Thursday, 17 December 2015 15:02

Blood and Roses: The concert marking the centennial of Ewan MacColl

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Ewan MacColl Peggy Seeger Newport Folk Festival 1960

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times.

The concert at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall marked the start of a nationwide tour, curated by Maccoll’s sons, Calum and Neill. On stage was a remarkable line-up of members of Britain’s two great folk dynasties: present for the MacColls were his third wife Peggy Seeger, MacColl’s sons Neill and Calum, daughter Kitty and grandson Harry Mead on drums, while Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza represented the Waterson-Carthy clan (Eliza’s mother, Norma Waterson, was unable to attend due to illness).

For members of the audience, it felt like being privileged guests at a family celebration of the great song-writer to which close friends had been invited – for on stage as well were Kate St John (playing piano and accordion), Ben Nichols (bass), Chaim Tannenbaum (banjo and vocals), Irish songwriter Damien Dempsey, and Seth Lakeman (vocals and fiddle). The sense of a family gathering was reinforced by back projections of photos from the family archive, reflections on the genesis of certain songs and warm memories of Ewan from Peggy Seeger and her sons.

Jimmie Miller Ewan MacColl age 22

Before the music began we heard a reading of Robbie Burns’ ‘For a’ That and a’ That’ – an appropriate beginning for a celebration of a man who, though born in Salford in January 1915, was the son of two Scots. His father was an iron foundry worker, militant trade-unionist and Communist who came south fleeing black-listing and unemployment. His mother, too, was an active socialist, and from his earliest days he heard songs and poetry of working class resistance from north of the border, not least this poem of Burns that presages the sentiments expressed in much of MacColl’s writing: that wealth, or lack of it, and social class should not be the measure of a man’s true worth, that a man’s character is the true gold, for though he may wear ordinary clothes, and eat simple food, appearance is just a show, like tinsel. Honesty is worth more than fancy clothes.

 

 

 

 

 

For a 'That and a That'

Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Self respect doesn’t come from inherited wealth or titles, but from possessing an independent mind. We can imagine the young MacColl being inspired in the Depression years the last verse in which Burns imagines a future world in which all people will live as brothers, in mutual trust and respect.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

The evening was hosted by Calum and Neill, and it was Calum who gave a brief introduction to his father’s career as song-writer, dramatist and compiler of radio ballads for the BBC. Wryly, he also referred to MacColl’s reputation as a ‘folk fascist’ – for his life-long adherence to Communism (he wrote an ode to Stalin in the fifties) and his notoriously abrasive and intransigent personality.

But, let’s judge the tale, not the artist (as Lawrence once wisely remarked). Listening to MacColl’s songs now, do they have any relevance at all as the second decade of the 21st century hurries towards its close? Or are they as outdated and irrelevant as some suggest Jeremy Corbyn and his policies are for the Labour Party and the country? (I only mention Corbyn because of a singular moment in the concert when Damien Dempsey spoke of how happy he felt – at being on stage with such excellent musicians, and because ‘the Labour Party now has a Labour leader.’

The Philharmonic Hall audience erupted in a roar of approval at that. Now I know it was a self-selecting audience, probably largely composed of old lefties like me who used to hear MacColl’s songs – even see him sing – in folk clubs. But, nevertheless, it felt like a remarkable moment.)

So how relevant are MacColl’s songs today? At first they might sound very ‘old Labour’ with their concern for tribes of working people – miners, foundry men, herring trawlermen, mill workers and travelling people – that have largely disappeared from Britain’s social structure. These people were MacColl’s heroes and heroines, and his inspiration, reflecting the political beliefs that were inseparable from his art.

But Ewan MacColl did not write of a heroic past: his songs are notable for their documentary-like immediacy and concern with the present times in which he wrote. His songs also document changing times:

The world that I knew it has vanished and gone
Leaving this forest of stone,
And the faces are strange and altered, everything is changed
Here where I walk alone.

That’s from On the Edge, one of his celebrated radio ballads, produced in 1963 and concerned with the relationship between the new breed of teenagers in England and Scotland and older generations. MacColl grew up in soot-choked Salford and wrote about railwaymen and miners, but in his songs, his theatre productions and the radio ballads he had his finger on the pulse of change in Britain from the fifties to the 1980s.

At the Phil, the concert began with Damien Dempsey taking lead vocal on ‘Schooldays Over’, a song from The Big Hewer, a 1960 collection rooted in the lives of coal miners:

Schooldays over, come on then John
Time to be getting your pit boots on
On with your sack and your moleskin trousers
Time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman’s job
And earning a pitman’s pay.

Come on then Jim, it’s time to go
Time you were working down below
Time to be handling a pick and shovel
You start at the pits today
Time to be learning the collier’s job
And earning a collier’s pay.

Come on then Dai, it’s nearly light
Time you were off to the anthracite
The morning mist is on the valley
It’s time you were on your way
Time you were learning the miner’s job
And earning a miner’s pay

It’s difficult now to recall how radical and challenging material like this was in folk music circles back in the fifties and sixties. At the time, the revival of interest in folk music tended to be rooted in a nostalgic reverie of rural England, but MacColl brought a new urban and industrial focus to folk music, lending it a new vitality.

In his inimitable style he enforced his view of what folk music should be at his London Singers’ Club, where the rules dictated that a singer could perform songs only from his or her own culture – and the only culture that lived and breathed was a working class one. He regarded pop music as a capitalist plot, and dismissed the young, acoustic Bob Dylan as ’10th-rate drivel’ – primarily because he failed to see any connection between Dylan and working class Americans, but also because of his deep cynicism of celebrity and loathing of self-indulgence.

This, though, was pure posturing: if you take a song like ‘Ballad of Accounting’ written in 1964 as theme music for the BBC Radio 3 series Landmarks, the unadorned style is not a million miles removed from material on the contemporaneous The Times They Are A-Changin’ album. ‘Ballad of Accounting’ was sung at the Phil by Peggy Seeger and Chaim Tannenbaum, and is a very fine song. Nothing in it sounds at all outdated:

In the morning we built the city
In the afternoon walked through its streets
Evening saw us leaving
We wandered through our days as if they would never end
All of us imagined we had endless time to spend
We hardly saw the crossroads
And small attention gave
To landmarks on the journey from the cradle to the grave,
cradle to the grave, cradle to the grave

Did you learn to dream in the morning?
Abandon dreams in the afternoon?
Wait without hope in the evening?
Did you stand there in the traces and let them feed you lies?
Did you trail along behind them wearing blinkers on your eyes?
Did you kiss the foot that kicked you?
Did you thank them for their scorn?
Did you ask for their forgiveness for the act of being born,
act of being born, act of being born?

Did you alter the face of the city?
Did you make any change in the world you found?
Or 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,
jump to at a word, jump to at a word?

Did you ever demand any answers?
The who, the what or the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy?
Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight,
never make a fight, never make a fight?

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?
Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school?
Did the factory help you grow, were you the maker or the tool?
Did the place where you were living
Enrich your life and then
Did you reach some understanding of all your fellow men,
all your fellow men, all your fellow men?

From the beginning, MacColl was determined to erase the line between art and politics. He began with drama. In 1931, he created an agitprop theatre group called the Red Megaphones where he met the first of his three wives, the theatre director Joan Littlewood. This was when he abandoned his birth name (Jimmy Miller) and adopted the stage name of Ewan MacColl. Later he began to devote himself to folk, believing that music could be more effective than drama in spurring people to political action.

Ewan MacColl Peggy Seeger Havana 1968

When, famously, he met the CIA-blacklisted Peggy Seeger (whose half-brother was Pete) she was just 22 and he was 20 years her senior, married to his second wife, Jean Newlove (mother of his first daughter, the pop star Kirsty MacColl, who died in a tragic accident in the Caribbean in 2000). Together, the couple began to produce a huge number of songs, as well as the radio ballads for the BBC which combined interviews gathered documentary-style with songs based on key passages from the interviews.

This was where I came in: thrilled by the radio ballads, most memorably The Ballad of John Axon about the engine driver driver from Stockport who refused to abandon his runaway train and saved lives, but died in the process (I was drawn to that because I had a great-grandfather who had performed a similar act of bravery), and by hearing the version of ‘Dirty Old Town’ by the Liverpool folk group The Spinners that got plenty of airplay on the back of the Merseybeat boom.

 

Another song that emerged from the radio ballads and was also heard frequently on the radio at the time was ‘Shoals of Herring’ (also sung by The Spinners).

At the Phil concert Seth Lakeman gave a fine reading, his fiddle soaring and leaping like the waves around his voice. Notice how MacColl weaves into the song the crucial little detail about ‘earning the gear that I was wearing’ from the fisherman’s interview recorded for the radio ballad:

With our nets and gear we’re faring
On the wild and wasteful ocean
It’s there on the deep
That we harvest and reap our bread
As we hunt the bonny shoals of herring […]

I earned my keep and I paid my way
And I earned the gear that I was wearing
Sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes
We were following the shoals of herring

Martin Carthy followed with another song written for a radio ballad – this time about lorry drivers. In ‘Champion At Keeping ‘Em Rolling’ a lorry driver describes a hard life, driving in all weathers, in all parts of the country. He and his fellow drivers represent another group of unsung working class heroes, ‘champion at keeping ’em rolling’. Characteristically, MacColl set his words to the tune of an 18th century Irish song.

Chaim Tannenbaum was, without doubt, one of the stars of the evening. A former philosophy professor, Tannenbaum is definitely a man to whom the epithet ‘unsung hero‘ can be applied. Anyone who has listened to CDs by Kate McGarrigle or any of the Wainwrights, or attended their concerts, will have heard or seen him. During this evening he was, most of the time, in the background, playing banjo, guitar or mandolin. But every now and then he came to the front of the stage to take lead vocal – as he did on ‘Go Down You Murderers’.

In his autobiography Journeyman, MacColl says of this song it is ‘a ballad dealing with a sensational murder case and a gross miscarriage of justice’. It concerns the case of Timothy Evans, accused of murdering his wife and baby daughter at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, London. In 1950, Evans was tried, convicted and hanged. Throughout my childhood and beyond the case was regarded as one of the worst miscarriages of justice, strengthening the case for the abolition of the death penalty. MacColl’s song – very much in the tradition of 19th century broadside ballads that gave accounts of, and commented on, current events – joined press campaigns and Ludovic Kennedy’s book Ten Rillington Place in challenging the verdict.

Tim Evans was a prisoner fast in his prison cell
And those who read about his crimes, they damn’d his soul to Hell
Saying, “Go down, you murderer, go down!”

They sent Tim Evans to the drop for a crime he did not do,
It was Christie was the murderer, and the judge and jury too,
Saying, “Go down, you murderers, go down!”

During his trial, Evans accused his downstairs neighbour, John Christie, of committing the murders, and in 2003 the Home Office finally accepted that Evans’ conviction was unsound.

Next came another radio ballad song (from Songs of a Road, broadcast in 1958), ‘The Fitter’s Song’ which certainly hasn’t dated. It could easily be about the men working on London’s Crossrail or any similar project:

I am a roving rambler, a fitter to me trade
I can fix you anything, a camshaft to a spade
I can fix a dodgy gearbox or mend a broken tread
Decoke a Leyland engine while I’m standing on me head
So shift,boys,shift, do the job and draw your pay
When this road is finished I’ll be moving on me way
I’ll clean me tools and wrap ’em in a pair of oily jeans
You’ll always find me working where you find the big machines
I’ve worked in far off places since I left the coaly Tyne
I work among the heavies and I wear a roving sign
I keep the tractors on the job, a-turning up the soil
And I’ve followed me nose around the world by the smell of diesel oil
So shift,boys,shift, do the job and draw your pay
When this road is finished I’ll be moving on me way
You’ll find me where the tractors are, on roads or hydro schemes
Playing the lousy nursemaid to a pack of big machines

If there was injustice anywhere in the world it was likely that Ewan MacColl would respond in song. ‘Green Island’ is a late song that tells of the suffering inflicted on the Irish people through the centuries in a manner that avoids being hectoring or declamatory, but is instead driven by lyrical and poetic imagery. Damien Dempsey sang it for us, its opening verse presenting a bucolic vision of the ‘Green Island’:

The island lies like a leaf upon the sea.
Green island like a leaf new-fallen from the tree.
Green turns to gold,
as morning breeze gently shakes the barley,
bending the yellow corn.
Green turns to gold,
there’s purple shadows on the distant mountains.
Sun in the yellow corn.

But then the Vikings come in their long ships, ‘leaping ashore they slaughtered those that laboured in the barley, scything them down like corn.’ They are followed by the English who ‘plundered the yellow corn’ and ‘prospered in their killing’. Finally (the song was written in 1990), MacColl evokes the time of the Troubles:

Marching down the years the men of war they came,
with bombs, assassins, bullets, CS gas and guns.
Ghosts from the past
are chasing shadows through the fields of barley
hiding in the new young corn.
Nine hundred years
they tried to trap the wind that shakes the barley.
Sun in the yellow corn.

The final verse in which the image of the wind that shakes the barley provides a powerful conclusion:

The island lies like a leaf upon the sea.
Green island like a leaf new-fallen from the tree.
Green turns to gold,
as morning breeze gently shakes the barley,
bending the yellow corn.
No force on Earth
can ever trap the wind that shakes the barley.
Sun in the yellow corn.

If that raised the hairs on the back of the neck, there was no let up in the level of emotion when Peggy returned to the stage to perform a song that Ewan wrote for his mother, called ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’. Peggy gave us some background:

Ewan’s mother, Betsy Hendry Miller, inspired this song with her lifetime of toil as a woman who cleaned offices and other people’s houses, who took in laundry and mending to keep her son and her asthmatic husband. She died at the age of 96, a tough, wiry butworn out little woman.

 

 

Peggy added that she was deeply indebted to Betsy who looked after their children while they were on the road performing. ‘She was hard to live with’, Peggy admitted, ‘But then that made two of us’. Could any song be more relevant to these times, when hidden battalions of low-paid women and migrant workers labour through the night cleaning the offices of bankers and corporate executives?

She walks in the cold dark hour before the morning
The hour when wounded night begins to bleed […]

Her bent-backed homage …
The buckets steam like incense coils
Around the endless floor she toils
Cleaning the same white sweep each day anew

Glistening sheen of new-washed floors is fading
There where office clocks are marking time
Night’s black tide has ebbed away
By cliffs of glass awash with day
She hurries from her labours still unseen

How could it be that no-one saw her drowning
How did we come to be so unaware
At what point did she cease to be her
When did we cease to look and see her
How is it no-one knew she was there

If there is one song written by MacColl that most people have heard it will be ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. That was to come later in the concert, but time after time there would come a song that drove home how MacColl could be a purveyor in his songs, not only of abrasive and angry politics, but also of great beauty and lyricism.

That much was obvious hearing Calum and his brother Neil sing the lovely ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ which begins:

I met my girl at Woolwich Pier
Beneath a big crane standing
And oh, the love I felt for her
It passed all understanding
Took her sailing on the river,
Flow, sweet river, flow
London town was mine to give her,
Sweet Thames, flow softly

Not only does the song avoid any sentimentality by picturing the amorous couple sailing past the big cranes, docks and bridges on the river (‘At the Isle of Dogs I kissed her mouth’), it also ends bitter-sweet:

But now alas the tide has changed
My love she has gone from me
And winter’s frost has touched my heart
And put a blight upon me
Creeping fog is on the river,
Flow, sweet river, flow
Sun and moon and stars gone with her,
Sweet Thames, flow softly
Swift the Thames runs to the sea,
Flow, sweet river, flow
Bearing ships and part of me,
Sweet Thames, flow softly

When the song was over, Calum observed that all his father’s songs were, in fact, love songs – either to a person, or a particular trade, or to the working class. There’s something in that.

We stayed on the Thames for the next song, but the mood was utterly changed, as Seth Lakeman sang ‘Lament For The Death Of A Nobody’, a bitter tirade of a song that describes the body washed ashore on the banks of the Thames of a man who ‘demanded so little – and that was his crime’:

They tagged his belongings, his clothes and a ring
A pipe, some tobacco and a small piece of string

A pension book bearing the name ‘Thomas Black’
An old-fashioned time-piece inscribed on the back

For fifty years’ service, devotion supreme
From grateful employers this token of esteem

A good quiet worker, not given to strife
Who never once questioned the boss in his life

There’s something terrifyingly unfeeling about the moral that MacColl draws at the conclusion:

Now this lump of great silence has finished with time
He demanded so little – and that was his crime

We needed something to blow away that song’s grim mood, and Martin and Eliza Carthy’s rousing rendition of two songs concerning the lives of travellers, tinkers, or gypsies succeeded – even if neither of them are particularly happy or optimistic. Martin sang ‘Freeborn Man of the Travelling People’ (another radio ballad song from 1964) with its warning that the travellers’ days of freedom were numbered:

All you freeborn men of the travelling people
Every tinker, rolling stone and Gypsy rover
Winds of change are blowing, old ways are going
Your travelling days will soon be over

(Music clip: The Moving On Song)

Then Eliza sang ‘The Moving-On Song’, pinching it, she said, from her Mum, Norma Waterston, who was unable to be there because she is not well. It’s another one from The Travelling People radio ballad which, with its repeated verses about travelling people being unceremoniously evicted and moved on, and its chorus of ‘Go! Move! Shift!’ delivered superbly by Eliza, is a fine piece of social commentary that had me thinking about those desperate refugees pushed from border post to barbed wire fence in the Balkans right at this minute:

Wagon, tent or trailer born
Last month, last year or in far-off days
Born here or a thousand miles away
There’s always men nearby who say,

You’d better get born in someplace else
So move along, get along,
Move along, get along,
Go! Move! Shift!

Next, Damien returned to lead vocal for ‘Tunnel Tigers’, a song about the Irish labourers who worked driving the Tube tunnels through the London clay:

Down in the dark are the tunnel tigers
far from the sun and the light of day;
down in the land that the sea once buried,
driving a tunnel through the London clay.

Did Ewan MacColl ever write a pop song? Eliza’s boisterous rendition with full band backing of ‘Space Girl’ might suggest one candidate. Written by Ewan and Peggy in 1952 for a short ballad-opera to be performed by the Theatre Workshop, it is in fact a parody of a pop song that was a big hit with American soldiers during the First World War, but updated to mock the major tropes of 1940s science fiction:

My mama told me I should never venture into space
But I did, I did, I did.
She said no Terran girl could trust the Martian race
But I did, I did, I did.
A rocket pilot asked me on a voyage to go
And I was so romantic I couldn’t say no.
That he was just a servo robot how was I to know?
So I did, I did, I did.

So, finally, we came to ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, introduced by Calum with an astonishing roll-call of some of the more than 100 artists (from Elvis to Isaac Hayes) who have covered the song, written in 1957 soon after he and Peggy had begun their relationship. The story goes that Ewan taught it to Peggy during a transatlantic phone call after her CIA blacklisting had been lifted and she had been allowed to return to her homeland. Here, it was sung by Peggy who suggested that we might prefer Roberta Flack’s reading to hers. She said that it recalled being in love: ‘the most exciting two days of your life’. At which point this photo appeared
on the big screen behind her:

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies

We were now entering the most emotional part of the evening, because next Chaim returned to the front of the stage to take lead vocals on ‘My Old Man’, which he prefaced with Ewan’s own words about how the song evokes a memory of walking behind his father during the Depression after he had been lost his job as a foundry worker because of his union activity.

 

Ewan always believed that his father was broken by the experience, and the song is a superb blend of love and bitter social criticism. It is a song that will strike a chord today with all those steel-workers in Scotland and the North-East or the Michelin tyre factory in Ballymena who have been thrown on the scrapheap. The message in the last verse is as pertinent today as it ever was, whether for workers picking vegetables on zero-hours contracts, on precarious conditions in an Amazon distribution centre, working for less than minimum wage in a bar, waiting on tables, cleaning an office or hospital, or working in a residential home:

My old man was a good old man
Skilled in the moulding trade
In the stinking heat of the iron foundry
My old man was made
Down on his knees in the moulding sand
He wore his trade like a company brand
He was one of the cyclops’ smoky band
Yes, that was my old manMy old man was a proud old man
At home on the foundry floor
Until the day they laid him off
And showed him to the door
They gave him his card, said, things are slack
We’ve got a machine can learn the knack
Of doing your job, so don’t come back
The end of my old man

My old man he was fifty-one
What was he to do?
A craftsman moulder on the dole
In nineteen thirty-two
He felt he’d given all he could give
So he did what thousands of others did
Abandoned hope and the will to live
They killed him, my old man

My old man he is dead and gone
Now I am your old man
And my advice to you, my son
Is to fight back while you can
Watch out for the man with the silicon chip
Hold on to your job with a good firm grip
‘Cause if you don’t you’ll have had your chips
The same as my old man

The final song of the evening, ‘Joy of Living’, is also the title of a new double CD that features fresh interpretations of MacColl’s songs – some of them by those participating in the Blood and Roses road show, others by luminaries such as Billy Bragg, Jarvis Cocker, Steve Earle and the Unthanks. It just might be the most beautiful song he ever wrote, and I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house by the time the gathered musicians had finished.

Before the song we heard the Ewan MacColl’s own voice telling how he came to write this song, which Calum described as ‘his farewell to the family’:

The last time I climbed Suilven, or to be more precise, failed to climb it, was in my seventy-second year. I was with my wife and fourteen-year-old daughter Kitty. “You go ahead,” I told them, “I’ll meet you at the top.” But ‘the flesh is bruckle, the fiend is slee’, and I hadn’t gone more than half the distance when my legs refused to carry me further. My body had given me plenty of warnings over the last seven or eight years but this was the final notice. My mountain days were over. I sat down on a rock feeling utterly desolate. The feeling lasted for several days and then my grief and feeling of loss gave way to nostalgia and I wrote ‘The Joy of Living’. In an odd kind of way it helped me to come to terms with my old age.

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye
Moorlands and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye
Glyder Fach farewell, cold big Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven
Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion
Years pass by and they’re gone with the speed of birds in flight
Our lives like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine
And we’ll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living

Farewell to you, my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong may your days be long safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind
So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing
I’ll be part of the curlew’s cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I’ll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living

The encores began with Peggy singing ‘Old Friend’, a song she wrote for Ewan soon after his death in October 1989:

Old friend, comrade of mine
Once again you’re on my mind
There’s always a place, there’s always a time
To think of days gone by

Trespass Walking Group 1932

 

 

 

 

Then came ‘Dirty Old Town’, performed by everyone, before the concert reached its climax with a hearty rendering of ‘The Manchester Rambler’,inspired by his participation in the Kinder mass trespass in 1932, a protest by the urban Young Communist League of Manchester. How many times did I roar this, pint glass in my fist, in the old Student Union folk club days?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday 

Everything changes, as the lyrics of a late song by Peggy Seeger testify:

The house I lived in when I was a child
Had woods . . . . we all ran wild
You could hide … then come home – after a while.
The town I lived in when I was young
Everybody knew my name
The world was my own
Out in the dark, playing games
Till mama called me home.

But that was then and now it’s now
Everything changes, somehow
The house I lived in
The town I lived in
Everything changes…

But, at the same time, some things don’t change: poverty, unemployment, class inequality, the rich getting richer. There’s a song of Ewan’s, not sung at the Phil but on the new tribute CD, called ‘The Father’s Song’ which although written in the late 1970s, as Thatcher was rising to power is an example of how MacColl’s words speak with the same power and urgency today as they did decades ago:

That’s another day gone by, son, close your eyes
For the moon is chasing clouds across the skies
Got to sleep and have no fear, son
For your mam and dad are near, son
And the giant is just a shadow on the wall

Go to sleep and when you wake it will be light
There’s no need to fear the darkness of the night
It’s not like the dark you find, son
In the depths of some men’s minds, son
That defies the daily coming of the dawn

Stop crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons-of-bitches
Who are waiting to exploit your life away

Lie easy in your bed and grow up strong
You’ll be needing all your strength before too long
For you’ll soon be on your way, son
Fighting battles every day, son
With an enemy who thinks he owns the world

Don’t you let ’em buy you out or break your pride
Don’t you let yourself be used then cast aside
If you listen to their lying
They will con you into dying
You won’t even know that you were once alive

No more talking now it’s time to go to sleep
There are answers to your questions but they’ll keep
Go on asking while you grow, son
Go on asking till you know, son
And then send the answers ringing through the world

 

Ewan Maccoll plaque

I must have passed it dozens of time and never noticed: in Russell Square, at the foot of an oak tree is a plaque that reads:

Ewan MacColl, 25.1.1915 – 22.10.1989. Folk Laureate, Singer, Dramatist, Marxist. This oak tree was planted in recognition of the strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism. Presented by his communist friends with the kind assistance of the London Borough of Camden on the 75th anniversary of his birth 25.1.1990.

This article is an edited version, from Gerry Cordon's blog at https://gerryco23.wordpress.com

Read 743 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 February 2016 16:28
Gerry Cordon

Gerry Cordon is a retired FE college lecturer, blogging at gerryco23.wordpress.com.