When Kirsty MacColl was tragically killed, all the obituaries and news stories described her as the daughter of "the folk-singer Ewan MacColl". Describing Ewan MacColl as a folk-singer is one of the most absurd over-simplifications of all time.
It would take several volumes to adequately discuss the creative contribution of Ewan MacColl - actor, playwright, Communist, singer, songwriter, polemicist, motivator, broadcaster, all these and more. Probably the most significant playwright in Britain in the 40s and 50s, highly acclaimed for his innovations in broadcasting, writer of songs which have entered the folk tradition (as well as the Pop Charts) and colossus of the 50s/60s British Folksong Revival.
I didn't actually know Ewan very well and only met him a dozen or so times but he was certainly my greatest influence in my teens. In my early teens I had bought copies of two books of songs called "The Shuttle and Cage" and "Personal Choice" but had no idea who he was other than these books. Then one night I was playing around with an old valve radio when something caught my ear. It was a recording of a Syrian woman singing, followed by a recording of Bridgit Tunney. I immediately grasped the point that was being made and listened mesmerised to the rest of the progamme. At the end of the broadcast, the announcer's voice declared that the presenter had been Ewan MacColl.
In the early 80s I was approached by John McGrath, director of 7:84 Theatre (Scotland) who explained that 7:84 were doing a season of plays under the heading "Clydebuilt", one of which was MacColl's 1945 play, "Johnny Noble". I was offered the part of 1st narrator, the part MacColl had taken in the original production. The intention was to recreate the original production as faithfully as possible and it was directed by David Scase, who had been in the original. There was no set and the stage was entirely black with black drapes and this put a tremendous responsibility on the performers. On the first night in Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre, I walked on, very nervous, started singing the opening lines of the play and made the mistake of looking down at the front row - straight at Ewan. Didn't do much for my nerves. Afterwards, to my relief, he was extremely gracious and generous in his comments on my performance.
Those words "gracious and generous" would sum up all my meetings with him over the years but I can understand why there are people who found an encounter with him to be an uncomfortable experience. He might have been born in Lancashire but he was a Scot - he thought like a Scot and he discussed like a Scot with the Scot's instinctive tendency toward argument and disdain for politely pussyfooting around a point. If he disagreed with what was being said, he stated his disagreement in typical Scots fashion, bluntly without bothering too much about taking prisoners. While this is quite respectable among Scots, others can find it a bit bruising.
I learned an enormous amount from him, one of the most important being a lesson which has strengthened me greatly in whatever dealings I have ever had to have with the "entertainment business" - if you're going to sing songs which explore political issues, forget about any delusions of ever becoming successful in that business. He summed this up best in his song "Legal/Illegal" -
"It's legal to sing on the telly,
But they'll make bloody sure that you don't
If you sing about racism, fascism, creeps
Or thieves in high places that live off the weak"
Like all who are not afraid to express their views, he is frequently described as "controversial" and was not without enemies and detractors, including many who attack him for views which he didn't actually hold but which have become part of the MacColl urban mythology.
May they someday be able to contribute a fraction of what he did.
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©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
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