Amazingly, it’s only now – right at the end of the project – that I’m singing anything by Ewan MacColl. Or perhaps it’s not so amazing: for a long time MacColl stood for a lot of what I disliked about the folk revival (and I disliked a lot of things about the folk revival). Even after I got back into traditional songs, I was wary of MacColl as a writer – I saw him as a sentimental Stalinist with a reductive view of folk as the music of the working class, and an even more reductive view of what contemporary folkies ought to sing about and sound like. (And I never did like The Manchester Rambler.)
Then a friend did me the great discourtesy of lending me a copy of Songs of Ewan MacColl, sung (individually and collectively) by Tony Capstick, Dick Gaughan and Dave Burland. I still have some reservations about MacColl, particularly where politics is concerned (I can’t ignore his sympathies for the People’s Front of Judea), and not all of his songs were good by any means. (I still don’t like The Manchester Rambler.) But as a songwriter, when he was good he was very, very good. Apart from Peter Bellamy and Bob Dylan, I don’t know anyone who could write “in the tradition” as well as MacColl; he wrote lines and phrases that will stick in my mind forever, and seem to have been there forever:
Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you’re following the shoals of herring
You can swear and show a manly bearing – obviously it’s written for the rhyme, but despite that (or because of it?) it’s a marvellous line. When he was on form, MacColl was a marvellous writer. (Although I’ve never liked the Manchester Rambler.)
This, on the other hand, isn’t a song in a traditional style; if it’s in any style it’s in the style of a Brechtian theatre piece. It has a directness and a confrontational quality which was perhaps not best served by the overt aggression of MacColl’s own style. My delivery is modelled on Capstick’s delivery on the Songs of album, although after some effort I have managed to lose the Yorkshire accent; there’s aggression there, but it’s a dry, fatalistic aggression, apparently aimed as much at the singer himself as the beaten-down older generation whom the song seems to address. (MacColl was 49 when he wrote the song.) We all have to account, sooner or later.
What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?