Book: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History As She Tells It. London: Methuen ISBN 0-413-77318-3Joan's Book reissued. Retrieved on 23 April 2009.
  • MacColl, Ewan (1998) The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook: sixty years of songmaking; ed. Peggy Seeger. New York: Oak Publications
  • Pegg, Carole A. (1999) British Traditional and Folk Musics, in: British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 7, pp. 19398
  • O'Brien, Karen (2004) Kirsty MacColl, The One and Only: the definitive biography . London: Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-00070-4
  • Harker, Ben (2007) Class Act: the Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl. London: Pluto Press ISBN 978-0-7453-2165-3 (chapters: 1. Lower Broughton2. Red Haze3. Welcome, Comrade4. Browned Off5. A Richer, Fuller Life6. Towards a People's Culture7. Croydon, Soho, Moscow, Paris8. Bard of Beckenham9. Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom10. Sanctuary11. Endgame)


Solo albums

  • Scots Street Songs (1956)
  • Shuttle and Cage (1957)
  • Barrack Room Ballads (1958)
  • Still I Love Him (1958)
  • Bad Lads and Hard Cases (1959)
  • Songs of Robert Burns (1959)
  • Haul on the Bowlin'(1961)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Child Ballads) (1961)
  • Broadside Ballads, vols 1 and 2 (1962)
  • Off to Sea Once More (1963)
  • Four Pence a Day (1963)
  • British Industrial Folk songs (1963)
  • Steam Whistle Ballads (1964)
  • Bundook Ballads (1967)
  • The Wanton Muse (1968)
  • Paper Stage 1 (1969)
  • Paper Stage 2 (1969)
  • Solo Flight (1972)
  • Hot Blast (1978)
  • Daddy, What did You Do in The Strike? (1985)

Collaboration A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, accompanied by Steve Benbow

  • Gamblers and Sporting Blades (E.P.) (1962)

Collaborations Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd

  • Bold Sportsmen All: Gamblers & Sporting Blades (1962)
  • A Sailor's Garland (1966)
  • Blow Boys Blow (1967)

Collaboration A.L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Louis Killen, Ian Campbell, Cyril Tawney, Sam Larner and Harry H. Corbett

  • Blow the Man Down (EP) (1956)

Collaboration A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl

  • A Hundred Years Ago (EP) (1956)
  • The Coast of Peru (EP) (1956)
  • The Singing Sailor (1956)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 1 (1956)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 2 (1956)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 3 (1956)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 4 (1956)
  • The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Vol 5 (1956)
  • English and Scottish Folk Ballads (1964)

Collaboration Bob and Ron Copper, Ewan MacColl, Isla Cameron, Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy

  • As I Roved Out (19534)

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger

  • Popular Scottish Songs (1960)
  • Classic Scots Ballads (1961)
  • Chorus From The Gallows (1961)
  • Jacobite Songs The Two Rebellions 1715 and 1745 (1962)
  • The Amorous Muse (1966)
  • The Manchester Angel (1966)
  • The Angry Muse (1968)
  • Saturday Night at The Bull and Mouth (1977)
  • Cold Snap (1977)
  • Kilroy Was Here
  • Freeborn Man
  • Items of News (1986)
  • Scottish Drinking and Pipe Songs (*)
  • Naming of Names (1990)
  • The Jacobite Rebellions (1962)
  • The Long Harvest 1 (1966)
  • The Long Harvest 2 (1967)
  • The Long Harvest 3 (1968)
  • The Long Harvest 4 (1969)
  • The Long Harvest 5 (1970)
  • The Long Harvest 6 (1971)
  • The Long Harvest 7 (1972)
  • The Long Harvest 8 (1973)
  • The Long Harvest 9 (1974)
  • The Long Harvest 10 (1975)
  • Blood and Roses (1979)
  • Blood and Roses 2 (1981)
  • Blood and Roses 3 (1982)
  • Blood and Roses 4 (1982)
  • Blood and Roses 5 (1983)

(* Not actually sung by MacColl and Seeger: this is an anthology of songs and tunes recorded by them)

Ewan MacColl/The Radio Ballads (1958-1964)(*)

  • Ballad of John Axon (1958)
  • Song of a Road (1959)
  • Singing The Fishing (1960)
  • The Big Hewer (1961)
  • The Body Blow (1962)
  • On The Edge (1963)
  • The Fight Game (1964)
  • The Travelling People (1964)

(* Mixture of documentary, drama and song: broadcast on BBC radio)


  • "Van Dieman's Land" / "Lord Randall"
  • "Sir Patrick Spens" / "Eppie Morrie"
  • "Parliamentary Polka" / "Song of Choice"
  • "Housewife's Alphabet" / "My Son"
  • "The Shoals of Herring"

Compilation Album featuring Ewan MacColl

  • The Iron Muse 1993 CD Compilation



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ewan MacColl biography. Oxford DNB. Retrieved on 2014-02-14.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Anon. Ewan's Biography. peggyseeger.com. Retrieved on 23 September 2009.
  3. Harker, Ben (2005). "'The Manchester Rambler': Ewan MacColl and the 1932 Mass Trespass". History Workshop Journal Spring (59): 219228.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Casciani, Dominic, Why MI5 monitored singer Ewan MacColl, BBC News, 5 March 2006. URL accessed on 22 September 2009.
  5. 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' by Roberta Flack in Songfacts.
  6. See mudcat cafe. Seeger's note to the song reads:
    Ewan wrote a number of songs like this in his early years, alongside more subtle texts like "Dirty Old Town" and "Stalinvarosh." There is no doubt that Joseph Stalin was a brilliant wartime leader and that many of his reforms ... were correct and productive. Idolisation of Stalin by the left wing the world over continued until the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (1956), when he was posthumously denounced by Khruschev for his "personality cult" and his human rights crimes. Disillusioned and subsequently turning to China for political role models, Ewan stopped singing this song or even referring to it. He would not have included it in the main body of such a book as this unless it were for reasons similar to mine: (1) as a sample of the old politics, which viewed the earth as mere clay out of which man fashions a world for man and (2) as a sample of his early work, highly dogmatic and low on finesse. It exhibits a lack of economy, an excess of cliches and filler lines, many awkward terms and an errant chronological flow. It has many of the characteristics of political songs of its time and is virtually a political credo set into verse and put to a tune. It is just that. The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, Appendix IV. p. 388 (quoted in Mudcat cafe)
  7. Irwin, Colin, Power to the people, The Observer, 10 August 2008. URL accessed on 19 February 2009.
  8. Lester, Paul (15 July 2010). Difficult second album syndrome neatly avoided by north London indie kids. BBC. Retrieved on 12 October 2010.

External links

  • Ewan MacColl 1915-1989 A Political Journey (From the Working Class Movement Library site)
  • Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger discography
  • Ewan MacColl Journeyman an Autobiography Peggy Seeger's website page about Ewan MacColl's autobiography, Journeyman.
This page was last modified 16.03.2014 13:48:32

This article uses material from the article Ewan MacColl from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia and it is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.