The Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl – Various Artists
Fifty years ago, at the height of Ireland’s so-called ‘ballad boom’, The Johnstons had a number one hit with Ewan McColl’s ‘The Travelling People’. The following year Paul Brady joined the group, which had started out as three Johnston siblings. So it’s a pleasure to hear Brady’s hearty version of the song – here called ‘Freeborn Man’ – on the double CD album issued in autumn 2015 to mark the centenary of Ewan MacColl’s birth.
Brady’s is one of four songs from MacColl’s 1964 BBC Radio Ballads ‘The Travelling People’ set. Of these Karine Polwart’s ‘The Terror Time’ is the strongest, and indeed it is the standout track from an excellent album.
She is one of the younger artists featured. As well as Paul Brady, the album features long-established singers like Christy Moore, English folk veterans Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson (and their daughter Eliza Carty), plus Scottish legend Dick Gaughan (a typically fiery and passionate ‘Jamie Foyers’, one of MacColl’s earliest compositions, about a Scot who died in the Spanish Civil War).
It is the younger artists who, surprisingly perhaps, bring most to the set. Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche do a fabulous version of ‘Sweet Thames, Flow Softly’, for example. It would surely have pleased MacColl to see the tradition being carried on.
MacColl was a master of the simple direct lyric. He did not believe in art for art’s sake, rather that songs, theatre and other artforms must aid the cause. In ‘The Moving On Song’ he contrasts the lot of a traveller baby with the Christ child
“Born at the back of a blackthorn hedge
When the white hoarfrost lay all around
No wise men came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift . . .”
“The wise men came so stern and strict
And brought the order to evict”
Other highlights here are two of MacColl’s lesser-known songs:
‘The Father’s Song’, in a great version by Martin Simpson, is both
a lullaby for a son, and a no-punches-pulled indictment of the social order that son will soon encounter.
“Stop crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons of bitches”
Kathryn Williams’ ‘Alone’, written after MacColl met a teenage girl on the streets of Salford in the 1960s, is hauntingly beautiful.