Ewan MacColl
James Henry Miller

(1915-01-25)25 January 1915
Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, England
Died22 October 1989(1989-10-22) (aged 74)
Brompton, London, England
  • Singer-songwriter
  • folk song collector
  • labour activist
  • actor
Years active1930–1989
Political partyCommunist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)
(m. 1934; div. 1949)
Jean Newlove
(m. 1949, divorced)
(m. 1977)
Children5, including Kirsty MacColl

James Henry Miller (25 January 1915 – 22 October 1989),[1] better known by his stage name Ewan MacColl, was an English folk singer-songwriter, folk song collector, labour activist and actor. Born in England to Scottish parents, he is known as one of the instigators of the 1960s folk revival as well as for writing such songs as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Dirty Old Town".[2]

MacColl collected hundreds of traditional folk songs,[3] including the version of "Scarborough Fair" later popularised by Simon & Garfunkel,[4][5] and released dozens of albums with A.L. Lloyd, Peggy Seeger and others, mostly of traditional folk songs.[6][2] He also wrote many left-wing political songs, remained a steadfast communist throughout his life and engaged in political activism.[2]

Early life and early career

MacColl was born as James Henry Miller at 4 Andrew Street, in Broughton, Salford, England,[7] to Scottish parents, William Miller and Betsy (née Henry), both socialists. William Miller was an iron moulder and trade unionist who had moved to Salford with his wife, a charwoman, to look for work after being blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland.[8] Betsy Miller knew many traditional folk songs such as "Lord Randall"[9] and "My Bonnie Laddie's Lang A-growing",[10] of which her son later created written and audio recordings; he later recorded an album of traditional songs with her.[11]

James Miller was the youngest and only surviving child in the family of three sons and one daughter (one of each sex was stillborn and one son died at the age of four). They lived amongst a group of Scots and Jimmy was brought up in an atmosphere of fierce political debate interspersed with the large repertoire of songs and stories his parents had brought from Scotland. He was educated at North Grecian Street Junior School in Broughton. He left school in 1930 after an elementary education, during the Great Depression and, joining the ranks of the unemployed, began a lifelong programme of self-education whilst keeping warm in Manchester Central Library. During this period he found intermittent work in a number of jobs and also made money as a street singer.[8]

He joined the Young Communist League[12] and a socialist amateur theatre troupe, the Clarion Players. He began his career as a writer helping produce and contributing humorous verse and skits to some of the Communist Party's factory papers. He was an activist in the unemployed workers' campaigns and the mass trespasses of the early 1930s. One of his best-known songs, "The Manchester Rambler", was written just before the pivotal mass trespass of Kinder Scout. He was responsible for publicity in the planning of the trespass.[13]

In 1932 the British intelligence service, MI5, opened a file on MacColl, after local police asserted that he was "a communist with very extreme views" who needed "special attention".[14] For a time the Special Branch kept a watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his first wife, Joan Littlewood. MI5 caused some of MacColl's songs to be rejected by the BBC, and prevented the employment of Littlewood as a BBC children's programme presenter (see: "Christmas tree" files).[15]

Personal life

He was married three times: to theatre director Joan Littlewood (1914–2002) from 1934 to 1950; to Jean Mary Newlove (1923–2017) in 1949,[16] with whom he had two children, a son Hamish (b. 1950), and a daughter, the singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl (1959–2000); and to American folksinger Peggy Seeger (b. 1935) in 1977, with whom he had three children, Neill, Calum, and Kitty. He collaborated with Littlewood in the theatre, and with Seeger in folk music.

Acting career

In 1931, with other unemployed members of the Clarion Players he formed an agit-prop theatre group, the "Red Megaphones". During 1934 they changed the name to "Theatre of Action" and not long after were introduced to a young actress recently moved up from London. This was Joan Littlewood who became MacColl's wife and work partner. In 1936, after a failed attempt to move to London, the couple returned to Manchester, and formed the Theatre Union. In 1940 a performance of The Last Edition – a 'living newspaper' – was halted by the police and MacColl and Littlewood were bound over for two years for breach of the peace. The necessities of wartime brought an end to Theatre Union. MacColl enlisted in the British Army during July 1940, but deserted in December. Why he did so, and why he was not prosecuted after the war, remain a mystery.[14] In an interview in June 1987, he said that he was expelled for "anti-fascist activity".[17] Allan Moore and Giovanni Vacca wrote that MacColl had been subject to Special Observation whilst in the King's Regiment, owing to his political views, and that the records show that, rather than being discharged, he was declared a deserter on 18 December 1940.[17]

In 1946, members of Theatre Union and others formed Theatre Workshop and spent the next few years touring, mostly in the north of England. In 1945, Miller changed his name to Ewan MacColl (influenced by the Lallans movement in Scotland).[clarification needed][7][8]

In the Theatre Union roles had been shared, but now, in Theatre Workshop, they were more formalised. Littlewood was the sole producer and MacColl the dramaturge, art director and resident dramatist. The techniques that had been developed in the Theatre Union now were refined, producing the distinctive form of theatre that was the hallmark of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, as the troupe was later known. They were an impoverished travelling troupe, but were making a name for themselves.[citation needed]


Traditional music

During this period MacColl's enthusiasm for folk music grew. Inspired by the example of Alan Lomax, who had arrived in Britain and Ireland in 1950, and had done extensive fieldwork there, MacColl also began to collect and perform traditional ballads. His long involvement with Topic Records started in 1950 with his release of a single, "The Asphalter's Song", on that label. When, in 1953 Theatre Workshop decided to move to Stratford, London, MacColl, who had opposed that move, left the company and changed the focus of his career from acting and playwriting to singing and composing folk and topical songs.[citation needed]

In 1947, MacColl visited a retired lead-miner named Mark Anderson (1874–1953) in Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham, England, who performed to him a song called "Scarborough Fair"; MacColl recorded the lyrics and melody in a book of Teesdale folk songs, and later included it on his and Peggy Seeger's The Singing Island (1960).[18][19][5] Martin Carthy learnt the song from MacColl's book, before teaching it to Paul Simon; Simon & Garfunkel released the song as "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" on their album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, popularising the obscure and unique folk tune.[4] Ewan MacColl, a decade after collecting the song, released his own version accompanied by Peggy Seeger on guitar in 1957 on the LP "Matching Songs of the British Isles and America"[20] and an a capella rendition another decade later on "The Long Harvest" (1967).[21]

Over the years MacColl recorded and produced upwards of a hundred albums, many with English folk song collector and singer A. L. Lloyd. The pair released an ambitious series of eight LP albums of some 70 of the 305 Child Ballads. MacColl produced a number of LPs with Irish singer songwriter Dominic Behan, a brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.[22]

In 1956, MacColl caused a scandal when he fell in love with 21-year-old Peggy Seeger, who had come to Britain to transcribe the music for Alan Lomax's anthology Folk Songs of North America (published in 1961). At the time MacColl, who was twenty years older than Peggy,[23] was still married to his second wife.


Seeger and MacColl recorded several albums of searing political commentary songs. MacColl himself wrote over 300 songs, some of which have been recorded by artists (in addition to those mentioned above) such as Planxty, the Dubliners, Dick Gaughan, Phil Ochs, the Clancy Brothers, Elvis Presley, Weddings Parties Anything, The Pogues and Johnny Cash. In 2001, The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook was published, which includes the words and music to 200 of his songs. Dick Gaughan, Dave Burland and Tony Capstick collaborated in The Songs of Ewan MacColl (1978; 1985).

Many of MacColl's best-known songs were written for the theatre. For example, he wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" very quickly at the request of Seeger, who needed it for use in a play she was appearing in. He taught it to her by long-distance telephone, while she was on tour in the United States (from where MacColl had been barred because of his Communist past). Seeger said that MacColl used to send her tapes to listen to whilst they were apart and that the song was on one of them.[24] This song, which was recorded by Roberta Flack for her debut album, First Take, which was issued by Atlantic records in June 1969, had become a No. 1 hit in 1972 and had won MacColl a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, while Flack received a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.[25]

In 1959, MacColl began releasing LP albums on Folkways Records, including several collaborative albums with Peggy Seeger. His song "Dirty Old Town", inspired by his home town of Salford in Lancashire, was written to bridge an awkward scene change in his play Landscape with Chimneys (1949). It went on to become a folk-revival staple and was recorded by the Spinners (1964), Donovan (1964), Roger Whittaker (1968), Julie Felix (1968), the Dubliners (1968), Rod Stewart (1969), the Clancy Brothers (1970), the Pogues (1985), the Mountain Goats (2002), Simple Minds (2003), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (2003), Frank Black (2006) and Bettye LaVette (2012).

MacColl's song "The Shoals of Herring", based on the life of Norfolk fisherman and folk singer Sam Larner was recorded by the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Corries and more. Other popular songs written and performed by MacColl include "The Manchester Rambler", "The Moving-On Song" and "The Joy of Living".

Ewan has a short biography of his work in the accompanying book of the Topic Records 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten.[26]: 11  Five of his recordings, three of them solo, appear in the boxed set:

Political songs

MacColl was one of the main composers of British protest songs during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1950s he penned "The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh" and "The Ballad of Stalin" for the British Communist Party.

Joe Stalin was a mighty man and a mighty man was he
He led the Soviet people on the road to victory.

When asked about the song in a 1985 interview, he said that it was "a very good song" and that "it dealt with some of the positive things that Stalin did".[27] In 1992, after his death, Peggy Seeger included it as an annex in her Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, saying that she had originally planned to exclude the song on the grounds that Ewan would not have wanted it included, but decided to include it as an example of his work in his early career.[28] The B-side of the record, Sovietland (Land of Freedom) was not included in the songbook.

MacColl sang and composed numerous protest and topical songs for the nuclear disarmament movement, for example "Against the Atom Bomb",[29] The Vandals, Nightmare, and Nuclear Means Jobs.[30]

MacColl dedicated an entire album to the lifestyle of Gypsies in his 1964 album The Travelling People. Many of the songs spoke against the prejudice against Roma Gypsies, although some also contained derogatory remarks about "tinkers", which is a word for Irish Travellers.[citation needed]

He wrote "The Ballad of Tim Evans" (also known as "Go Down You Murderer") a song protesting against capital punishment, based on an infamous murder case in which an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was condemned and executed, before the real culprit was discovered.[citation needed]

MacColl was very active during the miners' strike of 1984–85 in distributing free cassettes of songs supportive of the National Union of Mineworkers, entitled Daddy, what did you do in the strike?[31] The title song was unusually aggressive in its language towards the strikebreakers. This collection was only released on cassette and remaining copies are rare, but some of the less aggressive songs have featured on other compilations.[32] At MacColl's 70th birthday party, he was presented by Arthur Scargill with a miner's lamp to show appreciation for his support.[27]

In his last interview in August 1988, MacColl stated that he still believed in a socialist revolution and that the communist parties of the west had become too moderate.[33]: 116–117  He stated that he had been a member of the Communist Party but left because he felt that the Soviet Union was "not communist or socialist enough".[33]: 43 


MacColl had been a radio actor since 1933. By the late 1930s he was writing scripts as well. In 1957 producer Charles Parker asked MacColl to collaborate in the creation of a feature programme about the heroic death of train driver John Axon. Normal procedure would have been to use the recorded field interviews only as source for writing the script. MacColl produced a script that incorporated the actual voices and so created a new form that they called the radio ballad.

Between 1957 and 1964, eight of these were broadcast by the BBC, all created by the team of MacColl and Parker together with Peggy Seeger who handled musical direction, conducted a great many field interviews, and wrote songs, either together with MacColl or alone. MacColl wrote the scripts and songs, as well as, with the others, collecting the field recordings which were the heart of the productions.

Teaching and theatre

In 1965 Ewan and Peggy formed the Critics Group from a number of young followers, with Charles Parker in attendance, frequently recording the group's weekly sessions at MacColl and Seeger's home. The initial aim of improving musical skills soon broadened to performing at political events, the Singers' Club where MacColl, Seeger and Lloyd were featured artists and theatre productions.[clarification needed] Members who became performing folk singers in their own right included Frankie Armstrong, John Faulkner, Sandra Kerr, Dennis Turner, Terry Yarnell, Bob Blair, Jim Carroll, Brian Pearson and Jack Warshaw. Other members, including Michael Rosen, joined primarily for theatre productions, the Festival of Fools, a political review of the previous year.[clarification needed]

As the theatre group's importance grew, members more interested in singing left. The productions ran until the winter of 1972–73. Members' differences with MacColl's vision of a full-time touring company led to the group's breakup. The offshoot group became Combine Theatre, with a club of their own mixing traditional and original folksongs and theatrical performances based on contemporary events, into the 1980s.

Death and legacy

After many years of poor health (in 1979 he suffered the first of many heart attacks), MacColl died on 22 October 1989, in the Brompton Hospital, in London, after complications following heart surgery.[7][8] His autobiography Journeyman was published the following year. The lifetime archive of his work with Peggy Seeger and others was passed on to Ruskin College in Oxford.

There is a plaque dedicated to MacColl in Russell Square in London. The inscription includes: "Presented by his communist friends 25.1.1990 ... Folk Laureate – Singer – Dramatist – Marxist ... in recognition of strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism". In 1991 he was awarded a posthumous honorary degree by the University of Salford.[citation needed]

His daughter from his second marriage, Kirsty MacColl, followed him into a musical career, albeit in a different genre. She died in a boating accident in Mexico in 2000. His son with Peggy Seeger, Neill MacColl, is the long-standing guitarist for Mancunian musician David Gray. His grandson Jamie MacColl has also developed a musical career of his own with the band Bombay Bicycle Club.[34]



Solo albums
Collaboration – Bob and Ron Copper, Ewan MacColl, Isla Cameron, Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy
Collaboration – A. L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Louis Killen, Ian Campbell, Cyril Tawney, Sam Larner and Harry H. Corbett
Collaboration – with A. L. Lloyd
Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
Ewan MacColl/The Radio Ballads (1958–1964)*

(* Mixture of documentary, drama and song: broadcast on BBC radio)

Posthumous compilations
Compilation appearances


This section is a candidate for copying over to Wikiquote using the Transwiki process.

My function is not to reassure people. I want to make them uncomfortable. To send them out of the place arguing and talking.[35]


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  2. ^ a b c Spencer, Neil (25 January 2015). "Ewan MacColl: the godfather of folk who was adored – and feared". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  3. ^ "Search: Ewan MacColl". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
  4. ^ a b "Sold on Song – Song Library – Scarborough Fair". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Scarborough Fair (Roud Folksong Index S160453)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
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  12. ^ "Getting active". Wcml.org.uk. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  13. ^ Harker, Ben (2005). "'The Manchester Rambler': Ewan MacColl and the 1932 Mass Trespass". History Workshop Journal. Spring (59): 219–228. doi:10.1093/hwj/dbi016. JSTOR 25472794. S2CID 154501683.
  14. ^ a b Casciani, Dominic (5 March 2006). "Why MI5 monitored singer Ewan MacColl". BBC News. Retrieved 22 September 2009.
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  19. ^ Harvey, Todd (2001). The Formative Dylan: Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961–1963. Scarecrow Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-8108-4115-4.
  20. ^ "Matching Songs of the British Isles and America : Ewan MacColl at theBalladeers". www.theballadeers.com. Archived from the original on 16 November 2020. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  21. ^ totsie. "The Long Harvest traditional English and Scottish ballads sung by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl". www.peggyseeger.com. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
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  24. ^ Picardie, Justine (1995). "The first time ever I saw your face". In De Lisle, Tim (ed.). Lives of the great songs. London: Penguin. pp. 122–26. ISBN 978-0-14-024957-6.
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  27. ^ a b "YouTube". Youtube.com. Archived from the original on 23 June 2013.
  28. ^ See Mudcat Cafe. Seeger's note to the song reads:

    Ewan wrote a number of songs like this in his early years, alongside more subtle texts like "Dirty Old Town" and "Stalinvarosh." There is no doubt that Joseph Stalin was a brilliant wartime leader and that many of his reforms ... were correct and productive. Idolisation of Stalin by the left wing the world over continued until the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (1956), when he was posthumously denounced by Khrushchev for his "personality cult" and his human rights crimes. Disillusioned and subsequently turning to China for political role models, Ewan stopped singing this song or even referring to it. He would not have included it in the main body of such a book as this unless it were for reasons similar to mine: (1) as a sample of the old politics, which viewed the earth as mere clay out of which man fashions a world for man and (2) as a sample of his early work, highly dogmatic and low on finesse. It exhibits a lack of economy, an excess of cliches and filler lines, many awkward terms and an errant chronological flow. It has many of the characteristics of political songs of its time and is virtually a political credo set into verse and put to a tune. It is just that. – The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, Appendix IV. p. 388 (quoted in Mudcat Cafe)

  29. ^ Irwin, Colin (10 August 2008). "Power to the people". The Observer. London. Retrieved 19 February 2009.
  30. ^ Peggy Seeger, The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook, p. 21
  31. ^ "Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – Daddy, What Did You Do In The Strike?". Ewan-maccoll.info. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  32. ^ "Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl – Items Of News". Ewan-maccoll.info. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  33. ^ a b Moore, Allan F; Vacca, Giovanni (2014). Legacies of Ewan MacColl: The Last Interview. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. pp. 116–117. ISBN 978-1-4094-2430-7.
  34. ^ Lester, Paul (15 July 2010). "Difficult second album syndrome neatly avoided by north London indie kids". BBC. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  35. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 226. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.