The genius of Ewan MacColl, lifelong artist & activist


Ewan MacColl is best known as the writer of the Grammy-winning “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the love song he wrote for his wife and musical partner, Peggy Seeger. But not only was he a singer/songwriter par excellence (whose range went from the most tender love songs to the most biting political songs), MacColl was also a highly regarded playwright (whose work was praised by George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey), a producer of the BBC’s award-winning Radio Ballad series, a noted scholar of folk music and a lifelong communist.

MacColl was born in 1915. His father was an iron molder who was often blacklisted; his mother cleaned houses and offices. Both were militant socialists. In his song “My Old Man,” MacColl honored his father: “My old man was a union man/ Fought hard all his days/ He understood the system/ And was wise to the bosses’ ways/ He said, If you want what’s yours by right/ You have to struggle with all your might/ They’ll rob you blind if you don’t fight. That was my old man.”

“Class Act,” a lengthy biography of MacColl, makes an important contribution in chronicling his life and work.

MacColl was a complex and contradictory genius who could be difficult. His version of criticism and self-criticism was, apparently, “Now I will ‘self-criticize’ you.” Of one colleague, he said, “It was only in the last song where he finally broke through to produce a voice like a normal human being.” On the other hand, another colleague recalls, “When the energy was positive, it was an extraordinary inspiration … He was generous when other people gave great performances, never jealous, he loved it.”

MacColl left school at 14, just before the Great Depression. Often unemployed, he spent hours in libraries reading and developing a lifelong love for learning and language. In his later years, he could easily deliver “off-the-cuff lectures … about Greek theater, Marxist aesthetics, anthropology, the origins of language, cathedral design, the radio ballads … punctuating his lectures with snatches of song,” according to one friend.

MacColl joined a socialist theater group, the Clarion Players, and later the Young Communist League. He began writing for the British Communist Party’s factory newspapers, honing what Harker aptly calls “an instinct for well crafted political satire.” MacColl later called the Communist Party his university.

In 1931, MacColl and other members of the Clarion Players formed an agit-prop group, the Red Megaphones. A typical performance was “seven or eight minutes of knockabout comedy, some simplified Marxist analysis, two songs, and a mass declamation,” recalls MacColl. He read voraciously on theater techniques, developing the knowledge and skill that eventually led him to be described as “the British Brecht.”

With Joan Littlewood, a young actress from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and later MacColl’s first wife, they formed the Theatre Union. One production, “Living Newspaper, Last Edition,” which dealt with the events leading up to Britain’s Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, was raided by the police and shut down for “disturbing the peace.”

Harker fills in the World War II years of MacColl’s autobiography. MacColl was drafted in July 1940 when the world communist movement viewed the war as simply an inter-imperialist war. He hated army life and went AWOL in December 1940. When the character of the war changed, MacColl was filled with guilt that he never quite overcame. When he was charged with desertion after the war, progressives rallied to his defense.

Afterward, MacColl continued his work in theater, but the multimedia nature of his performances increasingly led him to music. He met U.S. folk music scholar Alan Lomax, an exile from McCarthyism, and through him, the British folksinger and musicologist A.L Lloyd, a fellow Communist and autodidact. All three saw folk music as a form of resistance.

In his message to the concert honoring MacColl’s 70th birthday, the head of the British National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, said Ewan McColl “made an outstanding contribution, not only to folk music, but to the entire working class movement.” If you want to know why that is true, read this book.

Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl

By Ben Harker

Pluto Press; distributed in the U.S.

by the University of Michigan Press

2007, 360 pp, paper, $24.95