Folk singer Martin Carthy examines the rise and fall of Ewan MacColl’s Critics Group.
Immediately after the success of the BBC Radio Ballads, Ewan MacColl set about the Herculean task of trying to drag British folk music into mainstream culture. Frustrated by the dreary amateurishness of folk song performance, he decided to establish his own centre of excellence to professionalise the art. He called it “The Critics Group”. MacColl tutored select artists “to sing folk songs the way they should be sung” and to think about the origins of what they were singing. He introduced Stanislavski technique and Laban theory into folk performance and explored style, content and delivery. BBC producer Charles Parker recorded these sessions to aid group analysis. 40 years on, the tapes have come to light. For the first time, a clear sound picture can be constructed of this influential group in action. Former group members Peggy Seeger, Sandra Kerr, Frankie Armstrong, Richard Snell, Brian Pearson and Phil Colclough recount six frantic years of rehearsing, performing and criticising each other. They recall the powerful hold that Ewan MacColl exerted which was eventually to lead to the collapse of the group in acrimony and blame. Presenter Martin Carthy MBE, now an elder statesman of the British folk music scene, shared many of McColl’s ambitions but didn’t join the group himself. He listens to the recordings and assesses the legacy of MacColl’s controversial experiment. Producers: Genevieve Tudor and Chris Eldon Lee A Culture Wise Production for BBC Radio 4
It is nearly 30 since Ewan MacColl died and other recording labels have stolen a march in the issuing of compilation CD’s in the meantime so this collection of his recordings for the Topic label is perhaps long overdue. It is, nevertheless, an interesting collection and a worthy snapshot of his folk singing career. Sadly, the Radio Ballads, perhaps some of MacColl’s most influential work, are absent from this collection – they were issued by Argo Records – but there is still much here that reminds us of his powerful influence in the early days of the folk revival, an influence which prompted one obituary to describe him as the godfather of the folk revival. The material also reflects what Peggy Seeger has described as ‘the policy’ from The Ballads and Blues Club (a title that says much about the material that was performed in those early days of the revival) which MacColl founded in 1953 with a few kindred spirits, namely when you’re onstage you sing folk songs from your own culture. There are songs here which reflect MacColl’s highly politicised upbringing in Lancashire to Scottish parents and the lives of what politicians are wont to describe these days as ‘ordinary working people’ (sic).
The album opens with an early recording – it dates from 1952 – of perhaps his most famous composition, Dirty Old Town, written in 1949, about Salford, the city of his birth. Even at this early stage in his recording career, his characteristic quavering voice is very much in evidence, helped along with a slightly bluesy guitar accompaniment [ . . . ]
Sea shanty featuring Ewan MacColl as lead and A.L. Lloyd backing. Taken from the cassette musical film score album, “Whaler Out of New Bedford: Based on the Original Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, And Other Songs of the Whaling Era.” (YouTube)