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A biography of Ewan MacColl

by Peggy Seeger

William Miller was a Scots iron-moulder, militant trade-unionist, active left-wing socialist and, by all accounts, a 'sweet singer' who had taken many a medal in singing competitions. In his early twenties he took one of his trophies to the pawnshop in Falkirk, where he met and fell in love with the young red-haired manageress. One of fourteen children, Betsy Hendry was a fit and fiery mate for young Miller, who was at that time stumping the country with the Scots revolutionary John MacLean. These activities resulted in his being blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland. In 1910, the Millers moved to Salford (Lancashire) in search of work. Over the years, Betsy gave birth to four children, only one of whom survived: Jimmie.

Jimmie Miller grew up in a two-up/two-down house amongst a community of emigré Scots and from his earliest days he was as familiar with the cut-and-thrust of political discussion and argument as he was with the songs and stories his parents had brought from Scotland - a huge repertoire with which his father and mother kept themselves and their friends entertained. After an elementary education, Jimmie left school in 1930. The Great Depression was in full swing and he went straight into the army of the unemployed. His real education began during the Depression when, like many of the jobless, he sought warmth at the Manchester Public Library, where he spent most of his time reading. He occasionally got work as a motor-mechanic, factory worker, builders' labourer, streetsinger - whatever he could put his hand and voice to. He joined the Workers' Theatre but found it too pedestrian and conservative. Forming his own agit-prop street-performing group, the Red Megaphones, he thereafter devoted all of his waking hours for the next few years to theatrical and political activities.

His first literary experience was gained in the early 1930s when he wrote for and edited factory newspapers. He began writing satirical songs and political squibs for nine such papers (and for local restaurants who hired him to make advertising jingles). After taking part in the hunger marches and the unemployed demonstrations of 1932-33, he joined forces in 1934 with Joan Littlewood, a young actress who had fled R.A.D.A. They married and set up a workers' experimental theatre in Manchester, the Theatre of Action. When the radical German dramatist Ernst Toller came to Britain, he chose Jimmie to play a leading role in his production of Draw the Fires. By then, Jimmie had already begun to write short theatrical sketches and dramatic poems and in 1935 he and Joan moved to London where they formed a workers' dramatic school, a venture which would provide the basis for the training methods to be used later in Theatre Workshop.

The couple returned to the North of England in 1936 and founded Theatre Union, a group which described itself as a 'theatre of the people'. It made a considerable impact upon audiences throughout the industrial northwest in the period between 1936 and 1939. Its most notable productions, directed jointly by Jimmie and Joan, were Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuña, The Good Soldier Schweik (adapted from Hasek's novel) and Last Edition (a living newspaper - an original Miller script). This highly successful play dealt with the political events leading up to the Munich agreement and used the episodic form which Jimmie was later to extend in his innovative post-war play, Uranium 235. In 1939, Last Edition was stopped by the police. Miller and Littlewood were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. They were both heavily fined, bound over and barred from taking part in any kind of theatrical activity for the next two years.

World War II began and within a few weeks most of the group had been scattered to the four corners of the earth. The theatre training continued, carried out by correspondence; study courses (reading lists, books, etc.) were circulated consistently throughout the whole period of the war. This small body of far-flung students soon possessed between them a considerable corpus of knowledge on matters relating to specialised theatre studies. By August 1945, a sufficient number of the theatre members had returned home. They pooled their army gratuities, making it possible to launch the group known as Theatre Workshop. Shortly afterward, Jimmie Miller (inspired by the example of the Lallans poets) changed his name to Ewan MacColl, a name which eventually completely usurped his given name. He and Joan threw all their energy and talent into the new theatre. Up until this period they had directed the plays jointly, but now their functions were divided: Littlewood was to direct and produce whilst MacColl was to write new plays, formulate new training techniques and train the actors. From 1945-1952, Theatre Workshop travelled extensively. Ewan, often undertaking key roles on stage himself, wrote eleven plays, many of which were performed abroad and translated into German, French, Polish and Russian.

The intention of Theatre Workshop was to create dramatic techniques that were sufficiently flexible to reflect the rapidly changing 20th-century scene. Ewan always insisted that the task of creating a popular theatre is one which cannot be solved merely by changing the class background of the central figures or by simply introducing technical and stylistic innovations. For him, the problem was a multi-dimensional one which must be solved on a series of different fronts simultaneously. 'If the theatre is to play an important role in the lives of the people of our time then it must develop techniques which rival in efficiency the complex machines which working people handle every day of their lives in the course of their work. In addition,' he declared, 'the problem is one of poetics. Dramatic writers must of necessity attempt to close the enormous gap which exists between our literary and our oral traditions. They do not do this by acting merely as an amplifier for everyday speech, but by analysing the speech rhythms, idioms and nuances of everyday conversation, and then crystallising them in the way that Shakespeare and Jonson did in their time.' In all of Ewan's plays, therefore, the language is approached experimentally. There is no attempt to deceive the audience into believing that they are overhearing a 'real' conversation. Rather the reverse is true: it was by stressing particular speech rhythms, varieties of idiom and types of cadences that MacColl constantly sought to change the perspectives of action, and, as a result, never allowed the actor-audience relationship to become static. He carried many of these ideas and techniques into his songwriting and radio work. (For further elaboration on these points, see Joan's Book and Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop.)

He and Joan divorced in the late 1940s. In 1949 he fell in love with and married the dancer Jean Newlove. They had two children, Hamish and Kirsty, both of whom became singers and musicians. Theatre Workshop 'defected to the West End' (that was how Ewan referred to the move) and he turned his attention to traditional music and song. Soon he was playing a key role in initiating and extending what is now called 'the folk song revival' in Britain. He was among the first to recognise the importance of the folk club as a basic unit in this revival, a unit without which the movement might never have made a major impact. In 1953, Alan Lomax, Bert Lloyd, Seamus Ennis, Ewan MacColl (and other singers and musicians) founded the Ballads and Blues Club which was later to become the controversial Singers Club. This club not only featured Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl as its permanent residents but it launched many younger singers and groups until it was formally closed in 1991. Ewan sang regularly at this club until the week before his death.

From the early 1930s, Ewan had been involved in radio as a narrator, actor, writer and producer. He worked with numerous experimental producers, among them D.G. Bridson, Dennis Mitchell and John Pudney. In 1956, he met and fell in love with Peggy Seeger, a North American folksinger and multi-instrumentalist. In 1957, in collaboration with Peggy and the BBC producer Charles Parker, he wrote a series of musical documentaries for BBC radio which came to be known as Radio Ballads. These were a combination of recorded speech, sound effects, new songs and folk instrumentation and were hailed as a major breakthrough in creative radio technique. Dubbed 'folk documentaries' by newspaper critics, the Radio Ballads were a totally new type of program. Many of the concepts and ideas which they initiated have since become routine radio, television and film procedures.

Peggy and Ewan became a well-known singing duo and for the next 33 years their work was inextricably combined. They had three children: Neill and Calum (both musicians) and Kitty (who works in desk-top publishing and public relations). Peggy and Ewan gave concerts, conducted workshops and toured widely as singers of traditional and contemporary songs. They recorded extensively and initiated projects such as The Long Harvest (a 10-volume series of traditional ballads), The Paper Stage (a 2-volume set of Shakespearean sung narratives) and Blood and Roses (a 5-volume set of rare British and North American ballads). They formed their own record company (Blackthorne) and issued discs of their own renditions of traditional and topical songs.

They spent much of their time on education and media projects. They wrote scripts and music for BBC films and for commercial television and stage. In 1965, they founded the Critics Group, a co-operative company of revival singers who trained in folksinging and theatre techniques. Every year, from 1965 to 1971 the group researched current events, building them up into an organised dossier which Ewan used as a basis for writing an annual musical stage documentary, The Festival of Fools, in which the group members acted and sang. Gradually the Critics Group formed a base from which a folk theatre could be developed but it dissolved before that theatre materialised.

MacColl and Seeger collected extensively from traditional singers in Britain. In addition to books of their own songs and various small collections, they produced two anthologies of traditional songs of Britain's nomadic peoples: Travellers' Songs of England and Scotland and Doomsday in the Afternoon. With Howard Goorney, Ewan co-authored Agit -prop to Theatre Workshop, a book of political playscripts and reminiscences of Theatre Workshop. As a songwriter, Ewan is best known as the author of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Dirty Old Town", "The Shoals of Herring", "Freeborn Man", "My Old Man", "The Thirty-Foot Trailer", "The Manchester Rambler" and many others. It is not known how many songs he wrote for so many of them were created as parts of protracted theatrical or media-orientated programs. This book contains his best and most singable songs. His other work resides in the Ewan MacColl-Peggy Seeger Archive at Ruskin College, Headington, Oxford, England.

In 1979, Ewan MacColl suffered the first of many heart attacks. The next ten years saw a steady deterioration in his physical condition but he continued to work, tour, lecture and write songs. In 1980, he wrote his last play, The Shipmaster, the moving story of a sailing ship captain who cannot adapt to the coming of steam. In many ways, this play was an analogy of Ewan's own life and was perhaps the instrument which spurred him in 1987 to embark upon his autobiography, Journeyman. He finished it in mid-1988 and it sat on his desk for a year. On October 22 1989, he died of complications following a heart operation. Journeyman was published in 1990 and remaindered in 1994 when the publishing company, Sidgwick and Jackson, was absorbed by MacMillan. At the moment of writing, attempts are being made to have it re-issued.

For sixty years, Jimmie Miller/Ewan MacColl was in the cultural vanguard of numerous political struggles and cultural movements. Although it has been said that he was a big fish in a small pond, the ocean of traditional song and speech upon which he navigated and hunted owes him a great debt for the treasures that he returned to it.

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Ewan MacColl: Introduction