Joy of Living: Triumphant Tribute to Ewan MacColl

Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Cooking Vinyl 7-4867-2
* * * * *

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!


Silly Debates over History

Princeton students recently discovered that Woodrow Wilson was a racist, which induced a "No shit, Sherlock" response from just about anyone who took US history in a public school. I'll overlook ignorance, I guess, though Princeton should reconsider the policy of admitting unprepared dummies from hoity-toity private schools. I'm less sympathetic to the belief that renaming things bearing Wilson's name is a good way to address racism in American society.

Okay, Young Tigers, vocabulary lesson: History = the study of events from the past and the various interpretations of those events. Sociology = study of social behavior, social groups, social problems, and social institutions. One studies the past to learn from it but—news flash—you can't change it. That's why we also study sociology. You put the two together to work out an agenda for the future. Got that? Past, present, future….

Wilson was indeed racist; so much so that a body of speculative history postulates he would have been a future president of the Confederate States of America, had the South won the Civil War. It didn't and we ended up with a racist president. Want to demonize him further? He put his signature on the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which rode roughshod over the First Amendment during World War One. After the war, Wilson cooperated with a vicious Red Scare that sent a very decent man, Eugene Debs, to jail. Wilson also sent US troops into Mexico during its civil war, so let's add Hispanophobia to his vita. For all of that, Woodrow Wilson was also a monopoly-buster, and signed into law such landmark bills as the Clayton Antitrust Act, an improved Interstate Commerce Act, the Federal Reserve Act, a landmark federal farm loan bill, and another that would have outlawed child labor had not the Supreme Court struck it down. Insofar as reforming presidents go, Wilson ranks just below Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. He was also an idealist whose League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations.

None of this excuses his racism, nor does the fact that he was in the white mainstream during the days when Jim Crow reigned supreme. We should—from a sociological perspective—deplore his bigotry. Then we should move on because there is simply no changing the past. We can (and should) hate his racism, but Wilson was also a distinguished academic, an ambassador, the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, and two-term POTUS. That makes him important, whether we like him or not.

I've had it with the PC push to sanitize history. Human beings shaped the past and one simply cannot rewind and make it cuddly. Sainthood is not required to make history. Karl Marx famously remarked, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…." Ooops, scratch Comrade Karl from future discussion—he made gender-specific references. We've had a solution to history's warts for decades—it's called "teach the controversy" (and I don't mean it in a silly Creationist way).

What would sanitized history look like? Step one is reworking state competency exams because there's a host of folks we can't talk about anymore. Banish the slaveholder presidents—all 18 of them, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Andrew Johnson, and U.S. Grant. (Yes, the last had control over slaves owned by his Missouri-born wife. I'm not sure whom we will now credit for commanding the winning Union troops with Grant out of the running, but one mustn't offend.) We could consider dumping all the racist presidents, but that would only leave Obama, so perhaps we settle for tossing active racists like Pierce, Buchanan, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon, and Reagan. Oh, shoot: Abe Lincoln and FDR probably have to go as well.

How about other sinners? Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. Bye, bye. Ditto FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, that divorcee Reagan, and all of Congress for all of time. Very few groups were as sexist as the Black Panthers, so thou shalt never reference them. The Radicalesbian movement often slammed men and straight women, which brings me personal pain, so I can't allow any mention of lesbians in my courses. Betty Friedan said terrible things about housewives. Be gone, insensitive elitist. Walt Disney was racist, sexist, and a snitch, so padlock those theme parks. The GOP claims that labor unions are anti-capitalist, so no more labor movement, but it works both ways. I frickin' hate those robber barons and the heartless employer class that kept my ancestors and parents in economic thralldom. I cannot allow you to discuss exploiters like Henry Ford, Andy Carnegie, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, or The Donald. Let's just skip economic history.

Oh sheesh, I forgot to mention mistreatment done to Native Americans. Custer's practically a choirboy compared to folks like Chivington and Sheridan. The safe thing is to never mention any white male who ever set foot on Indian land, as well as banning everyone that exclusively uses the term "Native American." Many indigenous people actually prefer the term "Indian." How could anyone be so racist as to not know that? Now let's (not) discuss nativism related to immigration history. Being of Scottish heritage I must insist that England not be part of any discussion near me, and I bet a lot of those with Irish ancestry feel the same way.

We have two viable options: teach PURK history (Puppies, Unicorns, Rainbows and Kittens); or grow up and wrestle with history from the perspective that bad shit happened, but lots of decent folks tried to make things better. They didn't always succeed for two reasons: they don't get to write the script, and they are a flawed species. Just like history students and their teachers. That's why we teach the controversy. Otherwise, silence writes history, but not a pleasing one.


Mr. Holmes Proves Sherlock Has Been Overdone!

MR. HOLMES (2015)
Directed by Bill Condon
BBC Films, 104 minutes, PG-13
* * ½

It took me a while to view Mr. Holmes because I'm among those who think that Sherlock has been done and redone so often there's nothing left to say. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is said to be the most portrayed fictional character of all time. Holmes has appeared in comic strips, video games, manga, offbeat comedies, stage, radio shows, screen, and television. There has been a Greek version of Sherlock and, more recently (speaking of overdone!) a zombie Holmes.

Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 57 short stories between 1887 and 1927, with a ten-year break (1893-1903) in which Holmes allegedly died alongside his arch-enemy, Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls. Blame the hiatus; in 1889, Connecticut actor William Gillette honed an act that gave us most of what became Basil Rathbone's shtick (pipe, deerstalker hat, cape, cocaine use, gruffness). Holmes knock-off novels appeared, the first penned by J. M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame! This is to say that Holmes was re-imagined even before his creator resurrected him in 1903 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Excuse the diversion, but the Sherlock back-story is more interesting than Mr. Holmes the film­–a much better idea than movie. In the film, it's 1947 and Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from Japan, where he called upon Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) to procure some prickly ash, whose boiled sap was believed to improve memory. Holmes desperately needs help on that score, as he is 93-years-old and suffering from memory loss bordering on dementia. Nice premise—imagine the world's keenest, most rational mind being unable to recall basics, let alone nuanced detail.  With prickly ash secured­–from the charred ruins of Hiroshima­–Holmes goes back to Sussex, where he has spent the past 30 years tending bees in his retirement. The film script is adopted from Mitch Cullin's novel, A Slight Trick of Mind, but Conan Doyle was the source for this detail; he too had Holmes collecting honey in Sussex.   

Homes tends to his bees and Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a World War II widow tends to his cottage in a role that's essentially a countrified version of Baker Street's Mrs. Hudson. The twist is that the semi-literate Munro has a whip-smart young son, Roger, who is more attracted to what's left of Holmes' once-sharp mind than to his mother's forever-dull one. You could probably predict where this is heading, and you'd be right. Among the many problems of Mr. Holmes is the utter conservatism of the plot. It spins off another common trope: that Sherlock Holmes and his cases, as publicly perceived, were largely the product of Dr. Watson's literary license. Ninety-three-year-old Holmes isn't the man in the books, though he was a very clever detective who now has unfinished business: remembering what it was about his final case that made him put down his magnifying glass and set up an apiary.

Sherlock the detective would have spotted this logical inconsistency in a New York minute. Surely he knew the answer to this mystery the moment he retired, and if he truly wanted to expiate guilt, he wouldn't have waited until he was 93! Instead we get flashback sequences as recovered memory that takes us back to the Edwardian age and a muffed attempt to resolve the case of why Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) is being deceived by his wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan). It is stitched, with rather large clumsy sewing, to a mystery of why Holmes' bees are dying, his attempt to recover his memory, and young Roger's assistance in helping him do so. Add the last detail to the discard pile of overworked tropes: precocious young lad helps crotchety old man rediscover joy.

Any production with McKellen and/or Linney is probably worth watching, but let's just say you're more likely to think of Gandalf in tweed than Sherlock Holmes in McKellen's case. Two things we know from Conan Doyle's stories–and brilliantly captured in portrayals by Benedict Cumberbatch  and Jeremy Brett (the nonpareil Holmes)­­–is that Sherlock was not a nice person, and that the misfortunes of others never induced sentimentality. Its simply too much to ask for viewers to see Holmes as a secularized version of a tortured ex-seminarian. McKellen's aged Holmes rings as false as another detail: on screen it was never cloudy or rainy in Sussex, a region that features one, the other, or both roughly two days out of three. Bah! Mr. Holmes is a sunny movie about a character whose character was defined by tempestuousness. I wasn't moved to reconsider Holmes, nor have I budged from the view that it's time to stop trying.

Rob Weir