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

Early history

MacColl was born James (Jimmie) Henry Miller in Broughtonmarker, Salfordmarker, Lancashiremarker in Englandmarker, to Scottishmarker parents, William and Betsy Miller (Betsy née Hendry). Both his parents were socialists and William Miller was an iron-moulder and militant trade unionist who had moved to Salford with his wife to look for work after being blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland. They lived amongst a group of emigre scots and Jimmie, their only child, was brought up in an atmosphere of fierce political debate interspersed with the large repertoire of songs and stories his parents had brought from Scotland. He left school in 1930 during the Great Depression and, joining the ranks of the unemployed, began a life-long programme of self education whilst keeping warm in the Manchester Public Librarymarker. During this period he found intermittent work in a number of jobs and also made money as a street singer. He joined the Young Communist League 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, MI5marker, began a file on MacColl, after the local police told them that the singer was a "a communist with very extreme views" who needed "special attention". 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 prevented the employment of Joan Littlewood as a BBC children's programme presenter.

Acting career

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

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

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 (influenced by the Lallans movement in Scotland). 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.


During this period MacColl's enthusiasm for folk music grew. In 1953 Theatre Workshop opted to settle in Stratford, Londonmarker, 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 during 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.

During 1956, MacColl caused a scandal by starting a relationship with Peggy Seeger, who was twenty years his junior, while married to 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 quickly and taught it to her by telephone. She was touring 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.

In 1959, MacColl began releasing albums on Folkways Records, including several collaborative albums with Peggy Seeger.

Amongst his other well-known songs is "Dirty Old Town", about his home town of Salfordmarker in Lancashiremarker. 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).

Ewan MacColl became the main writer of English protest songs during the 1950s, with pro-communist songs such as The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh (which is well-known in Vietnammarker) and The Ballad of Stalin ("Joe Stalin was a mighty man and a mighty man was he/ He led the Soviet people on the road to victory"), as well as volatile protest and topical songs concerning the nuclear threat to peace, most notably 'Against the Atom Bomb' . There was also "The Ballad of Tim Evans" (also known as "Go Down You Murderer") about an innocent man, Timothy Evans, 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 Squaremarker in Londonmarker. 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 Salfordmarker.

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.

Later years

After many years of poor health he eventually died in 1989: the lifetime archive of his work with Peggy Seeger and others was passed on to Ruskin College at Oxford.


  • Samuel, Raphael; MacColl, Ewan; and Cosgrove, Stuart (1985) Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul ISBN 0-7100-0901-1
  • Goorney, Howard and MacColl, Ewan (eds.) (1986) Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop, Political Playscripts, 1930-1950. Manchester: Manchester University Press ISBN 0-7190-2211-8
  • MacColl, Ewan (1990) Journeyman: an Autobiography; introduction by Peggy Seeger. London: Sidgwick & Jackson ISBN 0-283-06036-0
  • Littlewood, Joan (1994) Joan's Book: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History As She Tells It. London: Methuen ISBN 0-413-77318-3
  • MacColl, Ewan (1998) The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook: sixty years of songmaking; ed. Peggy Seeger. New York: Oak Publications
  • Pegg, Carole A. (1999) British Traditional and Folk Musics, in: British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 7, pp. 193–98
  • O'Brien, Karen (2004) Kirsty MacColl, The One and Only: the definitive biography . London: Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-00070-4
  • Harker, Ben (2007) Class Act: the Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl. London: Pluto Press ISBN 9780-745-32165-3 (chapters: 1. Lower Broughton—2. Red Haze—3. Welcome, Comrade—4. Browned Off—5. A Richer, Fuller Life—6. Towards a People's Culture—7. Croydon, Soho, Moscow, Paris—8. Bard of Beckenham—9. Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom—10. Sanctuary—11. Endgame)


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 in 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 (1962)
  • 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"
  • "The Shoals of Herring"

External links



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