Ewan MacColl biography

Ewan MacColl was born James Henry Miller in Salford, Lancashire, on January 25 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 1929. 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.

His first literary experience was gained in the early 1930s when he wrote for, and later edited, factory newspapers. 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.

In 1936 MacColl and Littlewood formed Theatre Union. 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, directed jointly by MacColl and Littlewood, were Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuña, The Good Soldier Schweik (adapted by MacColl from the Jaroslav Hasek novel) and Last Edition, a ‘living newspaper’, written by MacColl and dealing with the political events leading up to the Munich Agreement. In 1939, Last Edition was stopped by the police and MacColl and Littlewood were arrested and charged with disturbing the ‘peace’. They were both fined and barred from taking part in any kind of theatrical activity for the next two years.

In August 1945 they formed Theatre Workshop. Littlewood was director and producer, MacColl was writer and actor. Between 1945 and 1952 he wrote eleven plays, a number of which were translated into German, French, Polish and Russian. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that other than himself, MacColl was the best living playwright in Britain.

In 1949 he married dancer & choreographer Jean Newlove, with whom he had two children, Hamish and Kirsty MacColl, both of whom became singers and musicians. By this time, enamoured with the Lallans movement in Scotland, he (like many other writers) had changed his name from Jimmie Miller to Ewan MacColl, the name by which he was known for the rest of his life.

In 1952 Theatre Workshop moved to Stratford, London, and MacColl began to turn his attention to traditional music and songwriting. He was soon playing a key role in initiating and extending what is now called ‘the folksong revival‘ in Britain. In London, with Alan Lomax, Bert Lloyd, Seamus Ennis and others, he founded the Ballads and Blues Club, later to become the famed Singers Club.

In 1956 he met Peggy Seeger and they embarked upon a life-partnership. Between 1959 and 1972 they had two sons, Neill and Calum (both of whom are singers and musicians) and a daughter, Kitty. Peggy and Ewan became a well-known singing duo. They recorded numerous albums, conducted workshops and toured worldwide as singers of traditional and contemporary 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 The 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.’ One of these, Singing The Fishing, won the Prix d’Italia in 1960.

In 1965 MacColl 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.

As a songwriter, MacColl is best known as the writer of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Dirty Old Town, The Shoals of Herring, Freeborn ManThe Manchester Rambler and The Joy of Living. He has written more than 300 songs.

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 1987 he began to write his autobiography, Journeyman. In the same year the University of Exeter presented him with an honorary degree. On October 22 1989, he died of complications following a heart operation. The University of Salford awarded him a posthumous honorary degree in 1991.

For sixty years he was at the cultural forefront of numerous political struggles, producing plays, songs and scripts on the subjects of apartheid, fascism, industrial strife and human rights. It has been said that he was an enormous fish in a small pond – but the ocean of traditional song and speech upon which he navigated and hunted owes him a great debt for the treasures that he returned to it.

For comprehensive information on Ewan’s work in music, theatre and radio we recommend looking at The Working Class Movement Library’s entries. 

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