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Various - Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl

  by Nicky Crewe

published: 25 / 11 / 2015

Various - Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Format: CD X2


Excellent tribute album to celebrate the centenary of folk singer Ewan MacColl’s birth, which includes covers by artists including Steve Earle, Jarvis Cocker, Billy Bragg, Paul Brady and Damien Dempsey

This year is the centenary of Ewan MacColl’s birth. His sons, Calum and Neill MacColl, have brought together a fantastic range of artists to reinterpret some of his songs. It’s a personal selection by his family, chosen by his sons, his daughter Kitty MacColl and their mother Peggy Seeger, and there will be more celebrations of his life and talent to mark this significant year. The family say it isn’t a definitive retrospective and I understand why they would say that. For me, listening to the two CDs, twenty one songs in all, has been a wonderful experience. Like Ewan MacColl, I am originally from Salford. My dad was a big fan of the folk revival, introducing me to the Seegers, Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl, Joan Baez and many many more in the early sixties, when I was at an impressionable age. Songs like ‘Dirty Old Town’ and the Radio Ballads compositions were played on a reel to reel tape recorder wherever in the world we lived, conjuring up the Salford of my youth, slums and all. My bus journey home from school went past the gas works I imagined was the inspiration for ‘Dirty Old Town’. Not only did he capture the spirit of Salford, of working class life and post war struggles, but he was also able to write songs that told the story of marginal communities. Travelling people and coal miners, truck drivers and Irish labourers in exile, they all appear in his songs, each one like a short story, giving an insight into their lives with all the joys and heartaches. His involvement with the traditional folk scene and his sensitivity to its musical forms allowed him to create songs that sounded like they had been around forever, but which were newly made by him. These songs and tunes are not pastiche, but a continuation of a long tradition. As I grew up, there were times when I wasn’t sure what to make of his reinvention, from Jimmy Miller to Ewan MacColl. Was this just about image? But the more I learnt, the more I respected him. His collaborations with Joan Littlewood, his first wife, were as significant as anything he achieved as a folk singer-songwriter. In the early 1980s I was thrilled to learn that she was a houseguest with my next door neighbours. My neighbour was the first Jewish man from Manchester to go and fight for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. This was the political calibre and courage of this group of friends and collaborators, prepared to stand up and be counted. There is breadth and depth in this selection of songs, revealing him as son, lover, father, commentator, observer and sympathiser. The songs written for ‘Radio Ballads’ are particularly strong and beautiful – ‘Freeborn Man’ and ‘Shoals of Herring’ are probably among the best known. There’s also the poignancy of his love songs. Unbelievable to think that ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ was written during a transatlantic phone call to Peggy Seeger, never rewritten, never recorded by MacColl himself. ‘Sweet Thames, Flow Softly’ is a wonderful love song too. I could go on. And I haven’t yet mentioned the artists involved here and their interpretations. Those of you who are familiar with Roberta Flack’s version of ‘First Time’ will have a sense of the versatility of his work. The best artists from today’s folk world in its widest sense have chosen to be part of this project from Steve Earle (‘Dirty Old Town’) to Jarvis Cocker (‘The Battle is Done With’). Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Marry Waterson, Norma Waterson, the Untanks and Dick Gaughan are also on the roll call. Christy Moore, Billy Bragg, Martin Simpson and Seth Lakeman , Paul Brady, Chaim Tannebaum, Damien Dempsey and Jack Steadman too, performing alongside children and grandchildren. I don’t want to leave anyone out because all their interpretations are insightful and bring something new to the songs. My current favourites are Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s version of ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ and David Gray’s version of the title track ‘The Joy of Living’. It’s a wonderful addition to the legacy of Ewan MacColl, a legacy that resides in his family, his friends, his fans and his ability to create such timeless songs.

Track Listing:-
1 Schooldays Over
2 I’m Champion At Keeping ‘Em Rolling
3 Cannily, Cannily
4 The Shoals of Herring
5 The Exile Song
6 The Young Birds
7 Jamie Foyers
8 Thirty-Foot Trailer
9 My Old Man
10 Dirty Old Town
11 The Battle Is Done With
12 The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
13 Freeborn Man
14 Moving On Song
15 The Terror Time
16 The Father’s Song
17 The Companeros
18 Kilroy Was Here
19 Sweet Thames, Flow Softly
20 Alone
21 The Joy of Living

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