Joy of Living: Triumphant Tribute to Ewan MacColl

Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Cooking Vinyl 7-4867-2
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Looking for a last-minute gift? Anyone who loves acoustic music will thrill to Joy of Living, a two-CD collection of the songs of Ewan MacColl in time to commemorate the centenary of his birth. Tribute albums disappoint when cover artists make one or two bad assumptions: that they need to do something radically different with the original songs, or that the performance is about them rather than the honored artist(s). Two of MacColl's sons, Calum and Neill, did an extraordinary job of finding musicians who understand their father's place in the folk pantheon. Many of them owe their careers to his influence, but that could be said of legions of English and Scottish artists of the past 80 or so years.

Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) was never an easy bloke—just a brilliant one. It surprises many to learn that he was actually (sort of) English. He was born to socialist Scottish parents, but as James Henry Miller and in the gritty industrial Lancashire town of Salford, whose slums he immortalized in one of his most famous songs, "Dirty Old Town." (It is incisively performed on the album by Steve Earle—a guy who knows a few things about life's downside.) He adopted the name MacColl in 1945, by which time he was caught up in the Lallans movement, a 20th century attempt—via Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson—at a Scottish Renaissance, including the insertion into everyday communication of a blended English/Lowlands dialect language.

But one could say MacColl began reinventing himself at a tender age. He dropped out of school, kicked around the Salford slums, and was a devoted communist by the time he was 17—the age at which he got put on a watch list for his role in organizing a mass trespass on public lands that ultimately opened much of the UK's private land for hikers and walkers. Call it the praxis of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." His deep involvement with agit-prop theatre—especially a form known as the "living newspaper"–led to his first marriage (of three) to director Joan Littlewood. Another little-known fact: many of MacColl's most-beloved songs began life as accompaniment for plays.  

MacColl's career is often compared to Pete Seeger's and not just because his third wife was Pete's half-sister, Peggy. Like Seeger, he was a collector/promoter as well as songwriter. Many of the Child ballads and other public domain songs today performed come from the collaboration between MacColl and Bert Lloyd. Alan Lomax was another mutual connection; Lomax's 1950 visit to the United Kingdom inspired MacColl to champion traditional music on the radio, in publications, and on the stage. On the later score, he took inspiration from Seeger and The Weavers. MacColl's Soho Ballad and Blues Club opened in 1953 and soon became an epicenter of the British folk revival, and a place where British artists adopted as their own American-style accompaniments.   

MacColl made over a hundred albums, something of an irony for a guy who despised commercialism and denounced Bob Dylan as a "10th-rate talent" and probably a capitalist tool to boot. Like I said—a difficult bugger. Still, all one has to do to appreciate MacColl the artist is sample the glorious songs he left behind—compositions that run the gamut from overtly political to the achingly sentimental. How many contemporary love songs can even be mentioned in the same breath as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face?" Paul Buchanan gives a particularly wonderful performance of this classic. Who else makes us feel nostalgic for disappearing ways of life without romanticizing them in the slightest? Eliza Carthy skillfully captures the glories and the challenges of the tinker's life in her cover of "Thirty-Foot Trailer," and Seth Lakeman gives the performance of his life on "The Shoals of Herring," MacColl's no-sugarcoating look at the testosterone days of small-time trawling.

Every performance on this 21-track collection is tastefully and appropriately performed—as indeed one might expect from a cast that includes stalwarts that looked to MacColl for inspiration: Paul Brady, Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Christy Moore, Martin Simpson, Norman Waterson….  There is also a nice mix of crossover artists such as Damien Dempsey, David Gray, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, The Unthanks, and Bombay Bicycle Club, the last of which is anchored by Jamie MacColl–Ian's grandson. David Gray does a fabulous job on the title track and the amazing Karine Polwart serves up a shiver-and-quiver cover of "The Terror Time." I'd rate the latter and Lakeman's interpretation of "The Shoals of Herring" as personal favorites, though singling out anything is the equivalent of declaring one sip of vintage wine superior to the rest of the glass. If you buy this as a gift, purchase a spare for yourself.  
Rob Weir  

Postscript: As much as I love the song "Joy of Living," had I named this collection I would have picked "Freeborn Man," which squares and sums MacColl to the core!

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