Ewan MacColl: A Man to be Watched

By Ben Harker, 2007 

In the final decade of his life, Salford-born Marxist polymath Ewan MacColl (1915–1989) succumbed to feelings of failure, and began to wonder whether radical political transformation was possible, and whether his own brand of cultural agitation had made any real difference. His bulging dossier at MI5 might have given him heart. Though fading health and the dark days of Thatcherism caused him to doubt himself, Britain’s secret services were long convinced that he was a dangerously creative activist. The file they kept on MacColl – an edited version of which was declassified in 2006 – is a chronicle of his lifelong commitment to radical cultural politics.

They first picked him out as a seventeen year-old communist involved in organising the 1932 Mass Trespass, a direct-action stunt in which radical ramblers collectively asserted their right to walk in the British countryside. MacColl would write his first enduring song, The Manchester Rambler, shortly afterwards. In the late 1930s an undercover police officer infiltrated a Communist Party fundraiser event and reported on a young man who ‘showed exceptional ability as a singer and musical organiser’. The following year MacColl and his first wife Joan Littlewood were under frequent surveillance. Enquiries had revealed that he was ‘a man to be watched.’

They did their best to watch him, though he proved an elusive quarry. MacColl was a complex character whose theatrical flair extended to vivid bouts of self-dramatisation. The tall stories that tripped from his tongue inadvertently laid false trails for the constabulary – at one point they believed they were dealing with a professional balloon rigger who’d spent many years in the Soviet Union. MacColl was also a contradictory man, a salty working-class hero who enjoyed the finer things in life, and a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who feared physical violence. He deserted from the British Army during the Second World War, and the plot thickened when he assumed the name Ewan MacColl, which he borrowed from a minor nineteenth-century Gaelic poet (Ewan MacColl had spent his first thirty years as Jimmie Miller).

After the war he became the resident dramatist of the groundbreaking ensemble Theatre Workshop, where he produced a distinctive brand of loosely structured and abrasively political musical theatre that was always better received on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Music was integral to his creative life – his song Dirty Old Town(1949) first appeared in one of his plays – and in the 1950s his career took a more emphatically musical turn when he became a key player in Britain’s burgeoning folk music revival. 

These activities were parallel to his freelance work for the BBC, which began when he was discovered in 1934 by a BBC talent scout who heard him busking on the streets of Manchester. MacColl would always have a vexed relationship with the corporation: his name would crop up on blacklists; he would vilify the BBC for miserly programming budgets, shoddy productions and for failing to develop fully the artistic possibilities of radio. Even so, the airwaves provided a space where his most prominent talents as writer and performer could flourish, and he produced his best work for BBC radio. At the height of his powers MacColl became the major force behind the award-winning series of eight Radio Ballads created in collaboration with singer, songwriter and musician Peggy Seeger –his wife and long term collaborator, and BBC radio producer Charles Parker between 1958 and 1964. The programmes represented an innovative synthesis of documentary, drama and song, and many of MacColl’s best-known compositions, such as The Shoals of Herring (1960) and The Moving on Song (1964), were written for the series.

Controversy also accompanied his relationship to popular music. During the heyday of the folk revival in the 1960s, MacColl acquired a reputation for culturally conservative, purist tendencies. He regarded pop music as a noxious pulp manufactured to soften the brains of the working classes; good music was music firmly rooted in folk traditions. Many of his songs illustrated his theory, and were carefully constructed around the melodic patterns and vernacular idioms of folk song. But MacColl was always too intuitive to be hidebound by his own edicts, and his songs frequently drew on a wider range of influences. Ballad of Accounting, written as the signature tune for the Landmarks BBC radio series, is a case in point. Composed in 1964, the song catches the fifty year-old MacColl in retrospective mood, revisiting the music of Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler. The youthful MacColl had first absorbed these stirringly exotic sounds during his leadership of the Red Megaphones, a Salford-based agit-prop street theatre troupe that palely imitated their more famous namesake, Das Rote Sprachror of Berlin. Ballad of Accounting suits busking precisely because it expresses the ambivalence and frustrations felt by many street performers. The song communicates the agitated excitement of closing the gap between culture and everyday life, of talking directly to the audience, of making an unmediated impact. At the same time, the song’s urgent tones communicate an anxiety that no-one is actually listening. Recalling his street performing days, MacColl above all remembered the ‘blank apathy … harder to take than abuse.’ Stridently provocative,Ballad of Accounting buttonholes and interrogates the silent majority passing by. Like much of MacColl’s work, it is generated by a desire to convert quiet acquiescence into a questioning and engaged political outlook.

Ben Harker is the author of Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl (London and Ann Arbor: Pluto, 2007).