One hundred years on from his birth, Ewan MacColl’s reputation is at something of an odd point. It’s true that a number of MacColl’s compositions remain staples on the folk scene and beyond (within just a couple of months this year I saw both Barb Jungr and Neill MacColl perform “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly” in separate shows at London’s Royal Festival Hall) justifying Christy Moore’s comment that MacColl’s work “has been absorbed into the mainstream national repertoire.”
Still, there’s a case to be made that MacColl’s achievements have been less acknowledged than they might have been in recent years. In particular, his pioneering work with Joan Littlewood at Theatre Workshop and his seminal Radio Ballads aren’t viewed, popularly, as the British cultural touchstones that they were, leading to the sense that — as a song-writer, collector and activist — one of the key figures in the English folk revival has, in many ways, become strangely under-celebrated since his death in 1989.
This significant anniversary year has been the one to change all that, though. The reappraisal began when Allan F. Moore and Giovanni Vacca published their excellent and informative Legacies of Ewan MacColl, a book based around two extended interviews that Vacca conducted with MacColl in 1985 and also including new academic essays on MacColl’s work. MacColl was also the subject of a tribute at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and a documentary dedicated to him was also broadcast.
2015 sees the release of Joy of Living, a two-disc tribute album that feels long overdue. Produced by Callum and Neill MacColl, with the close collaboration of their sister Kitty, Joy of Living doesn’t present itself as a definitive retrospective. Rather, in their liner notes, the MacColls outline their intentions for the project more humbly, describing the collection as “a personal selection of some of our favourites … Our only criterion was putting songs we love with artists we love.”
For the most part, the approach pays dividends. With no stylistic agenda imposed, the collection feels at once expansive and remarkably cohesive, given the diverse approaches of the very different artists who are contributing, and the mixing up of personal and political songs that give equal weight to the tough and the tender aspects of MacColl’s artistry. (It’s no surprise that no contributor sees fit to tackle “The Ballad of Stalin”.) There are, it must be said, a couple of surprising let-downs. As impeccable as their leftist credentials may be, neither Steve Earle (with a strangely synthetic, brittle whine through “Dirty Old Town”) nor Billy Bragg (with a lacklustre reading of “Kilroy Was Here”) really distinguish themselves on this occasion, and Jarvis Cocker’s take on “The Battle is Done With” is irritatingly mannered.
Otherwise, however, quality control is sustained across the two discs, with some beautiful performances and sometimes surprising arrangements. Many of the most memorable contributions come from those tackling the Radio Ballads material, with Damien Dempsey opening the album in striking style with an impassioned “Schooldays Over”, Norma Waterson bringing customary authority and power to “The Moving On Song” (with Eliza Carthy on violin and Martin Carthy on guitar providing taut accompaniment) and Karine Polwart contributing a startling take on “The Terror Time” that builds stealthily from a spare opening to haunting ambience, complete with Sinéad O’Connor-esque wails.
Father/son relationships are movingly evoked on Martin Simpson and Chaim Tannenbaum’s intimate guitar-and-vocal renderings of “The Father’s Song” and “My Old Man”, with Tannenbaum in particular digging deeply into the soul of a song in which affection and anger are powerfully intermingled. Dick Gaughan’s stately, arresting “Jamie Foyers”, Bombay Bicycle Club’s atmospheric “The Young Birds”, Eliza Carthy’s singalong “Thirty-Foot Trailer”, the Unthanks’ hushed and reverent “Cannily, Cannily”, and Christy Moore’s spry, nimble take on “The Compañeros” are also highlights, while Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly” is blessedly unaffected and simply beautiful. David Gray’s heartfelt take on “The Joy of Living” brings the collection to an elegant close.
In a recent interview, Peggy Seeger (who was MacColl’s close collaborator on some of this material, lest we forget) described MacColl’s ambition as writing a song “that would sink so deep into the memory of a nation that they would forget who made it up.” The songs covered on Joy of Living touch so many levels of personal and social experience in so many relatable ways that it’s hard not to conclude that he achieved that aim many times over. This is an essential, lovingly compiled collection that succeeds in doing justice to MacColl’s songwriting skill.