In 1972, Grammys night, Roberta Flack won her first award for Record of the year, with her cover of The first time ever I saw your face. One of the many ballads of folk singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, but one of the first to be romantic, compared to his ballads about dirty old towns, Manchester, and current events.
Born as James Henry Miller, MacColl belonged to two Scottish parents. William Miller and Betsy Henry, who were both socialists and working the breadline; Miller an iron moulder and trade unionist, Henry a charwoman. The family moved frequently, but settled in Salford, as the couple were blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland. MacColl was the youngest and only surviving child in a family of three sons and one daughter (one of each sex was stillborn and one son died at the age of four). The Miller family lived amongst a group of other fellow Scots, MacColl was exposed to an atmosphere of fierce political debates and folk songs and stories that his parents had carried with them from Scotland.
The folk labour activist attended Grecian Street council school in Broughton, but left in 1930 after gaining his elementary education during the Great depression. However leaving school wasn’t the end of MacColl education, as he stuck to a lifelong programme of self-education whilst keeping warm from the ranks of unemployment in the Manchester public library.
After the age of 14, MacColl cut his teeth as a member of the young communist league and a socialist amateur theatre troupe, The Clarion Players, sparking his acting and playwright career; helping to produce and contribute humorous verses and skits to some of the communist party’s factory papers.
Before his music career became popular , MacColl was a founding member, leading actor, co-producer, and in-house dramatist of the pioneering theatre workshop, a group launched in Manchester in the 40s . the workshop toured extensively for eight years before taking up residence at the threatre royal in Stratford, east London. MacColl had opposed the move to a settled location and changed his focus from acting and play writing to singing and composing topical folk songs.
During the 30s, MacColl found sporadic work in a number of jobs and also made money performing as a street singer. However MacColl dedicated the majority of his time to being an activist in unemployed workers campaigns and the mass trespasses. Similar to Myles Horton, MacColl did not see his role in social change as a leadership, but merely as someone to get the ball moving;’ my function is not to reassure people. I want to make them uncomfortable. To send them out of the place arguing and talking.’
That same year the British intelligence service, MI5, opened a file of Maccoll after he left the army in the middle of WW2 and changed his name; they suspected that he was a communist with very extreme views who needed ‘special attention’. MacColl’s investigation also branched out to his first wife, Joan Littlewood, who was rejected by the BBC and prevented from the employment of becoming a BBC children’s programme presenter.
While MacColl is best known in his music career for writing The first time ever I saw your face, he is also known in the folk community for The Manchester Rambler. The song was written following the Kinder mass trespass, a protest against walkers were denied access to areas of open country in England and Wales, better known as the draconian law. Leading up to the p trespass, MacColl made and handing out leadflets, and even took part in the trespass and faced the violence of the gamekeepers who confronted the ramblers on the hill. While the prespass resulted in five rambler arrests, the prespass had a powerful long-term effect leading to access to the copuntryside in the shape of nation parls (1949) and the right to roam (2000).
After listening to the works of Alan Lomax, who had arrived in Britain in 1950, MacColl quickly became inspired and began to collect and perform traditional ballads much like fellow folklorist A.L Lloyd, whom MacColl worked with in later years singing child ballads.
MacColl’s political idealism and activism remained undimmed until his death in 1989, when he was still campaigning and fundraising in support of the miner’s strike and against Apartheid and the Poll Tax. Though being a communist member for many years, MacColl soon felt that communist countries, such as Russia, were idolizing Stalin. MacColl was then denounced by Khrushchev for his ‘personality cult’ and his human right crimes. Disillusioned, MacColl turned to China for political role models and stopped singing songs such as dirty old town and stalinvarosh. However MacColl still believed in a socialist revolution but that western communism had become too moderate, leaving the communist party in the 80s due to the belief that the soviet union were ‘not communist or socialist enough.’