Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Ewan MacColl

I listened to Raglan Road by Luke Kelly recently. The song tells the story of Patrick Kavanagh’s unrequited love for the beautiful young Hilda Moriarty.
Kavanagh scribbled down the words of his poem and bade Kelly sing them to the air of Dawning of the Day one evening in the Bailey, a literary watering hole off Dublin’s Grafton Street. What a performance that must have been!
I hadn’t heard Kelly’s austere version in some years and was struck by the way he mines the diamond hard words for their inherent longing and regret without employing even a smidgen of melancholy.
It brought to mind the towering influence of Jimmie Miller. Who? Well, you might know him better as Ewan MacColl. Writer, singer, collector, poet, playwright, broadcaster, political activist, MacColl’s shadow still looms large over those of us from all shades of the spectrum who dabble in folk music.
Opinionated and authoritative, the man even ran a “school” where singers sat at the feet of the master, Luke Kelly amongst them. There MacColl pounded home the idea of the song’s sanctity and the duty of singers to immerse themselves in the words and music, then get out of the way and let the voice deliver the unadorned message.
Did he come to that understanding from Yeats’ dictum that “poetry should be as cold and passionate as the dawn,” or from the Calvinist heritage of his Scottish ancestry?
The man himself was born in Salford, home of fabled Manchester United. He would later immortalize this dingy conglomeration of factories and small terraced houses in “Dirty Old Town,” a song usually attributed to Shane McGowan.
McGowan doesn’t hesitate to credit MacColl’s influence, stating that in his youth he would never be caught dead in some stultifying folk club unless MacColl was performing within.
MacColl’s influence has transcended folk music. Listen to the restrained reading Roberta Flack gives “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The man from Salford wrote that one too. In fact he first sang it over the phone as a gift to girlfriend Peggy Seeger while she was performing in the US. MacColl was for many years banned entry to the country because of his political views.
A confirmed Marxist, he had a fierce and uncompromising conviction in the dignity of workers – not just in their right to a fair standard of living, he also believed that many of the proletariat’s cultural values could be uplifting.
With that in mind, he set out to collect the songs and reminiscences of crofters and laborers, tramps and travelers, and the factory workers of the English industrial heartland.
He presented these in a series of groundbreaking BBC radio shows, though not in the dry anthropological manner of the day. Instead he introduced these “hidden” people in their unadulterated accents and earthy vitality, and bade them tell their own stories.
The shows caused a sensation because working people for the first time heard their own accents and experiences on the hitherto class-conscious national radio station. We’re long accustomed to this format now and perennially hear it exploited on call-in radio; but MacColl was an original who helped to give voice to the pent-up energy and raw talent that was being wasted and frustrated by the British class system.
I met him once in Folk City. He had finally been allowed into the US. He was older and there was a wistfulness in his eyes - there would be no working class republic built on truth and human decency. The room wasn’t even sold out, but everyone present was touched by the simple conviction of the man and the abiding power of his message.
And if some of his political ideas now seem outdated, his cultural ideals live on – one in particular, the notion that the singer is the servant of the song and not vice versa.
The next time you hear Raglan Road, if you can actually touch that “quiet street where old ghosts meet.” then you’ll know that Paddy Kavanagh’s unrequited love lives on - courtesy of one of MacColl’s children.

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