James Henry Miller (1915 – 1989), better known by his stage name Ewan MacColl, was an England born, Scottish folk singer, songwriter, communist, labour activist, actor, poet, playwright, and record producer.
MacColl was born as James Henry Miller in Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, England, UK, to Scottish parents, William and Betsy (née Henry) Miller. William Miller was an iron moulder and militant trade unionist who had moved to Salford with his wife, a charwoman, to look for work after being blacklisted in almost every foundry in Scotland. They lived amongst a group of Scots and Jimmy was brought up in an atmosphere of fierce political debate interspersed with the large repertoire of songs and stories his parents had brought from Scotland. He was educated at Grecian Street School in Salford. He left school in 1930 after an elementary education, during the Great Depression and, joining the ranks of the unemployed, began a lifelong programme of self-education whilst keeping warm in the Manchester Public Library. During this period he found intermittent work in a number of jobs and also made money as a street singer.
He joined the Young Communist League and a socialist amateur theatre troupe, the Clarion Players. He began his career as a writer helping produce, and contributing humorous verse and skits to some of the Communist Party’s factory papers. He was an activist in the unemployed workers campaigns and the mass trespasses of the early 1930s.
In 1932 the British intelligence service, MI5, opened a file on MacColl, after local police asserted that he was “a communist with very extreme views” who needed “special attention”. For a time the Special Branch kept a watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his wife Joan Littlewood. MI5 caused some of MacColl’s songs to be rejected by the BBC, and prevented the employment of Littlewood as a BBC children’s programme presenter.
In 1931, with other unemployed members of the Clarion Players he formed an agit-prop theatre group, the “Red Megaphones”. During 1934 they changed the name to “Theatre of Action” and not long after were introduced to a young actress recently moved up from London. This was Joan Littlewood who became Miller’s wife and work partner. In 1936, after a failed attempt to relocate to London, the couple returned to Manchester, and formed the Theatre Union.
In 1940 a performance of The Last Edition – a ‘living newspaper’ – was halted by the police and Miller and Littlewood were bound over for two years for breach of the peace. The necessities of wartime brought an end to Theatre Union. MacColl enlisted in the British Army during July 1940, but deserted in December. Why he did so, and why he was not prosecuted after the war, remain a mystery. In an interview in June 1987, he said that he was expelled for “anti-fascist activity”. Allan Moore and Giovanni Vacca wrote that MacColl had been subject to Special Observation whilst in the King’s Regiment, owing to his political views, and that the records show that, rather than being discharged, he was declared a deserter on 18th December 1940.
In 1946 members of Theatre Union and others formed Theatre Workshop and spent the next few years touring, mostly in the north of England.
During this period MacColl’s enthusiasm for folk music grew. Inspired by the example of Alan Lomax, who had arrived in Britain and Ireland in 1950, and had done extensive fieldwork there, MacColl also began to collect and perform traditional ballads. His long involvement with Topic Records started in 1950 with his release of a single, “The Asphalter’s Song”, on that label. When, in 1953 Theatre Workshop decided to relocate to Stratford, London, MacColl, who had opposed that move, left the company and changed the focus of his career from acting and playwriting to singing and composing folk and topical songs.
Over the years MacColl recorded and produced upwards of a hundred albums, many with English folk song collector and singer A.L. Lloyd. The pair released an ambitious series of eight LP albums of some 70 of the 305 Child Ballads. MacColl produced a number of LPs with Irish singer songwriter Dominic Behan, a brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.
In 1956, MacColl caused a scandal when he fell in love with 21-year-old Peggy Seeger, who had come to England to transcribe the music for Alan Lomax’s anthology Folk Songs of North America (published in 1961). At the time MacColl, who was twenty years older than Peggy, was still married to his second wife, the dancer Jean Newlove (b. 1923), the mother of two of his children, Hamish (b. 1950) and Kirsty (1959–2000).
In 1959, MacColl began releasing LP albums on Folkways Records, including several collaborative albums with Peggy Seeger.
MacColl was one of the main composers of English protest songs during the folk revival of the 1950s/60s. In the early fifties he penned “The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh” (well known even today in Vietnam) and (less presentably) “The Ballad of Stalin” for the British Communist Party.
Joe Stalin was a mighty man and a mighty man was he
He led the Soviet people on the road to victory.
MacColl soon became ashamed of this and it was never reissued. In 1992, after his death, Peggy Seeger included it, rather apologetically, in her Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook.
MacColl sang and composed numerous protest and topical songs for the nuclear disarmament movement, for example “Against the Atom Bomb”. He also wrote “The Ballad of Tim Evans” (also known as “Go Down You Murderer”) a song protesting capital punishment, based on a famous murder case in which an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was condemned and executed, before the real culprit was discovered.
In his last interview in August 1988, MacColl stated that he still believed in a socialist revolution and that the communist parties of the west had become too moderate. He stated that he had been a member of the Communist Party but left because he felt that the Soviet Union was “not communist or socialist enough”.
MacColl himself wrote over 300 songs, some of which have been recorded by artists (in addition to those mentioned above) such as Planxty, The Dubliners, Dick Gaughan, Phil Ochs, The Clancy Brothers, Elvis Presley, Weddings Parties Anything, and Johnny Cash.
After many years of poor health (in 1979 he suffered the first of many heart attacks), MacColl died on 22 October 1989, in the Brompton Hospital, in London, after complications following heart surgery. His autobiography Journeyman was published the following year. The lifetime archive of his work with Peggy Seeger and others was passed on to Ruskin College in Oxford.
“The Manchester Rambler”, also known as “I’m a Rambler” and “The Rambler’s Song” is one of his best-known songs, written in 1932. It was inspired by his participation in the Kinder trespass, a protest by the urban Young Communist League of Manchester, and was the work that began MacColl’s career as a singer/songwriter of the trespass. Cover versions were performed and recorded by dozens of folk musicians from the 1950s onwards.
The Kinder mass trespass was a deliberate act of civil disobedience (the law of trespass having already been repealed) by men of the Young Communist League of Manchester, and others from Sheffield. The protest was intended to secure free access to England’s mountains and moorlands. The ‘ramblers’, led by Benny Rothman, walked from Bowden Bridge Quarry, near Hayfield to climb the hill called Kinder Scout in the Derbyshire Peak District on 24 April 1932. A young man called James Henry Miller, better known as Ewan MacColl, was a keen rambler and an enthusiastic member of the Young Communist League. He played a major part in organising the publicity for the trespass, duplicating and handing out leaflets, though this role is disputed. He took part in the trespass, and was shocked by the violent reaction of the gamekeepers who met the ramblers on the hill, and the extremely harsh sentences handed down by the magistrates to the five ramblers who were arrested that day. What MacColl did not know was that the protest was to have a powerful long-term effect, leading to improved access to the countryside in the shape of national parks (from 1949), long-distance footpaths starting with the Pennine Way (opened in 1965) and various forms of the desired ‘right to roam’ (such as with the CRoW Act, 2000).
MacColl performed the song as a standard all his life.
The Encyclopaedia of Contemporary British Culture describes Ewan MacColl as “a crucial figure” in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and names “The Manchester Rambler” as one of his “more famous songs”.
This version of “The Manchester Rambler” was released in 1983 on “Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – Freeborn Man” album and it’s named “I’m A Rambler”. MacColl is assisted on vocals by his wife, the folk singer Peggy Seeger.