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Ben Harker on Ewan MacColl and the politics of the folk revival

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
Author Ben Harker spoke to Jimmy Ross about the life of a legendary socialist folk singer
Issue 2081
Ewan MacColl pictured in 1988
Ewan MacColl pictured in 1988

For most people Ewan MacColl – if they recognise the name at all – was the folk singer who wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town.

But Ben Harker’s new book Class Act: the Cutural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl demonstrates that there was much more to him than that. It shows just how important MacColl’s controversial contributions to cultural life in this country were.

MacColl joined the Communist Party in 1929 aged 14 and remained a committed socialist and cultural creator all his life, writing songs about political topics ranging from the Spanish civil war to the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the poll tax.

Class Act explains how his politics and creativity were combined from an early age and gives us a sympathetic but critical insight into MacColl’s life.

It’s an interesting and valuable book, not only for those new to MacColl, but also for those already familiar with him – and it includes an extensive amount of new research.

Ben Harker spoke to Socialist Worker about Ewan MacColl’s work and political legacy.

What made you decide to write about Ewan MacColl now, nearly 20 years after his death?

MacColl’s life brings together many of my interests – left politics, contemporary British history and how performance of contemporary music can draw on and release the energies of previous music.

I was also interested in his radio and theatre work. MacColl lived such a rich life – it enables you to explore so many things.

His autobiography, Journeyman, is a beautifully written, atmospheric account of a slum childhood – but it’s a reticent book with conspicuous silences. I saw the need for a critical supportive biography from the left to complement the autobiography.

How significant a contribution did MacColl make to culture in this country?

When MacColl died one obituary said that his influence was “so pervasive as to be invisible – his work permeated our culture”. So many people know snatches of his songs, but don’t know him.

He wrote over 300 songs. He was a mover and shaker behind the British folk revival.

MacColl’s plays are also long overdue a revival. They exerted a great influence on the development of Theatre Workshop whose greatest success, “Oh What a Lovely War”, was heavily based on the agit-prop living newspaper work he was doing in the late 1930s.

Perhaps his most important contribution was as a performing cultural archaeologist, digging deep into previous popular culture and unearthing material that still resonates.

How would you describe the relationship between MacColl’s politics and his creative work?

What’s fascinating is the sheer range of his creativity, across six decades from the 1930s to the 1980s, across not only genres but also media, working in theatre, radio, song and all kinds of different performance contexts.

What underpins that diversity is a singlemindedness when it came to politics. He continued to describe himself as a Marxist-Leninst revolutionary until the day he died. His political conviction underpinned that creative activity.

Why did MacColl and others in the Communist Party at the time favour folk music over other forms of music?

In the post war period the US was consolidating its status as a superpower and its cultural penetration into Britain was inseparable from its economic and political domination.

In that situation culture became important as a form of resistance to US supremacy. An aggressive cultural nationalism emerged which involved a search for “authentic cultural forms” – the traditional music of these islands.

Ironically the folk revival was kick started by skiffle, which was a festival of Americana. But the folk revivalists argued that there were two Americas – the America of big corporations and cultural imperialism, and the America of Joe Hill, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie, which could be a valuable resource.

The chart music of that time was very bland and uninteresting, so MacColl and others were right to reject it. The mistake he made was he stopped listening to pop music. Think of the changes that took place in the charts between 1955 and 1965 – MacColl didn’t keep up with that.

The mid-1960s saw the emergence of a new wave of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan. What was MacColl’s attitude to them, and what effect did this have on his own work and development?

MacColl’s dismissal of people like Dylan was ill informed and cost him dearly. It led to him becoming isolated and acquiring a reputation for narrow cultural purism.

Above all it resulted in his own music sounding increasingly dated. His attitude was generated by an anxiety that the folk revival was becoming too commercial.

What lessons can today’s musicians and writers learn from Ewan MacColl?

I think we can learn from his mistake – to claim that one form of music is the purest and most authentic. MacColl was at his most interesting when he was breaking his own rules, when he was being his most eclectic, for example in the Radio Ballads.

The big thing you can take from MacColl is the commitment to the craft of music making, song writing and performance – regardless of the kind of music you’re working in.

Class Act: the Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl by Ben Harker is published by Pluto Press priced £15.99. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848. »

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