Ewan MacColl Controversy - by Peggy Seeger
I confess, I confess! I was the one who started the whole 'policy' debate. The Ballads and Blues Club had been going really well since 1953. I arrived in London in 1956. The club met at the Princess Louise in High Holborn at that time and there was an impressive list of residents: Alan Lomax, Ralph Rinzler, Isla Cameron, Fitzroy Coleman, Seamus Ennis, Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, et al. Bert was singing English, Australian, N. American and Scottish songs; Ewan was singing 'Sixteen Tons' and 'Sam Bass' alongside 'Eppie Morrie' and 'The Banks of the Nile'; I regularly sang French, German and Dutch songs alongside 'Barbara Allan' and 'Cumberland Gap'. Fitz and Seamus stuck, respectively, to their Jamaican and Irish material. Alan only sang songs that he and his father had collected in the USA. There were many floor singers who came and went - the Weavers turned up from New York and sang in three or four different languages; a west London couple came regularly and sang in Yiddish, a language which they did not speak; two French students would sing Spanish Civil War songs; and so on. It was a free-for-all and I will admit that it was a lot of fun. More about that at another time.
It was that Cockney lad singing Leadbelly who started the rock rolling downhill. Was it 1960 or so? Yes, it was that poor fellow whose rendition of 'Rock Island Line' reduced me to hysterical laughter one night. I was literally doubled over in my seat, gasping. I had to be taken out of the room. Most unprofessional, but I couldn't help it. I am North American. Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, et al, used to come to our house in Washington. I knew what the song should sound like and the manner of delivery and the insertion of Cockney vowels into a southern USA black prisoners' song just sounded funny.
I was reprimanded by several members of the audience at the end of the evening. When I explained my reasons, one of the French students pointed out that the insertion of my American vowels into French songs was also quite laughable. I then mentioned that Ewan's rendition of 'Sam Bass' verged on parody. My children have since pointed out that my Scots accent (on a number of Seeger-MacColl records) is not exactly impeccable. But I am straying… the Cockney singer then confessed that he loved Leadbelly's songs but was losing his confidence in singing them. He was getting bored. I declared that I preferred singing songs from the Anglo-American traditions and only sang the French/German/Spanish songs for 'variety'. The discussion heated up and was a main topic of conversation for several weeks following. We laid the matter in front of all the residents and interviewed the folks who paid at the door on the subject. The decision to lay down guidelines for what you could sing on stage was not made by Ewan MacColl - it was made by the residents and members of the B&B Club (later known as the Singers Club). If it became hewn in stone - well, that's the way things go.
This policy was meant for OUR club, not for other clubs. The policy was simple: If you were singing from the stage, you sang in a language that you could speak and understand. It didn't matter what you sang in the shower, at parties, while you were ironing or making love. But on stage in The Ballads and Blues Folk Club, you were a representative of a culture - you were interpreting a song that had been created within certain social and artistic parameters. Incidentally, along with this policy came the request from our newly-formed Audience Committee that we not sing the same traditional song more than once every three months… they were getting tired of hearing the same songs week after week. This forced us residents to learn new songs at an unholy rate. But it brought out lots of new songs and ballads and really got us thinking about how we sang what we were learning.
Shortly afterwards, the Critics Group was formed, at the behest of several singers who also found that they were losing their way in singing traditional songs. We began to attract singers who wanted to study folksinging. You know, there is no set discipline for folksinging - it's an 'anything goes' area even though real dyed-in-the-wool field singers are very specific about how they sing and what they sing. The purpose of the Critics Group was to make it possible for the singers who had not been brought up in the 'folk' tradition to sing the songs in a way that would not abrogate the original intention of the makers. It was an attempt to keep the folksongs folksongs, not turn them into classical pieces or pop songs or anything-goes songs. We analysed accompanimental and vocal styles, tried to expand our abilities to sing in different styles so that we could tackle different kinds of songs (within the languages and dialects that we spoke) and still keep the songs true to themselves. Once again, we were not initially telling other singers how to sing - just deciding how WE were going to sing. If we became evangelical and sounded dictatorial, well - that's the way things go. The intentions were honourable.
I must admit that I am still going that way and tend to be rather intolerant of female singers lilting 'Ranzo Ranzo Way Away' as if it were a lullaby or a love song; of a band of instrumentalists producing 'Sir Patrick Spens' (which had been unaccompanied for several centuries) with four fiddles, two double basses, drums, electric guitar and unintelligible lyrics. It was such a good song… but OK. Just don't call it folk song. And while you're at it, listen to some of my own early recordings - say on the Fellside album "Classic Peggy Seeger". Listen to me in my early years singing so fast that even I (who know the words of the songs) cannot understand what I am singing. Or listen to me accompanying Ewan on sloshy guitar or overharmonising with him on 'Lassie Wi' the yellow Coatie'. We all do these things in our youth and before we have understanding (just wish I hadn't recorded them). Ewan did this himself in his early recordings and never pretended that he didn't. What he was really trying to do in his later years (and I will be the first to admit that sometimes we could both be hamfisted about it) was encourage understanding of where these songs came from and how easy it is to ruin them, to turn them into something else. Kind of like what's happening to the earth right now. We're all doing just what we want to a beautiful piece of natural art (aka nature) - and only just now beginning to worry about having to live with the mess. Unfortunately, that's the way things go. And so many of the intentions are not honourable.
I've done my share of 'changing' the folksongs. Had to. I wasn't brought up on the front porch of a cabin in the Appalachians and I don't care to pretend that I was. I had a middle-class classical musical training and that's hard to shake. But I don't pretend to be a folksinger or that the folksongs (as I sing them) are 'ur' versions. I am a singer of folksongs and I hope that my lullabies are lullabies and the words of my ballads are intelligible. Ewan MacColl was one step nearer to being a folksinger than I, having been brought up in a Scots community in Salford. He is a man who is a perfect example of the old saying "stick your neck out and someone will chop your head off". I didn't know, until after he died, just how many enemies and ex-post-facto critics we had made. WE. Please remember that he and I were in this together and you can now aim your missiles at someone who is still here and who is quite articulate on the matter. Pity more folks didn't have the courage and the knowledge to talk with him while he was alive. He was actually an interesting, approachable person and was happy to talk to anyone who approached with a less-than-hostile attitude. I learned so much from those years… and, of course, I am biased! I am also fed up with people who criticise him with only hearsay and second (third, fourth, umpteenth) knowledge on which to base their opinions.
The editor wants to know "Who are Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie?" They were members of the Critics Group for most of the life of that group. They were two of the most loyal, industrious and intelligent members by far. It is possible that they have inherited some of Ewan's intransigence and argumentative temperament (that's the way things go?) but there is no doubt that their work in the folksong world has been invaluable and dedicated. Most of the collectors who've done that have had a kind of tunnel vision, without which their work would not have been as productive. They stuck their necks out and their heads are getting chopped off. They are in good company.
Like Ewan, I've always got lots more to say but I don't care to argue all this out nitty blow by gritty blow. By the way, I'm just finishing up a book of his songs. 200 of them. 'The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook' (Music Sales, autumn 2000). Those of you who have followed or partaken in this controversy might find my long critique of him as a person and an artist enlightening. It won't be what you expected from the person who was his lover and working partner. Information is on my website: www.pegseeger.com.
Peggy Seeger, Asheville