Peggy Seeger's introduction to
The essential Ewan MacColl songbook, 2001
I lived with Ewan MacColl for 35 years. I love, like and respect him. Ewan was not 'the guardian of my solitude', nor was I the guardian of his. Neither of us knew much about that commodity. We walked into our first home with our first child in my womb and his mother in the spare bedroom. To that we added two more children and a thirty-year parade of work-mates, house helpers, friends, media-bods, guests and visiting family. As Ewan and I were life-partners, workmates, friends and lovers, my opinions concerning him will naturally be biased. Had I been outside his life or had I regarded him with indifference or antipathy my viewpoint would also have been prejudiced - but from a different standpoint.
It has been a labour of great love and, like most of my projects with him, I learned an immense amount and gained new perspectives while working on it. He has sat in my heart and by my side during the writing of it, for associated with every song is a first hearing, a memory, an event, a conversation, an argument, a performance, a recording studio, a work-session. I am conscious of his influence and presence as, miles from the country in which we lived our life together, I write the last of our joint books.
Words and ideas.were the touchstones of his whole creative life. He was a talker, and good at it. He was sociable and he enjoyed company, making many acquaintances, friends and enemies. He drew intellectual sustenance from people and in turn gave them the same. His love of the language can be seen throughout this collection, he wrote deceptively simple songs as well as wonderfully intricate pieces. He loved the mathematics of poetry and would often play and juggle with the tumbling words. He used words exactly, whether the song was tender and loving or cruel and (in the case of many of his political songs) unsubtle (to put it subtly). He would go to great lengths to learn the terminology of an industry before writing about it; or, as in the Radio-Ballads, he would interview someone who knew the subject matter better than he ever could. He was an excellent storyteller and jokester. He was prodigiously well-read and borrowed words, phrases and ideas from formal literature. He could recite whole passages of Burns and of the Golden Age Scots poets. He was fluent in the Doric and his songs in that language sing easily. The Shipmaster (his apolcalyptic play about an ageing Scottish seaman whom time and technology have left behind) not only throbs with Ewan's mastery of the language but reveals, through the words of the old seadog, the writer's poignant acknowledgement of his own role in present-day life and of his own mortality.
There were two Ewan MacColls, the id and the ego: the man he was and the man he wanted to be: The first was all feelings, vulnerable and insecure, the boy who wanted to go unnoticed in school; who was convinced that his ears were bigger and more prominent than Dumbo's; who wrote "Nobody Knew She Was There" but could not hug his mother; who was terrified of physical violence yet who believed that real social change was impossible without it; who knew he was talented and was frightened of not doing justice to that talent and to his class; the one whose last years were tormented by a sense of failure. This persona would surface in times of inebriation (rare), stress (chiefly in his later years) and illness (periodic and finally chronic).
The second man was the thinker. He walked with a little strut, like a wee hard man, a man who always made sure that he was the centre of attention in any group; who had a unique way, at a social gathering, of homing in on and isolating anyone he wanted particularly to talk to; who needed to be an authority on every subject; who was convinced that he could write a play or song about anything (which he could); who wanted to live a middle-class life and still be considered working-class; who gave the impression, even while feeling he was a failure, that he was living a happy old age. Persona #2 was well aware of Persona #1 and kept the latter in check.
The two personae tempered each other and were comfortably dovetailed by the time I met him. Being in love did him a lot of good. He was both exalted and humbled by his feelings and lived for a great deal of the time in the more acceptable aspects of his first self while parading the whole of his second self for me in much the same manner as the male peacock spreads its feathers in courtship display. For the most part, this second personality became his public image and it provided him with the ability to keep his working class identity and politics intact while proving himself to the world. But the first self provided him with the things he needed for writing: the passionate connection with his childhood pain, with the crimes of the class war, with the tragedy of his parents' lives, with his identification with the many artists, writers, thinkers, revolutionaries and philosophers who were his role models. Writing his autobiography was a revelation to him for he became truly aware of these two facets of himself for the first time and was attempting to set both of them down on paper. Journeyman, despite much omitted material, is probably the closest that you will ever get to knowing Ewan MacColl.
He was given to exaggeration and sometimes one doubted whether he really knew the truth about certain matters upon which he was confidently holding forth. He would learn something about a subject, then expound on that area of knowledge as if he knew all about the whole subject. This tendency to expand and decorate facts and to employ his verbal weaponry selectively could irritate both family and friends but it often benefited his songwriting. Without it, many of his political songs would not have been as barbed as they were. Call your spade a spade and no one will take you seriously as a fast digger. But call your spade a steam-shovel and your opponents envisage their graves being dug faster. He rarely overstated his feelings - just facts and statistics (and that was usually when he wanted to prove a point or drive an argument home). Was he projecting his Persona #2 credo onto the world? Perhaps. Dammit, he would fashion facts and statistics (and the world) into what he wanted them to be. So maybe in his own terms, he was a failure. Perhaps this happens inevitably to those who dream of entirely reshaping the world in their own lifetime.
His command of the language was phenomenal and he would spice his conversation with exotic words. Occasionally it was to impress his audience but it was more often because he just enjoyed feeling the words in his mouth. He loved words. When he was 14 and on the dole he went daily to the Manchester Public Library to keep warm and to keep occupied. He set himself the task of learning five new difficult words from the dictionary every day. Ablephariatic, a medical term used when referring to people who are born with partial or complete absence of the eyelid. He remembered most of those exotic words and brought them out occasionally so casually and with such confidence
His best and most popular songs are based on traditional pieces but even in his experimental works you can find the time-honoured motifs, usages, footages, forms and poetic constants that characterise the folk songs and ballads. When he employed slang, he seemed to get 'stuck' in the colloquialisms he had learned in his first 25 years, much of it classical and Elisabethan-based. He continued to use these terms in his songs, words like creeps, flash-boys, spivs, fakers and wide boys, words that give some of his songs a dated flavour. He also favoured the political cliches of the 1920-1950 period. These turn up a great deal in his early songs and occasionally in his later ones. He didn't learn or employ new slang because he felt that fashions in language change too fast and that many terms (such as at the end of the day, cool, right on, no way, etc.) are taken up solely so that those who utter them may appear to be in the swim. He drew most of his language from his own experience, from his reading or from people whom he interviewed and he was loath to take the easy way out when writing a song. By the way, we owned a very good rhyming dictionary but he never used it, preferring to dredge up his rhymes in the traditional manner, from his own head.
He was an extraordinarily coherent and rational thinker. Until the 1980s, he worshipped and trusted mankind's 'need to know' and wanted to know everything himself. He was what is traditionally called 'self-educated'. Lack of self-confidence and poverty had paralysed him in his early schooling. A prodigious reader, he was simply unable to learn at school. This failure closed off the possibility of upper school or university but he never stopped scooping words, facts, concepts and any kind of knowledge into his head. He could remember and recite long poems and political tracts. He had an ability to project himself across mental frontiers, to move out of his own specialised field, to correlate seemingly disparate areas of human activity. He seemed to know something about everything. You'd be talking, say, about Bach. Ewan would then literally seize the conversation and introduce what was almost a lecture on the period from 1715-1750. He would elaborate on the scientific theories of that time, the new industrial processes that were being developed, what wars were going on, what country was the most predatory, what the sartorial and nutritional predilections of the various classes were, and so on. He would wind up with the Jacobite Wars and King George . and explain that that was why Bach had chosen to fill this particular form with that particular content.
When you were with Ewan, life began to make sense. Loose ends got connected and thinking processes became more coherent. You began to see the world as a whole, a unit of cause-and-effect where nothing is an accident, where there is no room for God except as an anthropomorphic, ex-post-facto explanation of the Big Bang. It was wonderful to listen to, spellbinding ... for thirty-plus years.
Ewan was a tunemaster. In terms of formal music knowledge, he was virtually illiterate - but one by one the masterpieces rolled off his assembly line: "Down the Lane", "First Time Ever", "Sweet Thames", "Dirty Old Town". So many of them! When I hum or sing them, I melt. Not all of his songs are like that, of course. Many of his earlier songs are set to traditional tunes and some of them are quite stilted, formal and dogmatic. They feel like political speeches set to music and often the words do not sit easily in the tune. "The Ballad of New Poland" (although written to one of Ewan's own tunes) is an example of this period of his writing.
When we began work on the Radio-Ballads, we developed a new attitude towards songwriting altogether. It developed into a technique. Firstly, instead of appropriating traditional tunes he began to use them as what he called 'jumping-off points'. Because the radio-ballads were an hour long, the dozen or so songs in them had to be varied. Ewan would lay out the script and say, 'At this point the script needs a contemplative song, possibly in triple time, in major ... a song with the same atmosphere as, say, "Famous Rower Among Serving Men" [a traditional English ballad]. He would then start humming "Famous Flower" over and over until he had it really firmly in his mind:
Then he would change the first line slightly but keep the rest of the tune the same. When he got a new first line melody that did not sound out of place with the other traditional three, he would then start on the second line. Add this to the new first line and check that those two new lines fit in with the third and fourth traditional ones. Then start on the third line, thence to the fourth line. This would take minutes, hours or days depending on his mood and the tune involved. In this case, he ended up with the tune for "The Shoals of Herring". Now, "Shoals" only sounds vaguely like "Famous Rower" ... but it does sound like a traditional English tune and has often been taken for one. He used the same jumping-off point for "The Doorboy's Song" in The Big Hewer and there are elements of it in "Freeborn Man". (All those tunes are very like "The Old Orange Flute", the melody which carries "The Leader's a Bleeder" and is the base tune for "The Fireman's Not For Me".) I am convinced that he also used his own tunes as jumping-off points - compare "The Father's Song" with "Juliet's Song". Compare "The Ballad of the Big Cigars" with "The Gypsy is a Gentleman", "LBJ Looks After Me", and "The Fight Game". He could also take material from one of his shorter songs (for instance, the traditional tune that carries "The Exile Song") and expand it into complex tunes like "The Great Conspiracy" and "The Economic Miracle". He had an aquifer all of his own!
Like many songmakers, he had a mode, a scale that he preferred: the Dorian ... start on D and run up the white keys on the piano. There were certain tune formats to which he constantly returned. So it wasn't surprising that he borrowed so much from himself - one tune, with minor variations, often carries three or four texts, made over a period of time (see "Only Doing Their Job"). He would use the same tune over and over again with a new set of words each time ("Down the Lane"). Often, as in the case of "Parliamentary Polka", he would make the new song and be entirely unaware until later that he had plagiarised himself ("Song of a Road"). Of course, this made my job of music notation much easier.
His Radio-Ballad recitative sequences (like "Cabin Boy") and some of his later work ("Looking for a Job", "Sunday O Sunday", "Nightmare") show real melodic innovation. Another new avenue was his use of Sicilian traditional tunes as jumping off points ("Looking for a Job", "The Island") or even as a total vehicle for his new words ("Joy of Living"). He was on his way to breaking a mould when he died.
Quick with words, quick to joke but not a memoriser of jokes. I gather that in his Theatre Workshop days he was quite a practical joker. In humour as in personality, there were two facets, one social and one intellectual, the harmless one, and one that could be unkind, sometimes cruel. The former, the zany sense of humour, could be infectious and ridiculous. On holiday in Corsica, he'd appear at dinner with one of my dresses on. He'd stick his tongue out and pant like a cartoon dog when a delicious dinner appeared in front of him at a restaurant. He'd walk through Paris in front of his embarrassed young sons singing loudly in mock Chinese. I think my sense of propriety sometimes dulled the theatrical flamboyancy at which he truly excelled. Much of this type of joking was aimed at his own person which he regarded as that of a short, not very attractive man with ears that stuck out. This sort of humour waned as old age set in.
The other aspect of the joking could be not so pleasant. I think it originates in the need to be centre stage. In private he would over-imitate the stride of my father, whom he actually respected and with whom he got along famously. He'd often make a personally-aimed joke just to say something clever, a habit which became contagious in the family. This is the kind of humour he used in his political songs. He was a natural satirist and patterned himself upon the style of Scotland's political writers, poets and songmakers, who are not known for their subtlety or diplomacy. It is a point in his favour that his sense of humouor was just one of his tools in songwriting. Look at the variety of songs in this book: polemic, tender, lyrical, satirical, ironic, angry, straightforward, objective, subjective ... the songs run through an extraordinary stylistic and emotional range. His theatrical training taught him that attention wanes if you don't change the pace in time and he kept changing the pace, the meter, the mode, the approach, the length, the poetic style. He may have loved the Dorian mode but he used many of the others. He could write like the outraged Marxist that he was - but he could also write like Romeo. And if he hadn't been such a snob as far as 'commercial' music was concerned, he probably could have written popular songs too, for he had been drawn to a great variety of music in his early years and was a good imitator. Even as he could quote classic poetry and pub monologues, he could also let loose with sections of "Der Ring des Nibelungen", "Come Into the Garden, Maud" or a Schubert lieder in appalling German. When it came to songwriting, however, he kept, for the most part, to the straight-and-narrow: songs in the folk idiom of the British Isles, using the traditions in which the Scots and English working classes had for centuries expressed their laughter and tears.
This section will be very short, as short-lived as were each of his attempts to play an instrument. He had a few piano lessons as a child and when near a piano he would, like many of us, sit down and play the one tune that he could play best. When I went back to the States in 1957, he decided to surprise me on my return by being able to play every chord in the guitar chord-book. He learned a few simple right-hand movements as well. I was impressed and depressed. He knew more chords than I did (but then that's not hard) - but when he accompanied himself .... oh dear! He went off pitch, out of rhythm and pulse, forgot the words and fell apart as a singer. He tried accompanying me, glassy-eyed with concentration. He didn't really enjoy it - he approached it the way some thinking people tackle political action: because they think they should. I suggested that his best instrument was his voice and that he should concentrate on that. He leered (he was given to such behaviour under certain circumstances) and suggested that he had another competent instrument upon which we could concentrate. I remember that day well. I do believe he was quite relieved when we both agreed that although his chord-learning wasn't wasted, his guitar playing should cease.
These programmes gave rise to a technique which crystallised and made workable a theory which Ewan had held all his creative life: that the language of everyday speech and the language of the traditional songs are symbiotic in nature, that they are two sides of the same coin. We came to believe that the reason our traditional songs have lasted so long and have such appeal to modem people is that they use the same language constructs, the same grammar and the same body of constants as our spoken language. When we started on the Radio-Ballads, our original idea was to record 'informants' (see glossary) for information only and then give their words to professional BBC speakers. However, the people we recorded were so articulate and spoke with such eloquence and truth that we decided to use the actual recordings instead, despite the objections of the BBC hierarchy who regarded most of Britain's dialects in the same light as the colonial English regarded native African speech. Ewan also chose to make his new songs directly out of that spoken actuality. He borrowed the informants' actual words and phrases, speech and breathing patterns, tone and pitch of voice - all those features that make a person's vocabulary and vocal delivery as distinctive as a fingerprint. "The Shoals of Herring" was based literally on Sam Lamer's way of talking. We continued using speech like this whenever we wanted to write a song about something we knew nowt about. It helped to guard against formula writing. It helped in tempering our own particular musical preferences and predilections and gave the song an authenticity it might otherwise not have had. It helped the song to speak for a particular person or persons in much the same way as the traditional songs do.
Politics, ecology and gender
As a budding eco-feminist, I find the subject matter of many of the songs in this book very hard to deal with. A developed eco-feminist would probably not have undertaken this book at all. Ewan was a Marxist, a militant, gut-political product of the tail-end of the industrial revolution. In most of his songs, men are digging, slashing, cutting, building, re-shaping, raping, controlling, humanising the earth and being praised for doing so for the good of mankind. Humanity and the class struggle were Ewan's main preoccupations but his songs deal with MEN: men's work, men's lives, men's activities and many veiled (and not so veiled) references to the power of the penis. Even where it is obvious that both sexes are being referred to, Ewan (like myself in my early songs and like most people in our patriarchal society) employs the masculine pronouns. Most of the roles are quite set in the traditional mould. "Lullabye for the Times" instructs the child to 'drink up your milk like you do when Dad's at home.' "The Gallant Colliers" declares that the 'world was not built by power alone but by men like you and me.' 'Come and save the world, man, you're only just in time.' 'Walking arm in arm with Mister Everybody and his wife.' Lads, boys, brothers, mankind, and so it goes on. Females stay at home in most of Ewan's songs and they are women, pollones, lasses, girls - not sisters. (The chorus in "Disc of Sun" originally contained only brothers. I suggested the 'sister' when the song was revived in the 1980s. He was enthusiastic but not disturbed that the idea had not occurred to him without assistance.) He held men responsible for not only the good mass action but also the bad mass action in the world ... that is, for all the important action in the world. Recent research declares that the majority of men have sex on their minds for more than a great deal of the time. It was thus with Ewan and much of his humour was bawdy and down-to-earth. He held that his was working-class humour. To someone like me, with a liberal middle-class upbringing, much of it seemed childish and prurient, but I acknowledge that lines like Ted and his organ and Each Monday Club member is pledged to dismember the organs of nationalisation invariably brought a howl of enjoyment from the members of the audience. These felicitous phrases appear over and over again and, like our two sons during their anal-joke stage, Ewan would savour the words as he delivered them. Unfortunately, quite a number of them are homophobic, for Ewan behaved as if he had a contempt for (which I believe was actually a fear of) homosexuals, although a number of his early theatre friends had been gay. His tolerance lessened once he entered the folk scene (where a 'man' means 'heterosexual') and his sung references to possible homosexual tendencies in politicians never let up. It was just another one of the things he could insult them with. Incidentally, he never attributed lesbianism to the female politicians that he targeted but rather ridiculed them for their mock-male tendencies. Lesbianism disturbed him but he did not regard it as a tool to be used in political invective. Political Correctness was not yet an issue and even if it had been, Ewan would have argued (no doubt with many a double-entendre) that the end justifies the means. In the final year of his life he worked with a group of young men recording "Bring the Summer Home" and his midstream discovery that several of them were gay was a turning point for him. He was outnumbered in the group he was working with! He was 74 and still learning. I don't recall hearing any homophobic jokes from him from that time on.
It was with gender politics as it had been with the 1930s slang: Ewan was a man of his time and it took him a long time to realise that those times were over, that a new perspective was not only necessary but desirable. His brain accepted it but his automatic pilot always seemed to take him back to that image of females in the home and men at work. Even when women's work and jobs were outside of the home they were a side issue - such jobs were taken only because income was needed. To Ewan, women's jobs (even when they were in a mill or factory) were not as interesting, as dramatic, as political and as central to the coming revolution as men's jobs. His own mother had gone out to work and had come home to do her own housework. His father helped. Helped, for the jobs in the home were not really his to do. And although Ewan sang about his mother's fortitude he did not admire her charwoman's work as he did his father's iron-moulding. He felt the work was demeaning and that there was nothing heroic in her work ("Nobody Knew She Was There"). So even in 1984, during the miners' strike in which women were taking active part on the violent picket lines, Ewan writes of a wife bandaging the wounds that her husband has gotten fighting the enemy before vowing to go on the picket lines with him ("On the Picket Line"). Yet he poked fun at the presumptive male in "Co-operative Marriage" and wrote "What the Poet Called Her."
There were instances in our private and public life where Ewan automatically stepped into an autocratic and dominating role and I fell in step behind him just as automatically. He sang, almost without thinking, many songs in which the sexual politics were, I now feel, incorrect. It's tempting to draw conclusions from all this, but that would be unfair. He respected women, preferred our company to men's, trusted our judgment and mental acuity - but wrote almost no songs about us as women.. So where are the women in these songs? They are where they were in Ewan's Salford world, a place where man's work was going to change everything through the wonders of industrial technology, a world where man's work was heroic and women's was not. The vision of a world dying because of human (man's?) depredation ...the spectre of feminism the recognition of women's values and women's work as vital to the saving of the world: I believe these huge new vistas frightened and bewildered him. The simplistic terminology and ideology of the class struggle, along with the forms Ewan had been using, were now only part of the struggle to come: the struggle to disempower, dismantle and dissolve a world conceived by one half of the human race in its own image. The feminist dictum 'personal is political' was only just beginning to enter that area of Ewan's brain where theory turns into practice when he died.
Ewan was determined to make his mark, to be an individual, to be known - yet he was thrilled when he learned that "The Shoals of Herring" was being regarded as a folksong; when he learned that "Champion at Keepin' 'Em Rolling" was considered a traditional trucker's piece; when travelling people made new verses to "The Moving-On Song". Ewan always bent over backward to make sure that everyone was credited for their contributions to a song or to a production. He was a contortionist in some cases and, for reasons best known to himself, often did not claim authorship of certain songs which family and friends know are unarguably his." Ivor", "The Second Front Song", "Browned Off' are three that spring immediately to mind. Of course, it is possible that he wrote them with other people. But when he sang them onstage, he would never say whose songs they were or where he had learned them (a sure sign with Ewan, for he would always credit the maker if he knew who it was. And his memory was infallible). He would rarely say, onstage, 'This is a song I wrote' or 'This is one of my songs'. He might casually offer, 'I wrote this for Willie Richardson' or 'This is the story of my father's life'. The song "Ivor" is a good case in point. In our songbook The Singing Island, this song is attributed to Alfred Watts of Newcastle. Now, Ewan sang "Ivor" a great deal but never once did he mention the name Alfred Watts. Nor was Watts' name on Ewan' s onionskin copy, typewritten in blue. The song is classic Ewan MacColl. Once again, he was trying to sit in school, unnoticed, hoping to be camouflaged by the presence of his classmates, hoping (oddly, in the light of Persona #2, not to stand out!). But retire backstage when the applause starts and someone else will go forward and take the bows. Ewan felt betrayed when this happened. Theatre Workshop became known as Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and the brilliant radio scripts that he had written became known as Charles Parker's Radio-Ballads. He tried to be philosophical, but it hurt. Badly.
Onr partnership was shared in much the same way as the MacColl/Parker/Seeger and Littlewood/MacColl ones were, for in each of the three teams there were complementary talents. Despite the fact that Ewan could be quite jealous and competitive, there was no jealousy in our duo work and the competition was of a quite different sort. I was as directly responsible for much of his output as he was for mine. Our talking gave rise to our singing - songwriting ideas arose from conversation. He wrote for me as I wrote for him - we were part of the same movement, we knew the pleasure our songs gave to each other and would often wait till a song was completely finished before revealing it, almost in triumph. It was part of an ongoing courtship ritual and courtship is known to contain and encourage competitive elements. It was also a relay race undertaken by two equals and it took many forms. He might set new words to one of the traditional songs that I sang. I would take one of his conversational perorations and make a song of it. When I started writing personal songs for our children and for him, he began getting more personal in his songs and turned out "My Old Man" and "Nobody Knew She Was There". He would remind me that my battered-wife song "Emily" needed to end with a dose of hope. If one of us had a song on the way and there were birth difficulties, we'd talk, criticise, discuss and wrestle it into existence. He wrote the words for "Bring the Summer Home" and brought them downstairs one day, saying "These songs need tunes." I wrote them. He wrote odd verses and lines in 'my' songs and I did the same with 'his', we altered each other's tunes - and neither of us ever bothered to claim our 'share' of authorship. Nor ever will.
There were things he never told me, things that I found out only after he died. He was proud of his five music-making children and there were things he never told them, too. Parents and children sometimes remind me of radios which transmit continually but whose receiving mechanisms are disconnected, whose programs are in a state of fugue. Ewan tried to talk to his children about his life and politics and they, in turn, tried to educate him on the subject of popular music, a subject which his cultural puritanism would not allow him to countenance. The stalemate was never resolved although he had great admiration for their talents and creativity.
After leaving Salford, he didn't keep in contact with his childhood friends although he dropped back easily into their company when they did meet. He didn't like to admit the hold that Salford had over him. In his later years he didn't want to admit the grip that his ideal of a homocentric industry-led world had on him. In 1983 I founded an anti-nuclear-energy group and began to push Ewan towards writing about the coming ecological disaster which had been caused by the very attitudes and industries that he had championed all his life. He had already written "The Vandals" and "Nightmare" ,both of which describe ... nightmare. I pointed out that he had only dealt with the situation vis-a-vis its effect on humans. He tried again with "Nuclear Means Jobs", a very clever and well-aimed song - and was appalled to find that once again he had tackled the problem from a pre-Copernican point of view. He had moved on for at last he was beginning to fear mankind as a species.
But like many people who are at the beginning of a political transformation, one or two of his more recent songs occasionally exhibited leftovers of the old way of thinking (such as the somewhat denigratory reference in "Public Unpublic" to the (unimportant) sex life of the frog, an animal whose mutations and abnormal mortality patterns are now gaining attention as a living barometer to the fate of all terrestrial life). Journeyman was the turning point - if only Ewan had lived longer after that! His autobiography shows plainly his split personality; many readers have commented to me that the first half about the boy with the big ears makes a better read than the second half which concentrates on work, words and ideas. When the book was 'finished', I suggested that he write about NOW, a time in which he was reverting to being at the mercy of his own body, aging and ill as it was becoming. He responded with, "Who would be interested in that? ". Even as the wife in The Full Monty replied to a similar question, I said, "I am." He wrote two chapters - and in both of them he bares what he had feared to reveal all his life: a bottomless fear of failure, the admission of which makes him all the stronger. In those final chapters he is at last one person, who can strut and weep simultaneously, who can speak with assurance about insecurity, who could write "The Joy of Living" about dying.
When I came to the United States in 1994,1 turned our family house in Beckenham over to a rental agency. After a series of tenant-disasters, I decided to rent to five young policemen. It's a good thing to know where the cops are, you know. And while Ewan would have died a second death to know the boys in blue were in his home, there is an interesting sequel. In 1996, the Bromley Borough Council voted to have one of their yearly quota of two blue historical plaques put on our house. On a turn-of-the century house inhabited by five policemen, there is a tribute to Ewan MacColl, political songwriter and playwright who lived there. And we all know what political means. The tributes feel good - the degree awarded to Ewan after his death by the University at Salford; the tree planted in his honour in Russell Square in London; the letters I get, the requests for his songs, the enemies who will always be there for both good and bad reasons, the friends we made together with whom I am still in touch.
I love Ewan MacColl and I miss him daily, even though it's ten years since he died and I now have a new partner. Writing this book has been hard for me. I shared so many of my best days with him. He filled my life and our house with ideas and singing and if there is anything about him that I miss more than anything else it is the sound of that dark chocolate tenor ... and waiting for him to haul up another creation from that fountain that could be capped only by death. The songs in this book - axes and scalpels, war cries against war, silk purses and cleverly wrought sow's ears - are now as surely his as they are yours. They cannot be taken from him as were his beloved theatre and the Radio-Ballads.
Ewan: this book is my last material gift to you, from your compañera who wants it to be known that whoever, whatever you really were, you did manage to become the best part of what you wanted to be.
Taken from The essential Ewan MacColl songbook: sixty years of songmaking, 2001