To all reports, Ewan MacColl was a difficult man. It’s perhaps hard to believe that a man who could write as sensitive a song as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (for Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half-sister and MacColl’s third wife), the song made into a cross-genre standard by Roberta Flack in 1972, could be so uniformly feared and vilified, yet still admired. I guess it’s the usual case of ignoring the man and embracing the music, and this man, who arguably invented the UK folk boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s, had little interest in embracing any of the young acolytes drawn to his flame – he called Bob Dylan’s work “tenth-rate drivel.”
Born James Miller in Manchester, his life was a series of reinventions, as he became a communist rabble-rouser in his teens, then a George Bernard Shaw-admired playwright and, in his mid-30’s, self-acclaimed champion of a fiercely curated folk idiom, wherein such modern anachronisms as make-up for women (and possibly women in general) were decried and denied, while Dylan, Paul Simon, and others of those young acolytes were freely liberating the repertoire into their own.
Father of Kirsty MacColl, he was never much part of her upbringing, having by then left her mother for Seeger. His dynasty includes also her half-sibling, Neill MacColl, currently best known as guitarist in David Gray’s band, as well as for work with Kathryn Williams and Eddi Reader, and, notably this year, joining his brother Calum in supporting and curating his mother’s re-emergent career, with her excellent Everything Changes having been released in her 80th year, 26 years after her husband’s death. In turn, his son Jamie continues the musical heritage as a member of intelligent indie band, Bombay Bicycle Club. And Neill and Calum have done their father proud one more time in producing Joy of Living – A Tribute to Ewan MacColl.
Representing a legacy of over 300 songs, this album features a roster of almost all the great and the good of the last 30 years of UK folk and beyond, from Martin Carthy, who started his career within the spartan diktats issued by MacColl, through Paul Brady, Steve Earle, the aforementioned David Gray, Billy Bragg, Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), and many more. Seldom has there been such a roll call of talent over two discs, with not a soul present who doesn’t already have a place in my collection. The only names initially unrecognized were of members of MacColl’s grandson’s band, as mentioned above, and whom I also heartily endorse. High spot for me is actually the best-known song, “First Time etc,” here played longingly and effectively by Paul Buchanan, the Blue Nile man, channeling the empathic world-weariness of Johnny Cash’s version with a Waterboy-ish tang. Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the children of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, were close behind with their “Sweet Thames Flow Softly,” each sounding sweeter together than in their own individual right. Other standout artists include the Unthanks, whose eerie earlier takes on the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty is highly commended, and who reprise a similar spookiness here on “Cannily Cannily”; Dublin reggae-folk maverick Damien Dempsey’s “Schooldays Over”; and Martin Simpson, coasting his mid-life resurgence as the guitarist’s (acoustic) guitarist, showing a newfound vocal confidence on “Father’s Song.” A special mention also for the return, after a long illness, of doughty matriarch of the Waterson/Carthy diaspora, Norma Waterson, the family represented here also by husband Martin (Carthy, as above), daughter Eliza (Carthy) and niece Marry (Waterson.) Her take on “Moving On Song” is stark and compelling.
I could go on and on and on, wishing I had the space and your indulgence. As well as being way better a tribute, perhaps, than the man himself deserves, this record could equally serve as a who’s-who in the UK-folk-tinged world (no disrespect intended to Texan Earle, Irishmen Brady, Dempsey and Christy Moore, as well as Canadian Chaim Tannenbaum, longterm McGarrigle sidesman). I can happily say this represents each artist at the very top of their game, several never sounding quite this good, and could (should?) provide a good starting point for a search through their wider repertoires. And I implore that you do. Really.
What, I wonder, would MacColl himself think of it? Not much, I suspect and fear; as his rules demand voice, guitar and banjo, no more, no less, these sensitive arrangements and interpretations would seem to have, at least to his ears, far too much polish and charm. For which I mean oodles of both. But were he a man for reflection, he might consider this: how else ever would anyone deign to return to his originals in this 21st century? Not me, for sure, until now, as these songs are crafted with such lyrical and melodic expertise as to give a lasting reappraisal that will live way on beyond half-remembered slow dances to Roberta Flack. Who knew? I might just now, but I suspect it will be these versions I will return to again and again.
For me, as a folkie and a Brit, Joy of Living is a no-brainer, both album of the year and my pick for this site’s best covers LP of the year. Ten cheers to Cooking Vinyl for putting out this wonderful record.
Joy of Living tracklisting:
Schooldays Over (Damien Dempsey)
I’m Champion At Keeping ‘Em Rolling (Martin Carthy)
Cannily, Cannily (The Unthanks)
The Shoals Of Herring (Seth Lakeman)
The Exile Song (Marry Waterson)
The Young Birds (Jack Steadman and Jamie MacColl – Bombay Bicycle Club)
Jamie Foyers (Dick Gaughan)
Thirty-Foot Trailer (Eliza Carthy)
My Old Man (Chaim Tannenbaum)
Dirty Old Town (Steve Earle)
The Battle Is Done With (Jarvis Cocker)
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Paul Buchanan)
Freeborn Man (Paul Brady)
Moving On Song (Norma Waterson)
The Terror Time (Karine Polwart)
The Father’s Song (Martin Simpson)
The Compañeros (Christy Moore)
Kilroy Was Here (Billy Bragg)
Sweet Thames, Flow Softly (Rufus and Martha Wainwright)
Alone (Kathryn Williams)
The Joy Of Living (David Gray)
Joy of Living is available from Amazon.