Paul Anderson, Tribune, 3 November 1989

Ewan MacColl, who died last week at the age of 74, was at the centre of two of the most significant developments in the arts in post-war Britain: the rise of a populist political theatre and the “folk revival”.

From the vantage point of the late eighties, both phenomena seem past their peak. Indeed, folk music today is for the most part back underground, its place in the affections of young people long ago taken by commercial pop, most (at least until the current world music craze) of it rooted in black America.

Populist political theatre is rather more visible, but it has been severely curtailed by the financial rigours and political exhaustion of ten years of Thatcherism.

Still, both have been crucial in moulding the cultural landscape of our times, and neither would have been anything like as important had it not been for the contribution of Ewan MacColl.

Born James Miller in Auchterander in 1915, MacColl joined the Young Communist League at the age of 14. In thirties’ Manchester, as a member of a street-corner agitprop group, he was discovered by a young stage designer who was working at the local Gaiety Theatre with the exiled German playwright Ernst Toller. The young designer was Joan Littlewood, and the meeting was the start of a long and fruitful creative relationship that was to culminate in the creation of Theatre Workshop in 1946 which, after years of touring, settled in the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1953.

It is no exaggeration to say that Theatre Workshop revolutionised British theatre, introducing an exuberant style of ensemble playing, often involving song and dance, that was in its own way as deeply subversive of stuffy theatrical convention as Look Back in Anger or anything else put on by the Royal Court in the fifties. Its spirit lives on, not just in the populist radicalism that still informs the Theatre Royal and many other companies, but even in the mainstream. MacColl’s contribution included the authorship of Theatre Workshop’s biggest pre-Stratford hit, Uranium 235, an anti-bomb drama performed at the Edinburgh People’s Festival (a precursor of the Fringe) in 1951.

The fifties saw MacColl increasingly making his mark as a folk musician, performing and recording the “lost” music of ordinary British people as well as songs by his own hand.
MacColl’s discoveries came particularly from the urbanindustrial working class and from Scotland and Ireland: not for him the celebration of a mythical English rural idyll, His own compositions were songs of struggle — as often bleak and harsh as they were tender, and often intensely political. More than anyone else, MacColl was responsible for making folk the soundtrack of the Aldermaston generation.

The folk revival burned itself out by the late sixties, unable to compete with the pop music that the folkies hated so much. Increasingly, MacColl and his wife, Peggy Seeger, herself an accomplished musician, ploughed a lonely furrow, their work appreciated by an enthusiastic following (particularly on the left, for whose causes MacColl was such a great benefit performer to the very last) but never gaining the mass audience it undoubtedly deserved.

All that may be changing again now, as boredom with recycling of rhythm and blues prompts young musicians to look at other popular music styles and traditions. Most obviously, MacColl’s work has been a major influence on the best band to have come out of Ireland in recent years, The Pogues, who had a hit a couple of years back with MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”; but there are plenty of others in his debt.

His death is a great loss for everyone on the left, and it is difficult to believe that we’ll see his like again.

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