Born Jimmie Miller in 1915 in Salford, Lancashire, England; died on October 22, 1989, in England; son of William Miller (an iron-moulder and trade unionist) and Betsy Hendry; married Joan Littlewood (an actress), 1934 (divorced); married Jean Newlove (a dancer), 1950 (divorced); life partnership with Peggy Seeger, 1958-89; children: five.

For nearly 60 years, Ewan MacColl, an activist and left-wing socialist, expressed his views as a playwright, social activist, songwriter and performer. During the course of his lifetime he composed a body of work that ranks among the best in the British folk genre. Among the songs he wrote that others recorded and made famous are "Dirty Old Town" (Rod Stewart, the Pogues), "Freeborn Man" (The Pogues), and his Grammy Award-winning song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a hit single for Roberta Flack in 1971, and which he wrote for his longtime collaborator and life partner, Peggy Seeger.

Born Jimmie Miller in 1915, MacColl changed his name in 1949. His parents were from Scotland and relocated to Salford, Lancashire, England, where MacColl was born. Some sources incorrectly state that MacColl was born in Scotland, which derives from a mythology MacColl devised for himself as a young man. He set the record straight for a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary shortly before his death. His parents were laborers and socialists, and were well-versed in Scottish, Irish, and English folk songs. His father spoke Scots English and his mother spoke Gaelic. In his autobiography, Journeyman, MacColl remembered his youth: "The front room is where everything happens. We eat there and entertain friends. It is the centre of our social life. The table, which is its main item of furniture, has many uses. We take our meals on it. I draw and write and play games on it after the evening meal has been cleared away. My father sits at it when he writes his notes for the union branch or when the branch holds its meetings at our house. My mother uses it for doing her ironing on and for baking."

MacColl quit school when he was 14 years old and worked briefly at a number of jobs, including factory worker, builder, mechanic, and street entertainer. During this period he wrote and edited for factory newspapers, and for a short time he wrote and performed advertising jingles for small English businesses. Because the early 1930s were a period of economic depression in many countries, including England, permanent jobs were difficult to find and unemployment was rampant. MacColl's leftist political leanings prompted him to join the hunger marches and protests of the unemployed.

In 1934 MacColl met actress Joan Littlewood, who had recently left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The young couple married and established an experimental theater in Manchester called the Theatre of Action. The following year MacColl and Littlewood moved to London to form a drama school for workers. In 1936 they founded the Theatre Union, which they called the "theatre of the people." Between 1936 and 1939 the Theatre Union produced plays throughout the industrialized northern areas of England, including works such as Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna, MacColl's adaptation of the novel The Good Soldier Schweik, and MacColl's play The Last Edition, which described many of the events leading up to World War II. Although the play was successful, it was also highly controversial in a country preparing to enter war against Germany. As a result, MacColl and Littlewood were arrested for disturbing the peace. They received a heavy fine and a parole that forbade them from participating in the theater for two years, and England's declaration of war on Germany broke up the Theatre Union. Following the war MacColl, Littlewood, and several members of the Theatre Union established the Theatre Workshop. During this phase of his career MacColl earned a reputation as a playwright of note, earning the respect of fellow socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "Apart from myself, MacColl is the only man of genius writing for the theatre in England today." By 1952 several of his plays had been translated into many different languages. His marriage to Littlewood, however, had dissolved, and MacColl married dancer Jean Newlove in 1950. He turned his focus from the theater to music.

In 1953 MacColl founded the Ballads and Blues Club with, among others, Alan Lomax, Seamus Ennis, and Bert Lloyd. Later known as the Singers Club, the venue became an important location in the folk revival that was gaining prominence in England. His relationship with Newlove ended, but not before the couple had two children, Hamish and Kirsty, both of whom grew up to be musical performers. In 1956 MacColl first met Peggy Seeger, an American multi-instrumentalist, sister of folk musician Mike Seeger, and half-sister of American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. Twenty years her senior and still married to Newlove, MacColl eventually became entwined in a romantic and personal relationship with Seeger. In 1958 they met again and performed as a recording duo, and then became life partners for the remainder of MacColl's life. MacColl and Seeger collaborated with Charles Parker to produce BBC radio documentaries on current events. The trio blended sound effects, taped speeches, and newly written and traditional folk songs into finished products that became known as "folk documentaries." By now considered one of the elder statesmen of English language folk music, MacColl was among the old guard who disparaged Bob Dylan's electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s.

For the next several years MacColl recorded folk albums as a solo artist and as a partner with Seeger. He also worked as a script and music writer for various BBC projects. In 1965 he and Seeger established the Critics Group, which consisted of singers schooled in folk music and theatrical techniques, such as Frankie Armstrong, Anne Briggs, and John Faulkner. The group produced the Festival of Fools for five consecutive years. During these festivals the group musically recapped the news from each of the respective years. Seeger and MacColl also collaborated on producing anthologies of British Isles folk music, including Travellers' Songs of England and Scotland and Doomsday in the Afternoon. MacColl also collaborated with Howard Goorney on Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop, a collection of political playscripts and the pair's reminiscences of the Theatre Workshop.

Because MacColl recorded extensively for smaller labels that have since ceased doing business, much of his work is out of print and difficult to locate. He authored more than 300 songs, 200 of which are included in the Peggy Seeger-edited The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook. He suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1979, but recovered enough to finish his final play, The Shipmaster, in 1980. He received an honorary degree from the University of Exeter in 1987. Ewan MaColl died in 1989. In 1991 he was posthumously awarded an honorary degree by the University of Salford. His autobiography, Journeyman, was published in 1990. In the book MacColl recalled his life: "I have been engaged throughout my life in work that I love. I wanted to write plays and I did so. I wanted to work in a theater which I helped to create and I did so. I wanted to write songs and sing and I have done that too.... I have had the thrill and satisfaction of taking part in working-class struggle."

by Bruce Walker

Ewan MacColl's Career

Formed the Theatre of Action with first wife Joan Littlewood, 1934; formed Theatre Union, 1936; wrote and staged play Last Edition, 1939; established Theatre Workshop, 1945; changed name from Jimmie Miller to Ewan MacColl, 1949; founded the Ballads and Blues Club, 1953; founded Critics Group with Peggy Seeger, 1965; wrote last play, The Shipmaster, 1980; died in 1989.

Ewan MacColl's Awards

Grammy Award, Song of the Year for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," 1972.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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