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Ewan MacColl was born Jimmie Miller in Salford, Lancashire, in 1915. His father, William Miller, was an iron-moulder, militant trade-unionist and communist who had left his native Stirlingshire in his mid-twenties. His mother, Betsy Hendry, was from Auchterarder, Perthshire. Both parents were active left-wing socialists and from his earliest days, MacColl was familiar with the cut-and-thrust of political discussion and argument. Equally important in the life of the household were the songs and stories his parents brought from Scotland - a huge repertoire with which his father and mother kept themselves and their friends entertained.
After an elementary education, MacColl left school in 1930. The Great Depression was in full swing so he went straight into the army of the unemployed. He worked at a variety of temporary jobs: motor-mechanic, factory worker, builders' labourer, street-singer, etc. In the same year, he joined the Workers' Theatre. Finding it too pedestrian for his revolutionary consciousness, he left and formed his own agit-prop street-performing group, the Red Megaphones. For the next four years he devoted all of his waking hours to political activity of one kind or another.
As a songwriter, MacColl is best known as the author of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Dirty Old Town," "The Shoals of Herring," "Freeborn Man" and "The Manchester Rambler." The latter, written when he was only 17, celebrated the 1932 Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, a move which eventually contributed to the opening of private land to the public. MacColl wrote more than 300 songs. Peggy Seeger later assembled 200 of these into The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook.
His first literary experience was gained in the early 1930s when he wrote for, and later edited, factory newspapers. At one period he was engaged in writing satirical songs and political squibs in verse for nine such papers - and also for local restaurants who hired him to make advertising jingles for them.
After taking part in the hunger marches and the battles of the unemployed (1932-33) he joined forces in 1934 with Joan Littlewood, a young actress just up from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. They married and set up a workers' experimental theatre in Manchester, the Theatre of Action. When Ernst Toller came to Britain, he chose MacColl to play a leading role in his production of Draw the Fires. During this period, MacColl wrote a number of short sketches and dramatic poems for the theatre. In 1935 he and Joan moved to London and formed a workers' dramatic school. This venture was to provide the basis for the training methods which were later to be used in Theatre Workshop.
They returned to the North of England in 1936 where they formed Theatre Union, their most ambitious theatre venture to date. This group described itself as a "theatre of the people" and made considerable impact upon audiences throughout the industrial northeast in the period between 1936 and 1939. Its most notable productions, which were directed jointly by MacColl and Littlewood, were Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuña, The Good Soldier Schweik (adapted by MacColl from Hasek's novel) and a living newspaper, Last Edition (written by MacColl). This highly successful play dealt with the political events leading up to the Munich pact and used the episodic form which MacColl was later to extend in his experimental post-war play, Uranium 235.
In 1939, Last Edition was stopped by the police and MacColl and Littlewood were arrested and charged with disturbing the 'peace'. They were both heavily fined and bound over - that is, barred from taking part in any kind of theatrical activity for the next two years.
The small group of dedicated and talented members of Theatre Union formulated plans for a future theatre and embarked upon on intensive studies of theatre art and techniques. World War II began and within a few weeks the group had been scattered to the four corners of the earth and were serving with various military forces. Consequently, most of the training had to be done by correspondence. Nevertheless, study courses, reading lists, books, etc., were circulated consistently throughout the whole period of the war, and there soon existed a small body of far-flung students who between them possessed a considerable corpus of knowledge on matters relating to specialised theatre studies.
For example, one member made a study of the Attic theatre, and even went to the extent of learning to read Aeschuylus and Socrates in the original Greek; another specialised in studying the Commedia del Arte and still another concentrated on the Chinese theatre.
MI5 kept tabs on him from about 1932 during the 1930s and 40s. Files in the National Archive reveal that MI5 and the police monitored his theatre work, BBC performances and general political activity. In the run-up to war, MI5 began leaning on the BBC, which reassured the security services that there was "no opportunity" for communist propaganda in broadcasts.
MacColl's biggest clash with the authorities came over a highly controversial play he staged in 1940 along with Littlewood. The Chief Constable of Hyde personally telegrammed Major-General Vernon Kell, the founding director-general of MI5, to alert him to this "thinly veiled communist propaganda". The Major-General’s deputy then telegrammed local councils in the North West and urged them to refuse performance licences. This put in train a series of events which led to MacColl and Littlewood being fined and bound over - effectively banning their theatre work.
MacColl and Joan Littlewood - who became director at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, were still being watched by MI5 during the second world war when they lived in Hyde, Cheshire. When the singer enlisted in the Army in 1940, the files show that MI5 asked his superiors to keep him under special observation "in order to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda". One report described his general and military conduct as "good", that his manner to officers was correct and at times almost "ingratiating".
Most importantly he appeared not to be spouting propaganda, beyond reading out reports from the Daily Worker. In fact, MI5 learned, MacColl was enjoying entertaining his fellow troops in the concert party. MacColl had penned Browned Off, a satirical song which depicted the miserable life of a soldier biding time for war. But the authorities missed the significance: Within weeks MacColl had deserted. Why he went remains a mystery - MacColl was clearly a romantic with a strong political conviction, but some suggested he was simply scared of dying. Despite concerted efforts by the police to track him down, he was not seen again until after the war. But why he was never charged remains a mystery not covered in the files.
By August 1945, a sufficient number of Theatre Union had returned home and, by pooling their Army gratuities, it became possible to launch the group now known as Theatre Workshop. The ideas which formed this group were the result of the ten years which MacColl and Littlewood had devoted to various theatrical experiments. Up till this period they had directed the plays jointly, but now the functions were divided: Littlewood was to direct the rehearsals and produce the plays while MacColl was to write plays suitable for the group, train the actors and, to a large extent, formulate new training techniques.
During this period, he wrote eleven plays. Theatre Workshop travelled from 1945-1952 and a number of MacColl's plays were performed abroad and translated into German, French, Polish and Russian. By this time, enamoured with the Lallans movement in Scotland, he (like many other Scots-born writers) had changed his name from Jimmie Miller to Ewan MacColl, a name by which he was known for the rest of his life.
He was not at all happy with the decision, made by Theatre Workshop in 1953, to settle in London, and pulled back from full involvement, concentrating on his other love, folksong. Alan Lomax introduced him to A. L. Lloyd and in that new friendship was created a source of inspiration and direction for the growing folk movement. They worked together on several projects in the next few years, the most famous of which are probably their collections of sea shanties, "Row Bullies, Row" and the " Blackball Line ".
The intention of Theatre Workshop was to create theatrical techniques that were sufficiently flexible to reflect the rapidly changing 20th-century scene. MacColl always insisted that the task of creating a popular theatre is one which cannot be solved merely by changing the class background of the hero(ine)s or by introducing technical and stylistic innovations. For him, the problem was a multi-dimensional one which must be solved on a series of different fronts simultaneously. If the theatre is to play an important role in the lives of the people of our time then it must develop techniques which rival in efficiency the complex machines which working people handle every day of their lives in the course of their work.
In addition, he declared, the problem is one of poetics. The dramatic writer must of necessity attempt to close the enormous gap which exists between our literary and our oral traditions. He/she does not do this by acting merely as an amplifier for everyday speech, but by analysing the speech rhythms, idioms and nuances of everyday conversation, and then crystallising them in the way that Shakespeare and Ben Jonson did in their time.
Most of MacColl's plays are extraordinary. George Bernard once quipped that other than himself, MacColl was the best living playwright in Britain. Several of MacColl's experimental plays go into the realm of dramatic philosophical tracts. (It was primarily these which attracted Shaw in the first place.) In all of the plays, language is approached honestly. There is no attempt to deceive the audience into believing that they are overhearing a 'real' conversation. Rather the reverse is true: it is by stressing particular speech rhythms, varieties of idiom and types of cadences that MacColl constantly sought to change the perspectives of action, and, as a result, never allowed the actor-audience relationship to become static. These concepts are very evident in his songwriting for many of his songs were made from speech recorded during the radio-ballad work.
In 1950, he married the dancer Jean Newlove, by whom he had two children, Hamish and Kirsty, both of whom became singers and musicians. (Famously, Kirsty McColl would die in a tragic boating accident at the heights of her career.) Theatre Workshop defected to the West End and MacColl began to turn his attention to traditional music. He was soon playing a key role in initiating and extending what is now called "the folksong revival" in Britain. He was among the first to recognise the importance of the folk club as a basic unit in that revival, a unit without which the movement might never have made a significant impact. In London, he founded (with Alan Lomax, Bert Lloyd, Seamus Ennis and others) the Ballads and Blues Club, later to become the famed Singers Club. The club opened in 1953 and closed in 1991.
In 1956, he met Peggy Seeger and they embarked upon a life-partnership. Between 1959 and 1972 they had three children, Neill, Calum and Kitty, all of whom are singers and musicians. Peggy and Ewan became a well known singing duo. They gave concerts, conducted workshops and toured in Britain and abroad as singers of traditional and contemporary songs from 1957-1989. They recorded extensively and initiated projects such as The Long Harvest (a 10-volume series of traditional ballads), The Paper Stage (a 2-volume set of Shakespearean sung narratives). They formed their own record company (Blackthorne) and issued discs of their own renditions of traditional and topical songs.
From the early 1930s, MacColl had been involved in radio as a narrator, actor, writer and producer. He had worked with numerous experimental producers such as D.G. Bridson, Dennis Mitchell and John Pudney. In 1957, collaborating with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, he wrote a series of musical documentaries for BBC radio which came to be known as radio-ballads. These were a combination of recorded speech, sound effects, new songs and folk instrumentation and they were hailed as a major breakthrough in creative radio technique. The newspaper critics dubbed them 'folk documentaries.' Many of the concepts and ideas which they initiated have since become routine television and film procedures.
As politically committed as ever Ewan and Peggy wrote songs for the progressive causes they supported, and contributed to songbooks published by groups like the Workers' Music Association, the Young Communist League and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
MacColl worked primarily in education and documentation. He wrote scripts and music for BBC films, for commercial television and stage. In 1965, he and Peggy Seeger founded the Critics Group, a loosely organised company of revival singers who trained in folksinging and theatre techniques, with a view to forming a base from which a folk theatre could be developed. Every year for five years, the Critics put on The Festival of Fools, a dramatic musical revue of the year's news.
MacColl and Seeger collected extensively from traditional singers in Britain. In addition to books of their own songs and various small collections, they produced two anthologies of the music of Britain's nomadic people: Travellers' Songs of England and Scotland and Doomsday in the Afternoon. With Howard Goorney, Ewan co-authored Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop, a book of political playscripts and reminiscences of Theatre Workshop.
In 1979, he suffered the first of many heart attacks. The next ten years saw a steady deterioration in his physical condition, but he continued to work, tour, lecture and write songs. In 1980, he wrote his last play, The Shipmaster, the moving story of a sailing ship captain who cannot adapt to the coming of steam.
In 1985, Ewan and Peggy produced a fund-raising tape - cover left - in aid of striking miners' and their families.
In 1987 he began to write his autobiography, Journeyman. In the same year he was presented with an honorary degree by the University of Exeter. On October 22 1989, he died of complications following a heart operation. He was awarded a posthumous honourary degree by the University of Salford in 1991.
Sources: Many newspaper obituaries and sources in the National Archives have been used but a lot of the material is from the The Working Class Movement Library site.
This has many wonderfully informative webpages about Ewan, among which is a timeline of his life, reproduced here with thanks:
A son, James, born to Betsy and William Miller of Salford
1929 February 2nd, Jimmy Miller leaves school, a week after he turns 14.
April, gets job at Anaconda Wire
Joins the Clarion Players , later called the Workers' Theatre Movement
Joins Young Communist League
1929 - 1934 Temporary jobs, self-education, socialist politics, agit-prop theatre, rambling
1931 March, back on the dole. Unemployed members of the Manchester W.T.M. form the Red Megaphones
1933 First radio work
1934 Red Megaphones change name to Theatre of Action; Meets Joan Littlewood who joins Theatre of Action Joan and Jimmy marry
1935 Jimmy and Joan head for Moscow, make it to London
1936 Back in Manchester, forms Theatre Union
1940 The Last Edition 'a living newspaper' has performance halted by police.
Jimmy and Joan bound over for two years for 'breach of peace.'
1940 - 1945 Throughout the war, Theatre Union members keep studying their craft
1945 Theatre Workshop is formed
1945 - 1953 Theatre Workshop touring productions ; Jimmy Miller becomes Ewan MacColl ;Joan and Ewan divorce ; Ewan marries Jean Newlove, they have two children, Hamish and Kirsty
1953 Theatre Workshop settles in Theatre Royal, Stratford, E. London. Ewan starts to separate himself from Theatre Workshop, concentrating more on promotion and performance of folk-music. First Ballad and Blues concerts
1956 Meets Peggy Seeger
1957 – 1989 Life and musical partnership with Peggy Seeger. Ewan and Peggy have three children, Calum, Neill and Kitty
1958 - 1964 Production of Radio Ballads
1960 Ballad and Blues Club is renamed the Singers Club
1965 The Critics Group forms
1965 - 1971 Critics Group organises annual Festival of Fools
1968 - 1985 Peggy and Ewan publish 21 issues of New City Songster
1985 Seventieth Birthday Concert
1989 After several years of illness, dies, aged 74.