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Renaissance man with a radical voice

Peter Frost marks the anniversary of the death of writer, performer and singer EWAN MACCOLL, who passed away 25 years ago today

EWAN MACCOLL was a renaissance man. A lifelong communist, he was an actor, author, playwright, broadcaster, countryside campaigner, folk-song collector and protest balladeer.

Born Jimmie Miller in Salford, his parents were both political exiles from Scotland. His father William had been blacklisted from the foundries north of the border for trade union and communist activities.

In 1910 the Millers moved to Salford in search of work. Of four children, only he survived. He learnt two things from his parents — radical left-wing politics and how to sing a good song. Both would last him a lifetime.

In the 1930s, with unemployment rife, Miller found two free activities to enjoy. First was self-education in the public library. The other was rambling in the spectacular Pennines.

He joined the Young Communist League in his teens and almost immediately was in involved with YCL comrades in the famous 1932 Kinder Trespass to highlight that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country.

Miller handled publicity for the trespass and the song he wrote about it The Manchester Rambler, with the refrain “I may be a wage slave on Monday/but I am a free man on Sunday,” is still being sung on countryside access protests today.

He joined the Workers’ Theatre but found it far too tame and conservative and formed his own agit-prop street group, the Red Megaphones.

His next 20 years were devoted to political theatre with the director Joan Littlewood. After they married, they set up the Theatre of Action in Manchester and in 1935, after moving to London, they started the Theatre Workshop. Returning to the north a year later, they founded the Theatre Union, described as a “theatre of the people.”

It produced Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, Jaroslav Hacek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Miller’s “living newspaper” the Last Edition.
Dealing with the events leading up to the Munich Pact, its episodic form was innovatory.

As well as being popular, the piece must must have been effective because in 1939 the police raided a performance, fined the couple and banned them from any more theatre activity for two years.

The second world war scattered the company and when it ended a number of them pooled their gratuities and relaunched Theatre Workshop.

It was around this time that Miller changed his name to Ewan MacColl to better reflect his Scottish origins.

From 1945-1952 Theatre Workshop travelled extensively. Littlewood directed and produced while MacColl took leading roles, rehearsed the actors and wrote a dozen new plays.

In the late 1940s Ewan and Joan Littlewood divorced and in 1949 MacColl married the dancer Jean Newlove.

When Theatre Workshop moved to London, MacColl left and turned his attention to traditional music and song.

He wrote around 300 songs, among them many folk classics, including Dirty Old Town, The Shoals of Herring and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which became a huge hit for Roberta Flack and many other stars.

In 1953 he founded the Ballads and Blues Club which later became the Singers Club and it was here, from 1965 to 1971, that MacColl wrote and performed a biting political annual review The Festival of Fools.
The club lasted until 1991 and he sang there until just a week before his death.

MacColl first worked in radio in the early 1930s and he went on to invent a new art form, the radio ballad, a kind of folk opera using recorded speech, sound effects, new songs and traditional music.

As MacColl’s marriage to Jean Newlove ended he teamed up with US singer Peggy Seeger, sister of Pete. The couple sang all over Britain and abroad and made dozens of albums of traditional and contemporary songs.

On October 22 1989, MacColl died of complications following a heart operation.

The founding father of the British folksong revival was dead but a quarter of a century on his voice and his songs are still ringing out loud and clear.


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