EWAN MACCOLL – THE BACKGROUND
Ewan MacColl, born James Miller on January 25th 1915, lived on Coburg Street in Lower Broughton, and was a true working class hero.
Leaving school at 15, he became a factory worker, labourer, mechanic and street singer, in the process writing and editing nine factory newspapers and, when unemployed taking part in anti-hunger and unemployment demonstrations and protests, including the Battle of Bexley Square...
The Battle happened on 1st October 1931 when 10,000 Salford people marched on the old Town Hall in Bexley Square demanding no cuts to unemployment benefit, no cuts to teachers' salaries, free coal for the unemployed in the winter, free milk for children under five and the abolition of `educational classes and training centres' (for further details see here).
The protesters were attacked with batons by plain clothes and uniformed police and the day has become one of the city's landmark moments, commemorated a few years ago with a plaque on the building which is now being gentrified into flats for young professionals. At the close of the `Battle, MacColl was one of those in a delegation that marched on Salford councillors' houses demanding justice.
Throughout this time MacColl was also spreading the protest word through songs and street plays via Red Megaphones, which he founded at age 15, and the Theatre Union, the forerunners of fringe and agitprop theatre in Britain. What is now called `alternative theatre' was seen as so dangerous that in 1939 a performance of a play called Last Edition was raided by police, and MacColl, with his first wife Joan Littlewood, were fined and banned from performing for two years.
Meanwhile, MacColl said that he wrote songs "for anything that happened" – and there was loads happening, from strikes in the cotton industry, to the Spanish Civil war to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Indeed, the singer became legendary for writing people's songs that spread from struggles in Salford to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. And a lot of those songs have been covered by other artists, from the classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, written over the phone for his third wife Peggy Seeger, as a fill in for one of her broadcasts in America, to Salford anthem, Dirty Old Town.
To list all of Ewan's achievements and work would take a book – and there's a very fine one called Class Act by Ben Harker (see here), plus MacColl's own autobiography, Journeyman (see here), and loads and loads of information and videos on www.ewanmaccoll.co.uk , newly launched and created by his family.
See Part 2 - The Dirty Old Town - Peggy Seeger on Ewan MacColl's attitude to Salford and Dirty Old Town and those who covered it plus the hidden, missing verse of that song... click here
See Part 3 - Ewan MacColl Legacy - click here
Graphic by Steven Speed