Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl (25 January, 1915 - 22 October, 1989) was a British folk singer, songwriter, socialist, actor, poet, playwright, and record producer. He was the father of singer Kirsty MacColl.

Early history

MacColl was born James (Jimmie) Henry Miller in Broughton, Salford, Lancashire in England, to Scottish parents, William and Betsy Miller. He left school in 1929, joined the Young Communist League (Britain) and the 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.

In 1932 the British counterintelligence service, MI5, opened a file on MacColl, after the Chief Constable of Salford told them that the singer was a Communist Party member. 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 blocked the employment of Joan Littlewood as a BBC children's programme presenter.

MacColl enlisted in the British Army in July 1940, but deserted in December. Why he did so, and why he was not prosecuted when he re-surfaced after the war, remain a mystery.

Acting career

In 1931, with other unemployed members of the Clarion Players he formed an agit-prop theatre group, the "Red Megaphones." In 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 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.

In 1946 members of Theatre Union and others formed Theatre Workshop and spent the next few years touring, mostly in the north of England. Jimmie Miller had by then changed his name to Ewan MacColl. 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 which 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.


In this period MacColl's enthusiasm for folk music grew. In 1953 Theatre Workshop opted to settle in Stratford, London, and MacColl, who was opposed to the move, left and began to concentrate on the promotion and performance of folk music. His long involvement with Topic Records was first obvious in 1950 when he released a single "The Asphalter's Song" on the label.

As well as writing and performing, MacColl followed in the footsteps of his colleague Alan Lomax and collected traditional ballads. Over the years he recorded upwards of a hundred albums, many with English folk song collector and singer A.L. Lloyd. The two together released a series of eight records of the Child Ballads, many of which appeared on his other albums. MacColl also produced a number of LPs with Irish singer songwriter Dominic Behan.

In 1956, MacColl caused a scandal by starting a relationship with Peggy Seeger, who was many years his junior, at the same time as his second wife, the dancer Jean Newlove, the mother of two of his children, Hamish (b. 1950) and Kirsty (b. 1959). It was for Seeger that he wrote the classic, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". The song was written at Seeger's request for a play she was in. He wrote it on the spot and taught it to her over the phone. She was on tour in the USA, but MacColl had been prevented from entering the US due to his Communist past. This song became a #1 hit for Roberta Flack in 1972; MacColl won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year for it, while Flack won the Record of the Year award for it. [ [http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=441 First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack Songfacts ] ]

His other best-known song is "Dirty Old Town", written about his home town of Salford in Lancashire. It was written to cover an awkward scene change in his play "Landscape with Chimneys" (1949), but with the growing popularity of folk music the song became a standard, part of many a singer's repertoire. Recordings include The Spinners (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), and Frank Black (2006).

Among his other songs was The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh (1954), which is rather famous in Vietnam. There was also "The Ballad of Tim Evans" (also known as "Go Down You Murderer") about how an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was executed for a crime he did not commit.


MacColl had been a radio actor since 1933. By the late thirties 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.


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.

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 less traditionally.Kirsty MacColl was killed in an accident in Mexico in 2000.


*"Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop, Political Playscripts, 1930-1950", edited by Howard Goorney and Ewan MacColl. 1986. ISBN 0-7190-2211-8
*"Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl" by Ben Harker. 2007. ISBN 9780-745-32165-3
*"Joan's Book: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History As She Tells It". 1994. ISBN 0-413-77318-3
*"Journeyman, an Autobiography", by Ewan MacColl. 1990. ISBN 0-283-06036-0
*"Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935, Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America", by Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl and Stuart Cosgrove. 1985. ISBN 0-7100-0901-1
*"Kirsty MacColl, The One and Only", by Karen O'Brien. 2004. ISBN 0-233-00070-4


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)
* 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 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 (1953-4)

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
* 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

External links

* [http://www.pegseeger.com/html/ewanindex.html Ewan MacColl section on Peggy Seeger's website] .
* [http://www.wcml.org.uk/people/em/timeline.htm Ewan MacColl 1915 - 1989 A Political Journey] (From the Working Class Movement Library site)
* [http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article349345.ece 'Radical' Ewan MacColl was tracked by MI5 for decades] , The Independent, March 5, 2006
* [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2090-2070845,00.html Folk singer was spied on by MI5] , The Sunday Times, March 5, 2006
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4772328.stm Why MI5 monitored singer Ewan MacColl] , BBC News Online, March 5, 2006
* [http://www.well.com/user/johnross/discographies/ewanmaccoll.htm Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger discography]
* [http://www.balladofaccounting.org/index.php 'Did You Kiss The Foot That Kicked You?'] Ruth Ewan's project with [http://www.artangel.org.uk/ Artangel] involving over 100 buskers in London who included 'The Ballad of Accounting' within their repertoire for a week.


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  • Ewan MacColl — (25 janvier 1915 22 octobre 1989) est un chanteur engagé britannique, compositeur, éditeur, acteur, poète et écrivain dramatique. Il est le père de Kirsty MacColl. Ewan MacColl s appelle en fait James Henry (Jimmie) Miller. Il est né à Salford,… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Ewan MacColl — (* 25. Januar 1915 in Salford bei Manchester; † 22. Oktober 1989) war ein britischer Autor, Dichter, Schauspieler, Folksänger und Schallplattenproduzent mit schottischen Wurzeln. Er wurde als James Miller als Sohn schottischer Eltern in Salford… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • Ewan McColl — Ewan MacColl (* 25. Januar 1915 in Salford bei Manchester; † 22. Oktober 1989) war ein britischer Autor, Dichter, Schauspieler, Folksänger und Schallplattenproduzent mit schottischen Wurzeln. Er wurde als James Miller als Sohn schottischer Eltern …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • MacColl — oder McColl ist der Familienname folgender Personen: Dugald Sutherland MacColl (1859–1948), schottischer Maler und Kunstkritiker Ewan MacColl (1915–1989), britischer Autor, Dichter, Schauspieler, Folksänger und Schallplattenproduzent Hugh MacColl …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • Kirsty MacColl — at the Double Door in Chicago Background information Birth name Kirsty Anna MacColl …   Wikipedia

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