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The Songbook of Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl’s sons, Neill and Calum, reflect on their favourite songs of their father’s, sharing anecdotes from their life with him and what memories his lyrics recall.


Dirty Old Town

‘I found my love by the gasworks croft, dreamed a dream by the old canal,
kissed my girl by the factory wall. Dirty old town, dirty old town.’

‘This was written to cover a scene change in a Theatre Workshop production of a play Ewan had written – Landscape With Chimneys. The play (and the song) is about Salford. It carries the love/hate relationship he had with the town of his birth. Love and old dead trees. Everybody assumes it’s about whatever town they’re from – and there lies its universality and success.’


The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

‘The first time ever I lay with you and felt your heart beat over mine –
I thought our joy would fill the earth and last till the end of time.’

‘There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about this song. It’s been used, abused and is still a great song…
Family legend has it that Ewan wrote it in half an hour and dictated over the phone to Peggy who was in the USA about to do a TV show. That’s as believable as anything.
When we were kids, our parents had a special vinyl section containing all the cover versions they’d been sent. They called it the chamber of horrors. In retrospect it seems a little unfair that Roberta Flack was in there. On the other hand… Englebert Humperdinck, Andy Williams, The Smothers Brothers. You can see their point. And of course Elvis who recorded a version omitting the final verse, apparently on the strict orders of his mortified (and sexually repressed?) manager.’


Joy Of Living

‘Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling.
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind.
So that I will be part of all you see, the air you are breathing.
I’ll be part of the curlew’s cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds.’

‘Ewan had always loved mountain walking. Mountains were like people to Ewan – incorruptible, honest, strong (not unlike the working class heroes in the work songs). This is his farewell to the mountains, to his partner and to his children who all somehow fuse into one in this, his last love song.
He used to joke that he wanted a gravestone with ‘Old Dad, Dead’ as the inscription (he liked to quote Elizabethan playwrights). We guessed that he was joking, and scattered his ashes to the wind on Bleaklow Stones in The Peak District as instructed in the song.’


Nobody Knew She Was There

‘She walks in the cold, dark hour before the morning,
The hour when wounded night begins to bleed’

A song for Ewan’s mother, Betsy. Stark, beautiful and poetic, it never strays into pity.

‘It’s terrible seeing her get up at that time in the morning … the crack of dawn. It’s before the dawn, it’s still night, really. What they call the small hours. Winter and summer, spending her time on her knees cleaning up after a lot of rich bastards. Those miles and miles of dreary offices are worse, really, but there’s something different about having to get down on your knees and scrub that lot. It’s impersonal in a way; bloody hard graft but there’s nobody sitting curled up on a sofa watching you work.’ Ewan, writing about his mother in his autobiography, Journeyman.


The Fathers Song

‘No more talking, now, it’s time to go to sleep.
There are answers to your questions, but they’ll keep.
Go on asking, while you grow, son, go on asking ‘til you know, son,
And then send the answers ringing through the world.’

‘This was written in the late 1970s, as Thatcher was rising to power. Thatcherism boosted his political song output – it gave him a clear target. Many of the songs of this time had a bitter twist, or at the very least pulled no punches. I think that this song was written as much for himself as for his children.’


The Battle Is Done With

‘The battle is done with, the fighters departed,
Leaving the litter and the spoils of the crowd;
The empty beer bottles, the torn silver paper,
The spent cigarette smoke that hangs like a shroud.’

Calum: When I was very small, I dimly remember Dad going off to boxing matches as research for the radio ballad ‘The Fight Game’. He was terrified of physical violence and was appalled by the extreme visceral nature of both the fight and the baying crowd.

This is one of his ‘work’ songs – paeans to the ‘honest nobility of working men’ as he saw them. The Radio Ballads in particular are full of them (‘Shoals of Herring’, ‘The Big Hewer’, ‘21 Years’ etc.). For me, this song is like a sequence from an Al Pacino film; you can hear and smell the place.’


Sweet Thames Flow Softly

‘Swift the Thames runs to the sea, bearing ships and part of me’

‘This song was written for a BBC radio production of Romeo and Juliet set on a Thames party boat. It’s a riverboat journey and Romeo clothes his Juliet with London landmarks – and, because Ewan never missed an opportunity to make a political point, Limehouse and Rotherhithe are no less beautiful than Hampton Court and Richmond Park. Great tune, great poetry.’


Moving On Song

‘Born at the back of a blackthorn hedge,
When the white hoar-frost lay all around;
No eastern kings came bearing gifts,
Instead the order came to shift.’

This was written for the Radio Ballad ‘The Travelling People’. Like the majority of Radio Ballad songs, the lyric was made from the real experiences of interviewees. Clever touch converting the Travellers vs police into Jesus and Mary vs the Romans in verse five (a conceit borrowed from his own ‘Jesus Was A Carpenter’).


Champion At Keepin’ ‘Em Rolling

‘You can sing of your soldiers and sailors so bold,
But there’s many and many a hero untold
Who sits at his wheel through the heat and the cold
Day after day without sleeping.’

Another of Ewan’s ‘work’ songs – elegies to working class professions – this is trucking. Great tune and a rhythmic structure reminiscent of a truck rumbling up the A1.


My Old Man

‘My old man he was fifty-one, what was he to do?
A craftsman moulder on the dole in 1932 …
He felt he’d given what he could give, so he did what thousands of others did:
Abandoned hope and the will to live – they killed him, my old man.’

A song for Ewan’s father, William Miller.

Calum: I never met my grandfather, but the song manages to convey what I’d heard about him – warm funny, loving, hard working. As far as Ewan was concerned, the great depression of the late 1920s and 1930s killed his dad – he was murdered by the establishment and everything it stood for.

Listen to the full playlist on Barbican Spotify.

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl takes place on Monday 9 November in the Hall.