Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Ewan MacColl: A tale of two plaques

Most people are probably familiar with the song 'Dirty Old Town', originally written by Ewan MacColl about his native Salford, and most famously covered by the Dubliners. MacColl was also a committed Marxist and his songs (of which there are over 300) frequently reflected this. Like Woody Guthrie he saw folk music and the writing of songs that reflected working-class struggles as something both politically engaged and potentially revolutionary. If you're a fan and happen to be passing through either Salford near Manchester or Russell Square in London then you should keep an eye out for the following two plaques:

This is the one in Russell Square and reads: Ewan MacColl 25.1.1915 to 22.10.1989 Folk Laureate, Singer, Dramatist, Marxist. This oak tree was planted in recognition of the strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for peace and socialism. Below, in smaller writing: Presented by his communist friends with the kind assistance of the London Borough of Camden on the 75th anniversary of his birth 25.1.1990.

This is the one in Salford. Apologies for the poor quality but it reads: Ewan MacColl: 1915-1989. Marxist, Singer, Songmaker and Dramatist lived in this neighbourhood. I managed to come across the following report from the Communist History Network Newsletter in 2001 describing the ceremonies marking the plaque's unveiling:

Ewan MacColl plaque unveiling ceremony, Salford

On September 22 and 23 2001, a weekend celebration of the life and work of Ewan MacColl was held at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford. A city council plaque commemorating MacColl’s connections with Salford, now on permanent display at the WCML, was unveiled. Ruth Frow reports on the weekend and reflects on MacColl’s life.

The weekend started on Saturday with a reception at which Peggy Seeger met a number of her old friends and a few Salfordians who remembered Jimmy Miller (Ewan MacColl) from his young days.

Sunday was the important occasion in the Library. The Mayor and Mayoress attended to invite Peggy Segger to unveil the red plaque which is now permanently sited in the large hall. After the ceremony at which over a hundred people managed to squash into the hall to witness, the audience divided and a performance of Ewan MacColl’s songs and a sample of his agit-prop plays was given in both the Annexe and the Reading Room.

Terry Wheelan, a folk-singer and old friend, gathered performers who had been members of the Critics Group and who had known and worked with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. They were lively and interesting, and anxious to pay their respects in the way that Ewan would have appreciated. Some of them continued discussing controversial topics unresolved many years ago.

Aidan Jolly and his friends gave a rendering of the agit-prop sketch Meerut. In the early thirties, when it was first performed in the streets of north-west towns, the story of the prisoners at Meerut would have been hot news. Street-theatre was Jimmy Miller’s first experience of the use of drama to interpret political events.

Jimmy Miller was born in Salford in 1915. His father was an iron moulder and his mother a Scotswoman. Both were active left wing socialists and, from an early age, young Jimmy was involved in the cut and thrust of political discussion.

After leaving school in 1930, he entered the growing army of unemployed. He managed to get occasional work in a variety of temporary jobs but he soon found the Workers’ Theatre and realised that his interests lay in the cultural rather than the industrial field. But he understood that hiw working class experience needed to be used in conjunction with his newly-found interest. He helped produce and sell news-sheets for workers and developed a talent for writing songs and political squibs. On long rambles over the Derbyshire hills with other like-minded revolutionaries, he would improvise and entertain with songs like The Manchester Rambler.

By 1934 he had taken part in hunger marches and been present at some of the unemployed struggles which punctuated his life in the industrial north-west in the early thirties. He met Joan Littlewood and together they set up a workers’ experimental Theatre of Action. After moving to London, they started a drama school for working people.

But London did not supply them with the workers whom they wanted to educate, so they moved back to the north and formed Theatre Union. Their work became more ambitious and had such potential influence that in 1939 their play Last Edition was stoped by police, and they were both arrested and charged with ‘disturbing the peace.’ They were fined and ‘bound over’ not to take part in any dramatic performance for two years.

It was during the War, which he spent in Scotland, that Jimmy Miller became Ewan MacColl as a gesture of solidarity with the national school of Scottish poets. Immediately after the War, a number of the participants in the revolutionary theatre movement pooled their gratuities and formed Theatre Workshop. Ewan MacColl was designated the writer, trainer and innovator of the group. Joan Littlewood was the producer.

When Theatre Workship moved to the West End, MacColl and Littlewood parted and he began to turn his attention to traditional music. It was in that field that he was able to link his social conscience and experience of being raised in a working class industrial atmosphere with his ability to express his ideas in song and music. He became an expert at adapting and interpreting ballads so that they reached the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

In 1956 he and Peggy Seeger met and started a partnership which proved fruitful, rewarding and which lasted until his death in 1989. They made their name conducting workshops and touring in Britain and abroad as singers of traditional and contemporary songs. They had a notable success in the Radio Ballads in which they collaborated with Charles Parker.

It was that talent for translating his early Salford working class experience into accessible songs and drama that made it so appropriate for Salford City, his enduring influence, to honour him with one of their rare plaques.

Ruth Frow

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