9. Ewan MacColl – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly (1965)

This is a plaque in front of an oak tree in Russell Square:

It may be a little tough to make out in this photo, but it reads: “Ewan MacColl, 25.1.1915 – 22.10.1989. Folk Laureate, Singer, Dramatist, Marxist. This oak tree was planted in recognition of the strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism. Presented by his communist friends with the kind assistance of the London Borough of Camden on the 75th anniversary of his birth 25.1.1990”

It’s hard to imagine finding a plaque of this sort anywhere in America, where the word “socialist” is used more often as a pejorative slur than as a description of politics and where, of course, “Marxism” and “communism” lie entirely beyond the pale. Americans tend to believe that there are huge differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, but to much of the rest of the world, the American political spectrum seems really quite narrow, with the Democrats hovering slightly right-of-centre and the Republicans entrenched a few steps further to the right.  (I suppose the Tea Party has broadened the spectrum somewhat in recent years, although only in one direction…)

Not so in the UK, where the political spectrum is genuinely a spectrum and where the left remains a robust and viable option for voters. The Labour Party, who traditionally have been unapologetically socialist (although they lurched somewhat toward the mamby-pamby middle during the Blair years), managed to form governments from 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, and 1997-2010 — and so the past 66 years have been pretty much evenly divided between Labour and Conservative governments. There is a third prominent party as well, the Liberal Democrats, who are a centrist party. There hasn’t been a Liberal majority government since the First World War, but they remain a decisive factor in UK politics: if the vote splits 40/40/20, for example (as it often does), the balance of power hangs with them.

The legacy of Labour governments in the 20th century is impressive, and perhaps most notable of all is the legacy of the Attlee government (1945-51), which brought into being the National Health program as well as dozens of other nationalized industries. The current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, seems to be promising a return to form for Labour, disentangling the party from the interests of big business and shifting its political focus back to the left. He’s a little boring as a speaker, unfortunately, but his platform is radical and exciting. Someone to watch.

In any case, back to the folk laureate/singer/dramatist/Marxist Ewan MacColl, who generated a staggering body of work in a variety of media from the 1930s through the 1980s. Perhaps most impressive is his monumental string of recordings of English and Scottish ballads — he released a few LPs every year over three decades cataloguing traditional folksongs of the British Isles. If ever anyone was overdue for a comprehensive and substantial box set, it’s MacColl.

Alongside recording hundreds of traditional songs, he also wrote some 300 tunes of his own, some of them very political, some of them simply lovely, like “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly.”  Sadly, I can’t find a youtube clip of MacColl’s version (or even one of the Critics’ Group, who did a recording under MacColl’s direction in 1966.) But here’s a clip instead of Irish folksinger Christy Moore playing the song, with Sinead O’Connor on backing vocals:

And if you’re interested, here’s another version performed by Rufus Wainwright and friends (among them, MacColl’s son Calum MacColl and Rufus’s annoying sister Martha) this past summer in London.

For the curious among you, we might also note that MacColl was married to Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-sister, and one of his children is Kirsty MacColl, who will likely turn up on this list once we get to the 1980s. (It seems there’s a lot of interbreeding between folk music dynasties that goes on at folk festivals.)

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl


3 thoughts on “9. Ewan MacColl – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly (1965)

  1. Jordan says:

    Just a note about the political parties… the current government is in fact a coalition of the Conservative’s and Liberal Democrats. So despite having a Tory PM, the Deputy PM is Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems. Within the coalition, “things are hotting up” recently with some grandstanding by Clegg:

    ‘In a speech in which he described the Conservatives as “our political enemies”, the leader underlined the party’s mission to assert a “distinct Liberal Democrat voice” on government policies.

    The deputy prime minister, who has previously been accused of becoming too cosy with Tory leader David Cameron, stressed that the Lib Dems and the Tories “have not become the same and we never will”.’


  2. Sophie says:

    Ewan MacColl released many albums with the legendary record label Topic Records, based in North London and recently experiencing a revival after celebrating their 70th anniversary with this amazing compilation.
    To paraphrase from their website: Topic had its roots in the Workers Music Association (a Marxist/Socialist organisation), can be traced back to 1939. In those days, the organisation fostered a belief that music should be used as a tool of revolution, in a cultural and educational sense, and that folk music, passed down through the generations, above all, gave ‘a voice to the people’. The first song in the catalogue is Paddy Ryan’s The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer. Other early releases were influenced by the work of Ewan MacColl (singer and composer of Dirty Old Town, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face etc.) and A.L.Lloyd (singer and historian).

    Folk musicians in Britain are increasingly returning to political involvement, particularly as far-right parties such as the British National Party and the UK Independence Party use folk songs to promote themselves and their racist, nationalist ideology. Led by Billy Bragg, Folk Against Fascism keeps alive the socialist and multicultural heritage that defines British folk music. They often have lively protest concerts in London as part of marches against the far-right: a good chance to see some of the folk music family for free!

    For more in-depth knowledge of English folk music and dance (including workshops, if you’ve ever wanted to morris dance!), Cecil Sharp House in Camden (very close to the epicentre of London’s rock and alternative culture) is well worth a visit. It’s the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, whose current president is folk singer Shirley Collins, a good friend of Ewan MacColl (through whom she met American folk music historian and Communist Alan Lomax, in Britain to avoid HUAC); the vice-president is singer-fiddler Eliza Carthy, daughter of the Waterson-Carthy folk dynasty.

  3. Allison Outhit says:

    When you get around to Kirsty MacColl (may she RIP), I hope you’ll consider “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sunny Jim”, a great pop/country song with, you have to agree, a terrific title.

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