It is hard to believe that 68 years have passed since Ewan MacColl wrote perhaps his second best known song, Dirty Old Town. MacColl composed compellingly on many subjects, from the challenges of modern society to travelling people and the anti-social ways of landowners to the everyday lives of trawlermen, tunnel labourers and apprentice fitters.
He was a demanding character; our folk club in Bishop Auckland had to drop plans to book him at sight of his list of conditions about nature and composition of the makeshift stage and audience discipline. Which of many versions of Dirty Old Town would have won his approval? Some readers may know the answer. Bill Taylor (that's him above) offers his own preferences for the Cover Story series, Bill's appearances on these pages illustrating that they are open to guest contributors ...
As songwriters go, Ewan MacColl was the Paul McCartney of folk music.
McCartney has churned out upwards of 200 songs, some profound, some beautiful and some downright annoying… “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime…”
MacColl, too, could knock you off a good, bad or indifferent ditty at the drop of a herring fisherman’s sou’wester, to suit whatever the socially unjust or otherwise significant situation.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. But the man even almost out-McCartneyed McCartney with, of all things, a pop song.
I’ve heard it said that MacColl came up with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face after betting someone he could pen a chart-topping hit.
In reality, he wrote it for Peggy Seeger – later to become his wife – in 1957 and the couple sang it in folk clubs all over Britain. Roberta Flack first recorded it in 1969 but it wasn’t until three years later that a different version won her two Grammy awards and became Billboard magazine’s song of the year.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face has been recorded by more than 100 people. But it’s two versions of another well-covered song that I want to compare.
To me, Dirty Old Town is one of MacColl’s best, though it was done (back in 1949; hard to believe) simply as a between-scenes fill-in for a play he’d written.
The song is about Salford where MacColl (real name James Henry Miller) was born and raised. The line usually rendered as “I smelled the spring on the smoky wind” was changed from “the Salford wind”.
It’s become a folk standard, with perhaps the Dubliners’ version most widely known. I’ve never been a huge fan of theirs and that one does nothing for me. Similarly, I find MacColl and Seeger’s original rather thin and bloodless.
But the Pogues did a lovely arrangement on their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.
From the wailing harmonica at the start to Shane MacGowan’s rough but tone-true vocals to the country-flavoured instrumental break – non-Pogue Tommy Keane front and centre on uileann pipes – this is rich and complex, full of character.
The one thing that jars is that MacGowan seems to be singing “burly old town.” Maybe it’s his teeth.
It’s not my favourite, though. That was by the Ian Campbell Folk Group on their 1965 album Contemporary Campbells.
A lovely, contemplative interpretation with the lyrics plaintively sung by Brian Clark, and Dave Swarbrick on mandolin. It’s deceptively simple; there’s a lot going on.
A mainstay of the British folk revival in the 1960s, Campbell’s group has since fallen almost out of sight. But in its heyday not only was Swarbrick a member, other notables who performed with the band included Spencer Davis, Christine McVie (Christine Perfect, as she was then) and Dave Pegg.
The group’s albums are worth seeking out, especially Contemporary Campbells and Coaldust Ballads, also released in 1965.
It includes an array of traditional Geordie “standards,” some lesser-known songs from the region and – you guessed it – a couple by Paul McCart… sorry, Ewan MacColl.
Someone must have dropped a miner’s helmet.
* Albums mentioned here can be bought from the Salut! Live Amazon record shelf. The Ian Campbell Folk Group's Contemporary Campbells, containing Dirty Old Town, can be found at this link; the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy and the Lash here. Look to the right and/or scroll down and you will find links to many other albums that have been featured at Salut! Live