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Ewan MacColl - folk singer, songwriter and playwright 1915 - 1989

"Did you observe all the warnings? Did you read the trespass notices? Did you keep off the grass? Did you shuffle off the pavement just to let your betters pass? Did you learn to keep your mouth shut? Were you seen and never heard? Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word?"


He was a singer. He was political. He was an activist. He was the original of Billy Bragg.


Ewan was born in Salford, Lancashire to William Miller and Betsy Hendry, both of whom were Scots. Christened Jimmie Miller, he was exposed both to Scottish culture and folk songs (his father was a good singer, and a big influence on the young Jimmy). He was also immersed in the left-wing, working class politics of the day - William was an iron-moulder in a foundry, an active and militant trades unionist and a Communist, all of which were to have a major influence on Ewan's life and music.

After leaving school aged 14 during The Great Depression, he took a variety of temporary jobs, which took him from factory worker to busker. in 1930 he joined the Worker's Theatre, but left to form his own group, the Red Megaphones, which became an altogether more propagandist and outspoken group.

He observed a change in the social climate which he despised - lengthening dole queues and poor conditions for working people. Incensed by this, he joined a variety of political groups.

"There was too much talk, too many cups of coffee, too many jokes, too many references to people I didn't know. I mentioned my feelings about the group to Charlie Harrison who suggested that I might be interested in attending a meeting of the Young Communist League."

He quickly got involved in the hunger marches in 1932 and 1933, and set up a worker's theatre in Manchester, with his wife, Joan Littlewood. His plays were controversial in the extreme - in 1935 his production of "Last Edition" was stopped by the police, and he was fined and barred from theatrical activity for two years. Nevertheless, he continued to write and produce plays through the war, attracting attention from many, including George Bernard Shaw, who called him the "best living playwright in Britain".

A big part of Ewan's political motivation was simply the desire for personal freedoms. This is perhaps best expressed in his involvement in many of the mass trepasses in the 40s and 50s, when he and hundreds of like-minded people went into the Peak District and scrambled up hill and down dale, to draw attention to their cause, freedom to roam.

A Master of Folk

Following his second marriage in 1950, he began to turn his attention to traditional music and played an important role in the 'folksong revival' by encouraging the formation of folk clubs. This single concept is perhaps the key to the interest in British Folk revival and its current popularity.

In 1956 he met Peggy Seeger (sister of Pete Seeger) and began touring, writing and conducting workshops together. They also worked jointly with the BBC to produce radio plays and what were dubbed 'folk documentaries' by the media. Their output was immense - TV and film scripts, music scores and production - little escaped them in their attempts to educate and enlighten.

It is, however, as a singer and songwriter that he is now best known. Songs such as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (written for Peggy), "The Manchester Rambler" (a celebration of freedom to walk in the hills), "The Grocer" (a political critique of Margaret Thatcher) and "Dirty Old Town" (for Salford). His daughter, Kirsty and son Hamish continued to sing, write and perform.

This gentle powerhouse of a man died in 1989 after a heart operation, following a long period of illness. in 1991 The University of Salford awarded him a posthumous honorary degree, and as with so many greats, his influence and music live on in the hearts and minds of those he left behind.

More information at: http://www.wcml.org.uk/em/timeline.html

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