By Edward Hirst
Ewan MacColl’s position in the pantheon of folk legends alongside such leading figures as Albert Lloyd, is never likely to be disputed. For many of the leading figures in the folk revival during the early 1960’s and beyond, MacColl firmly held the reigns as they charged through the political and social tempests of the ensuing decades. MacColl’s career spans a period during which most other musical genres were relapsing into the commercial celebrity cultures we now take for granted: his enduring achievement was his struggle to retain the idiom of the people – their essential passions, dilemnas and language – at the generative nucleus of the British folk song.
And yet, whilst we might talk endlessly about MacColl’ s importance in the folk scene, we should not forget that the flowering of his later career was grounded in the humble origins of an everyday working-class Salford up-brining.
It is apt, therefore, that to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, Manchester University Press have admirably braved the current economic tempest and published a new edited MacColl’s autobiography ‘Journeyman’ with a new introduction by Peggy Seeger, his partner, collaborator, and first-rate artist in her own right. Moreover, to celebrate the launch of ‘Journeyman’, a memorial concert was held in Salford’s Peel Hall, just yards from the Irwell river immortalised by MacColl in Trafford Road Ballad, and attended by some of the finest artists on the circuit, including John Faulkner, Bob Blair, Brian Pearson, John Faulkner, Jez Lowe, David Ferrard, Bob Fox, and the evergreen Seeger herself.
With a packed-out auditorium, and the presence of local brewery Boggart Hole, there was no doubt that this was going to be a memorable evening.
It was fitting that Jez Lowe featured in the concert. He might quite rightly be described as one of the most prolific folk singers around, and has a special connection to Ewan MacColl in his recent work for the 2006 Radio Ballads, which were written in the same style which MacColl himself invented. A powerful rendition of ‘Taking on Men’ based on accounts he heard from ship builders in Glasgow and Newcastle, was greeted with rapturous applause.
David Ferrard, a gifted young American singer who now lives in Edinburgh, reminded everyone that there is more to folk music than mere old tunes. His songs, like MacColl’s, ring with political significance. His protest against the activities of bankers over the last year, was well received by all! But his fine (almost eerily reminicient of MacColl himself) rendition of the Trafford Road Ballad, demonstrated the broad versatility of this young singer.
Finally, to the delight of all, Peggy Seeger took to the stage charming the audience with quips and jokes which nevertheless quickly dissolved into the beautifully haunting First Time Ever I Saw your Face, which MacColl wrote for Seeger.
Seeger displayed her musical talents by accompanying herself on four different instruments, rounding off with the old Scottish ballad Henry Martin, on the Banjo. Both MacColl and Seeger were instrumental in keeping alive many of the Scottish ballads for future generations, and it was fitting that Seeger should pay tribute to their exploits on this night.
No Ewan MacColl concert would be complete without the famous Manchester Rambler, and the audience were treated to a spectacular and nostalgaic chorus from all the performers.
Ewan MacColl was a stalwart of British folk music, a titanesque figure whose memory will inspire many future generations of folk musicians as they struggle on to keep the heart of British folk music beating.