Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Last month, I attended a Friends of Fiddler’s Green concert in Ottawa to launch their new album, Old Inventions, and Ian Robb introduced his song, “The Reason Why,” with an anecdote about the first time he sang, as a floor singer, at the Singers Club in London when he was a teenager.
After Ian sang, he was approached by Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), the legendary British folksinger, songwriter and activist who ran the Singers Club with life partner Peggy Seeger. MacColl asked Ian why he sang whatever song it was that he had just performed. The lesson Ian took from the encounter was that a singer (or songwriter) should always have some sort of convincing reason for investing themselves in a song.
Although I never had an opportunity to see MacColl perform live, I have listened to many of his recordings, have had conversations about him with Peggy, and have no doubt that there was always a reason why for every song he ever sang or wrote.
To mark the centennial of his birth, his children with Peggy – Neill, Calum and Kitty MacColl – have assembled Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl, an outstanding, 2-CD collection of 21 of MacColl’s songs performed by an eclectic array of singers from both sides of the Atlantic – some of whom I’ve known personally for many years, others whose own music I’ve listened to over the years, and a few of whom I’ve heard for the first time on this album. And each of them leaves absolutely no doubt as to their reason why.
One of the things I’ve always admired about MacColl’s songwriting is the way he could write, authentically, from others’ perspectives as shown on this album by such songs as Martin Carthy’s version of “I’m Champion at Keeping ‘Em Rolling,” written from the perspective of a British truck driver; Seth Lakeman’s version of “The Shoals of Herring,” written from the perspective of a fisherman; and Marry Waterson’s version “The Exile Song,” written from the perspective of an Irish laborer who had to travel far from home to earn his living.
But the songs of MacColl’s written from others’ perspectives that have always moved me most are those about the Romany travelling people – also known as Gypsies, a term now considered to be derisive. Among those songs included here are poignant versions of “Thirty-Foot Trailer” by Eliza Carthy, “Freeborn Man” by Paul Brady, “Moving On Song” by Norma Waterson and “The Terror Time” by Karine Polwart.
Some of the other highlights here include a beautiful version of “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly,” mainly credited to Rufus & Martha Wainwright, but which equally belongs to their half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and cousin, Lily Lanken; Montreal singer Chaim Tannenbaum’s exquisite version of “My Old Man,” a song in which MacColl both recalls his father and offers advice to his son; Steve Earle’s version of “Dirty Old Town,” MacColl’s portrait of Salford, the town of his birth; and the finale, a sweet interpretation of “The Joy of Living,” an end-of-life celebration of life and farewell to loved ones sung by David Gray.
And, of course, no tribute to Ewan MacColl would be complete without a version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” his love song for Peggy which has become a standard recorded by countless folk and pop artists. It’s convincingly performed here by Paul Buchanan.