Ewan MacColl – Songs Of Solidarity. A Secret Folkie Speaks…

It was the finale of ‘Blood And Roses’ the Ewan MacColl Centenary Tribute Concert.

The whole cast of stars was on stage: two MacColl/Seeger sons (and their offspring), Martin Carthy (the man who taught Paul Simon ‘Scarborough Fair’ and from whom Bob Dylan nicked the opening of ‘Girl from the North Country’), with the no-less-eminent Norma Watterson and their stellar daughter Eliza. Plus all-round good guy Jarvis Cocker (sometime guest bassist with Spinal Tap on the seminal ‘Big Bottom’ at Glastonbury.) All joined by Scottish folk legends Karine Polwart and Dick Gaughan.

It took this listener, at least, back to folk concerts, festivals and clubs in the early 1970s. As a teenager in an average-sized and rather dull town in the south of England, live music was scarce indeed, and usually entailed a train journey to a nearby city – to watch prog-rock bands like Family (yay!) or Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I know, I know).

But there was a school folk club, run by earnest English teachers, which offered the chance to listen to records and for aspiring musicians to show off. Every term there was also a folk concert, where pupils would make attempts of varying success and seriousness to showcase their dubious talents. These sometimes even featured girls from the girls’ grammar school, who mainly pissed everyone off by singing early Leonard Cohen badly. (But one of them certainly brightened up at least one teenage boy’s life by introducing him to the salacious blues double entendre ‘Mr Lacey’. Yes indeed…)

So the logical progression was to bigger clubs, with bigger acts from further afield: Richard and Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention (of course), Lindisfarne spin-off Jack the Lad. And of course the visiting Scottish bands: Five Hand Reel, JSD Band, Boys of the Lough. And then at the UEA, Norwich and Norfolk Folk Club and Festival, with real rural folk singers and occasional great acts like Michael Chapman dropping by. And folk night lock-ins at the Ironmongers Arms.

So what was so interesting, while other teenagers were interested in Marc Bolan and Slade? Obviously there was an element of snobbery and the lure of knowing some of the people personally (and the chance to meet girls, even if they did sing miserable songs they could not possibly understand at age 16). But the real lure was that folk music offered sincerity and authenticity in an age of glam-rock, especially in a world of popular culture not yet redeemed by the artistic genius and intellectual cool of David Bowie and Roxy Music, or later punk rock and its cooler sibling, New Wave.

And those qualities of sincerity and authenticity had a range of expressions: these included celtic fringe verve of the Scottish bands, the sea shanties of old guys from Norfolk villages, and – for me – the workers’ songs: ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers,’ ‘The Hot Asphalt,’ ‘Wet Pay,’ and old stalwarts like ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘The Man Who Waters The Workers Beer.’ These were songs that resonated as true and important: not in my own life in a skilled industrial worker’s family, but that which I heard of from my grandparents and which I saw around me, for example, in holiday jobs building the M27.

A lot of it seems old hat now, but the songs of Ewan MacColl at his tribute concert reminded us all of a time when there was a living set of songs which portrayed the tribulations and joys of working life. What is more, they referred to working people all over the UK: one of the most beautiful and touching is ‘The Shoals of Herring’ (http://celtic-lyrics.com/lyrics/453.html) – referring specifically to “From the Dover Strait to the Faroe Islands”.

Conversely, one of the few jarring notes struck during the concert was an introduction from Dick Gaughan, who attempted to narrow Ewan MacColl’s persona down to that of “the greatest Scottish songwriter born in Lancashire.” We can leave aside the details of MacColl’s life (available on Wiki here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ewan_MacColl) because it is actually more important and interesting to look at his work.

Like the ‘Shoals of Herring’ and explicitly protest songs such as ‘The Ballad of Timothy Evans’ (performed by the marvellous Chaim Tennenbaum in blistering fashion), MacColl’s lyrics and tunes are beyond the tawdry definition or ownership by place or country. They speak to all who have a heart or an ear; and above all they speak for the workers, the disadvantaged and the powerless.

They are songs of solidarity: which brings us back to the concert finale. For ‘Dirty Old Town’, Norma Watterson reminded us that it was not written about Dublin (a common fallacy stemming from the Pogues’ rather good version) but Salford: Jarvis added that it might be Glasgow. Likewise the club singalong of ‘I’m A Rambler’ specifically has a Manchester narrator and of course and most crucially references the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District.

But we recognise the situation and we love the songs as examples of real life and of struggles past and present, and of an indomitable spirit. They are not English songs either. As I say, they are songs of solidarity.

The cultural politics of post-referendum Scotland are summed up in a poignant blog from Effie Deans: http://effiedeans.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/goodbye-to-all-that.html

My point in this blog is to reflect what else we have lost in the referendum: we moved away from a politics of solidarity to a politics of identity. The jigs and reels, if you like, have won out over the work songs.

So the Ewan MacColl Centenary concert was certainly a throwback: to the songs and spirit of an age when we believed in a single working class and a politics which reflected mutual support and unity. Some may say that such a view is nostalgic and sentimental, and does not reflect a new political reality where (they say) Scots and English workers are so different that we need a border erected between us.

It is impossible to tell, but I am not sure that Ewan MacColl would have agreed. And I am certain that those who followed him, for example, Norman Buchan, who hated nationalism but did more for Scottish folksong than anyone else, would have been on my side. It is the side of solidarity and the universal struggle for the rights of the workers, the unemployed and the under-privileged.

It is possible, even likely, that the political views of the left in Scotland who reject independence will end up like old ILPers or CPGB stalwarts. We will be seen as those who have been overtaken by time and the spirit of the age: comrades with strong and principled but (they will say) outmoded views. You can count me amongst them: I rather like the company.


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