[Marxism] Ewan MacColl, Dogmatist of British Folk, Gets a Tribute Album
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Thu Oct 29 09:13:19 MDT 2015
NY Times, Oct. 29 2015
Ewan MacColl, Dogmatist of British Folk, Gets a Tribute Album
By JIM FARBER
He called Bob Dylan’s songs “10th-rate drivel,” fit only for “a
completely noncritical audience.” He hated the countless recordings of
his own most famous composition so much, he corralled them into a
collection he named “the chamber of horrors.” And he found any
electrified instrument so false that when his 13-year-old son bought his
first souped-up guitar, he wouldn’t speak to the boy for three weeks.
“He was a stylistic fascist,” Calum MacColl said of his imposing and
brilliant father, Ewan MacColl.
As his third wife, Peggy Seeger, half sister to Pete Seeger, observed,
“His whole life, Ewan was hitting a hard nail through a hard rock.”
Along with artists like Bert Lloyd and Shirley Collins, Mr. MacColl led
the great British folk revival of the 1950s, representing its values and
goals at their most untainted. His role as a pivotal figure in folk
history is being celebrated this week with an all-star tribute album,
“Joy of Living” (Compass Records), timed for what would have been Mr.
MacColl’s 100th year. (He died in 1989 at 74.)
The album, assembled by his musician sons, Calum and Neill, features
covers of Mr. MacColl’s best-known songs, the foremost being “The First
Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which Roberta Flack turned into the No. 1
song of 1972. (Naturally, Mr. MacColl despised that version, considering
it elaborate and labored.) The set showcases Steve Earle rendering an
appropriately disheveled “Dirty Old Town,” a song recorded by stars from
Rod Stewart to the Pogues. There are also pointed and austere
performances from Rufus Wainwright, Billy Bragg, David Gray, Jarvis
Cocker and more, covering the songwriter’s classics from “The Shoals of
Herring” to “Moving On Song.”
In many of his songs Mr. MacColl cast working people — miners, whalers
and factory employees — as heroes and muses, and he wrote often of
Gypsies and the displaced. His elevation of the working class reflected
political beliefs that were inseparable from his art. He grew up in
soot-choked Salford, England, the even wronger side of the river from
Manchester; his Scottish-born father was an iron molder and both parents
were socialists who instilled in him an unshakable adherence to leftist
politics. Early on, he wrote an ode to Stalin; later, he identified as a
Even in those polarizing worlds, Mr. MacColl could stir special trouble.
“He joined the Communist Party three or four times — and got kicked out
three or four times,” Ms. Seeger said in a phone interview from her home
in Oxford, England. “He kept trying to comment on how imperfect a lot of
the leadership was.”
Mr. MacColl’s earliest efforts to erase the line between art and
politics centered on drama. In 1931, he created an agitprop theater
group called the Red Megaphones, which later became Theater of Action.
There, he met the first of his three wives, the theater director Joan
Littlewood. He was 30, with a long history as a playwright and actor,
when he changed his birth name, James Miller, to Ewan MacColl and
devoted himself to folk. He believed music could be more effective than
theater at spurring people to political action.
Mr. MacColl brought to folk a new urban focus. “The first wave of the
folk revival, from the late 19th century, had a nostalgic view of rural
England that didn’t reflect the industrial tradition,” said Rob Young,
author of the folk history “Electric Eden.” “People like MacColl and
Peggy Seeger led a second-wave revival, which stopped folk from becoming
a nostalgia industry for the middle- and upper-middle classes,” Mr.
Young added. “They gave it vitality.”
The two did so most aggressively at their London club Ballads and Blues,
established in 1953. There, they created “the rules,” which dictated
that a singer could perform songs only from his or her own culture. Ms.
Seeger considers criticism that Mr. MacColl was rigid as unfair. “With
Bach or Brahms, we try to reproduce the music the way the composers
wrote it and people don’t call it rigid,” she said. “But because folk
comes from the working class, people say, ‘These are just basic works —
let’s see what we can do with them.’ They look down on it.”
Mr. Gray, who performs the title track on the tribute album, agreed.
“Homogeneity is what they were fighting,” he said. “They were fighting
the Americanization of folk music at a time when our own British,
Scottish and Irish songs were dying.”
Mr. MacColl kicked up extra controversy through his relationship with
Ms. Seeger. When they met, she was just 22; he was 20 years her senior
and married to his second wife, Jean Newlove (mother to his daughter,
the pop star Kirsty MacColl, who died in 2000). “Everyone predicted doom
and gloom for him and me,” Ms. Seeger said.
Instead, the pair became hugely productive creators of songs, as well as
radio plays for the BBC. In 1957, Mr. MacColl’s love for Ms. Seeger
inspired “The First Time,” later recorded by everyone from Wayne Newton
to the Flaming Lips.
On the tribute album, Paul Buchanan delivers an unfussy version of that
classic. Calum MacColl made sure to include such personal songs to
soften his father’s image. “We wanted this to be a celebration, not a
po-faced homage,” he said.
Ms. Seeger said she felt the album burnished Mr. MacColl’s legacy. His
great ambition, she said, was to write a song “that would sink so deep
into the memory of a nation that they would forget who made it up — and
he did just that.”
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