Ewan MacColl was (amongst other things) a performer, recording artist and a prolific songwriter, but he seems to have been a little coy about recording his own compositions. He loved the traditional folk canon, the songs that have lived on after the origins and authors have been forgotten. He hoped that he might write one song that would burn itself into the collective memory and live on long after him.
It might well still happen.
2015 marks the MacColl centenary, and his family have overseen this project to mark the occasion. They invited performers that they knew and/or admired to record the old man’s songs.
I’d never really got to grips with MacColl, though I’d certainly been aware of him. I knew a few of his songs – indeed there is one MacColl song that everybody knows – but also his reputation as a curmudgeonly, inflexible boss of the English folk song revival.
This album reminds me of the night I saw Norma Waterson perform. I’d heard so much about her over the years and if you’d asked me I’d have said that she couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation. But she did, and it was a thrill to see reality match the legend.
So it is with this album: Now that I’ve HEARD MacColl rather than just heard of him I’m happy to report that he really was a great songwriter (and not just a great POLITICAL songwriter) and the reality has again equalled the myth.
Two things struck me on first listen: Many of the songs are not overt socialist protests (MacColl was watched by the powers that be from early on because of his communist leanings), and the melodies are strong, and sometimes more than that. The best songs here are dazzling, and the overall standard is high.
The performances are pretty good too for the most part. There are a couple of unexpected clunkers from two famously political performers Steve Earle (“Dirty Old Town”, perhaps MacColl’s second best known song) and Billy Bragg (“Kilroy Was Here”). In both cases the performances are too unsympathetic, too harsh. But other than that…
Rufus and Martha Wainwright team up on the gorgeous “Sweet Thames Flow Softly” that places an expression of love and passion into a thoroughly English setting (“At London Yard I took her hand , at Blackwall Point I faced her / At the Isle of Dogs I kissed her mouth and tenderly embraced her / Heard the bells of Greenwich ringing …”) and marries fines lyrics to a memorable melody. This song gives nothing away to the equally English and more widely lauded “Waterloo Sunset”. The Wainwrights know better than to try to gild the lily and let the romance in the words and melody speak for itself. Their harmonies, with sister Lily Lanken, are exceptional.
Chaim Tanenbaum (a long time sidekick to Rufus and Martha’s dad) also plays it straight on “My Old Man” – both a memorial to MacColl’s father and a comment on the corrosive effects of redundancy – and his understated performance makes the pathos in the song all the more effective.
A side note here is that these songs are also interesting artefacts of recent history. MacColl was born in 1915, but the world he often portrays here already seems distant and well in the past. “My old man” was “loyal to his workmates all his life / gave his pay packet to his wife”. Weekly pay in cash in little envelopes – and this was all legal, common and acceptable. How times have changed.
Seth Lakeman gets another MacColl classic with a stirring melody – “The Shoals Of Herring” – and makes the most of it without getting overly grandiose.
Many of these songs have memorable melodies that are easily learned and strong choruses. This is what arena rock tries to achieve and what folk music often serves up. These are also qualities that are useful for protest songs – you want your audience to quickly learn and embrace such songs. MacColl’s parents knew, loved and sang traditional folks songs and he clearly absorbed and learned from the richness of the traditional folk canon.
Martin Simpson does well with “The Father’s Song” which alternates effectively between the tender and the cynical (“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”).
Then there’s the Carthies: Martin is unmistakeable and very good with “I’m Champion At Keeping Them Rolling” and Eliza gives a strong performance of a strong melody with “Thirty Foot Trailer”, one of several songs that is sympathetic towards the gypsies.
Although many of the artists would be filed under “folk” in a record store (an old-fashioned concept: they sell music on physical media) and MacColl is inextricably linked with the English folk song revival of the 50s and the 60s, the producers did not impose this restriction upon the performers. Karine Polwart delivers a thoroughly modern and convincingly chilling performance of “The Terror Time” (which deals with the way that travelling people were alternately used and then terrorised by land owners) that owes more to Peter Gabriel than to, say, Anne Briggs.
There are other examples of fine performances of fine songs, and I could go on and on. I’ll stipulate just one more – the closer and the title track (and, it would seem, a self-penned eulogy) with, (again!) a memorable melody and a moving lyric, well sung by David Gray. There really are multiple star turns here.
This album has received many strong reviews, and you should believe those reviews. For the uninitiated (like me) MacColl is revealed as a compelling and skilled songwriter.
Footnote: The MacColl song that everybody knows is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, written for and to the great love of his life Peggy Seeger, and recorded several years later by Roberta Flack. It was a smash hit, must have been a nice little earner and won MacColl a Grammy. He couldn’t collect the award in person (assuming he’d wanted to) because he was banned from entering the USA because of his activism and political affiliations.