Many people won’t have heard of James Henry Miller. However, they will have heard of Ewan McColl. He was one of the greatest folk musicians of his generation. However, Ewan McColl was much more than a musician.

Ewan McColl was also an actor, playwright, poet, record producer and political activist. He was a card carrying Communist, and trade union activist. Politics played an important part in the Miller household.

James Henry Miller was born on 25th January 1915, in Broughton, Salford. However, James should’ve been born in Scotland. 

The Miller family were proud Scots. William, James’ father was an iron moulder. He was also a militant trade unionist, a political firebrand. This didn’t go down well with those who ran the foundry. They sacked William Miller, who was then blacklisted from every foundry in Scotland. For William Miller, the only option was to take the road south.

Next stop for the Miller family was Salford, near Manchester. That was where the family settled, amongst many other Scots who had headed south in search of a new life. For the Millers, their new life was tinged with tragedy and heartache.

Of the four children born to the Millers, only Jimmy survived. He grew up in a fiercely political household, and lived through the Great Depression. By 1930, fifteen year old James Henry Miller left Grecian Street School, in Salford and joined the massed ranks of the unemployed. 

With millions unemployed, it was almost impossible for a fifteen year old with a basic education to find work. Occasionally, James found work casual work. Other times, he made money as a street singer. However, when he was unemployed, James was determined to further his education.

Like many working class people before, and after him, James set about educating himself. He spent long periods at the Manchester Public Library, building on the basic education he had received. It was around this time, the James became politically active.

The young James Miller joined the Young Communist League, and the Clarion Players, who were a socialist amateur theatre troupe. Soon, James was writing for the Communist Party’s factory papers. He also became an activist amongst the unemployed workers campaign. Then in 1932, seventeen year old James Miller was part of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout. 

Just like many working class people, James believed people had the right to roam. Why should they be denied access to the countryside on their doorstep? So James joined activist Benny Rothman, who lead the mass trespass of Kinder Scout. Little did he realise that people were taking note of his political activities.

MI5, the British secret service decided to open a file on James in 1932. He came to their attention, after the local police reported that James Henry Miller was: “a communist with very extreme views.” Despite being only seventeen, the police advised that James required “special attention.” This however, didn’t stop James from being politically active.

Quite the opposite. Throughout the thirties, James used theatre  to deliver a political message. This began in 1931, when he formed the Red Megaphones, an agitprop theatre company. They changed their name to Theatre of Action in 1934. Not long after this, James met his first wife, actress Joan Littlewood. 

She had moved from London to Manchester. That was where James met Joan Littlewood. They worked together in Manchester, and later were married. It was then that they moved to London, but returned to Manchester in 1936, where they founded the Theatre Union. This became a vehicle for the couple’s agitprop.

By 1940, controversy surround James and Joan Littlewood. They were performing The Last Edition, which they referred to as a living newspaper. It didn’t shy away from controversy. This resulted in a show being raided by police, and James and Joan Littlewood being arrested. They were were charged with breach of the peace, and bound over for two year. However, by the time two years had passed, James had had a less than enjoyable dalliance with the army.

In July 1940, James enlisted in the British Army. By 18th December, he had deserted, never to return. Since then, there has been debate whether James Miller deserted or was discharged? James later claimed to had been thrown out of the army for “anti-fascist activities.” His activities were certainly scrutinised during his brief spell with the army. 

Following the end of World War II, the Theatre Union became the The Theatre Workshop. It was during this time, that James Miller became Ewan McColl. This was a period of change.

When The Theatre Union became the the Theatre Workshop, they were a much more professional troupe. Despite this they were always short of money. As the Theatre Workshop spent the next few years travelling the north of England life was hard for James and Joan Littlewood. However, gradually, they were forging a reputation as one of the best theatre groups in the north of England. It was around this time, that Ewan McColl’s love of folk music blossomed.

Alan Lomax, the American folklorist and ethnomusicologist visited Britain and Ireland in 1950. He had spent a lifetime collecting field recordings of various musical genres. The example set by Alan Lomax inspired Ewan McColl, who began to perform and collect traditional ballads. 

Later in 1950, Ewan McColl released his debut single, The Asphalter’s Song on Topic Records. Little did anyone realise, that this was the start of a musical career that saw Ewan McColl perform and produce in excess of a hundred albums. By his death in 1989, Ewan McColl had influenced two generations of artists. Nowadays, a new generation of artists continue to cite Ewan McColl as an inspiration. Many of these artists feature on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl, which was recently released by Cookin’ Vinyl. 

Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl is a double album featuring twenty-one Ewan McColl compositions. They’re covered by the great and good of music. This includes The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan, Steve Earle and Irish troubadours Paul Brady and Christy Moore. Fittingly, there’s appearances from folk royalty, including Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Simpson. Scotland’s Karine Polwart and Kathryn Williams are welcome inclusions. So are Rufus and Martha Wainwright. It looks like a fitting tribute to a man who many forget, was much more that a musician.

Having released his debut single, there was no looking back for Ewan McColl. His career blossomed, and took off in 1956, a year that was a controversial one for Ewan McColl.

In 1956, Ewan McColl met twenty-one year old Peggy Seeger. She was accompanying Alan Lomax, and transcribing music for his book Folk Songs of North America. Ewan McColl was a forty-one year old married man, with two children.

No longer was Ewan McColl married to Joan Littlewood. He was still married to his second wife, dancer Jean Newlove. The couple had two children, Hamish who was six and Kirsty was just three. This just fuelled the controversy of the burgeoning relationship between Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger. 

Eventually, Peggy Seeger returned home. On her return home, she got a part in a play. There was a problem though. Peggy Seeger needed a song for the play. So, she asked Ewan McColl to write one. The result was his classic song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It became a favourite of folk singers, including Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger. They sang the song in folk clubs across Britain. After that, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was covered by countless artists, including Roberta Flack. Her version won Ewan McColl a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1973. At last, Ewan McColl had received the recognition he had deserved.

Since writing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in 1956, much had happened to Ewan McColl. He was now a successful recording artist, and had released over forty albums. This included numerous collaborations with Peggy Seeger. Other Ewan McColl albums featured music that varied from deeply maudlin, romantic and sentimental, to deeply political. Ewan McColl seemed to be setting himself up as the nation’s conscience, providing a voice for the masses. However, recording and production was only part of Ewan McColl’s life.

Away from music, Ewan McColl was still an actor, writer and poetical activist. Despite enjoying a successful career as a singer, songwriter and musician, Ewan McColl wasn’t willing to forsake what had been his first love, acting. He was one of the founders of The Critics Group in 1965. This he had hoped would become a full-time touring company. When this didn’t happened, The Critics Group fell by the wayside. Like a phoenix from the ashes, rose the Combine Theatre, which lasted into the eighties. By then, Ewan McColl’s health was failing.

In 1979, Ewan McColl suffered what was the first of numerous heart attacks. This led to a deterioration of his health. However, this didn’t stop Ewan McColl becoming politically active during the miner’s strike between 1984 and 1985. Despite his perilous health, Ewan McColl was deeply supportive of the National Union Of Mineworkers. One of the song he wrote during the strike, was Daddy, What Did You Do In The Strike? which pilloried the scabs or strikebreakers. This was just one of many songs Ewan McColl wrote during the strike. It ended in 1985, and sadly, four years later, Ewan McColl was dead.

On 22nd October 1989, Ewan McColl died in Brompton Hospital, London, following heart surgery. After ten years where he suffered countless heart attacks, Ewan McColl died aged seventy-four. He wrote 300 songs during his career, and released over 100 albums. Many of these albums featured searing political and social commentary. Some of these songs feature on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl.

Looking at the track listing to Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl, it’s obvious that Ewan McColl’s music is held in such high regard. Some of the biggest names in music have turned out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ewan McColl’s birth. This includes Paul Buchanan, Paul Brady, Christy Moore, Steve Earle, Eliza Carthy, Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. They’re joined by Karine Polwart, Kathryn Williams, Martin Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Dick Gaughan, Jarvis Cocker, The Unthanks and Marry Waterson. Each of these artists reworks and reinvents some of Ewan McColl’s best known songs. These tracks were produced by Ewan McColl’s grandchildren, Calum and Neil. They ensure that each track takes on new life and meaning.

That’s not surprising. The artists who feature on  Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl all come from very different musical backgrounds. There’s everything Britpop to Americana, country and folk to indie pop and rock. They all come with one thing in mind, to pay homage to Ewan McColl on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McCoy.

Disc One.

Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey opens Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl with a cover of Schooldays Over. There’s a mixture of trepidation and hope in Damien’s voice on this traditional folk song. It paints pictures of fifteen year old Ewan McColl, leaving the schoolyard behind, and heading for the pit.

Devon-based folk singer Seth Lakeman is a veteran of seven solo albums. His experience is put to good use on what’s an impassioned cover of The Shoals Of Herring. He and his band stay true to the song, combining traditional and acoustic instrumentals effectively, on this beautiful cover version.

Marry Waterson may be a new name to many people. However, she had a good musical pedigree, and part of the Waterson folk dynasty. Previously, Marry has collaborated on two albums with Oliver Knight. The most recent was Hidden, released in 2012. However, Marry steps out of the shadows on The Exile Song, a traditional folk ballad which seems tailor-made for her vocal. 

Thirty-Foot Trailer is given a makeover by Eliza Carthy, the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. They both appear on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl. However, Eliza Carthy more than deserves her place on the compilation. She is one of the most talented folk singers of the past twenty years. That becomes apparent on Thirty-Foot Trailer, which has a much more traditional folk sound. Just a dulcimer, mandolin and backing vocals accompany. Among the backing vocalists are Eliza’s mother. It’s as if the baton is passing from one generation to another on Thirty-Foot Trailer.

Dirty Old Town has been covered by a number of artists. One of the best known, was The Pogues version. Briefly, Steve Earle’s cover of Dirty Old Town seems to reference that version. Soon, Steve’s combining elements of folk, country and Americana. He makes the song his own, not so much delivering the lyrics, but living them.

has to be one of the highlights of disc one of Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl. Folk, country and Americana can be heard as Dirty Old Town unfolds. 

Disc Two.

Many artists have covered The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, but former Blue Nile frontman reinvents the song. The tormented troubadour serenades his way through the song, all the time, memories come flooding back. Accompanied by a minimalist arrangement, it’s a hauntingly beautiful reworking of a  classic. It’s without doubt, one of the highlights of Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl.

Paul Brady’s cover of Freeborn Man is quite different to what many expect of the Irish troubadour. Gone is the folk-rock sound of his eighties heyday. Replacing it, is a much more traditional, understated folk-tinged, backdrop. This allows allowing listeners to concentrate on Paul’s impassioned vocal. He seems to embraces the role of the Freeborn Man. So much so, that the lyrics take on a cinematic quality. 

For far too long, Karine Polwart has been one of folk music’s best kept secrets. That’s despite releasing six albums. However, Karine’s music is beginning to find a wider audience. She straddles the line between singer and storyteller, and makes the lyrics to The Terror Time take on new life and meaning.

Christy Moore might be seventy, but he’s lost none of his enthusiasm for music. That becomes apparent, as he delivers what can only be described as an impassioned and defiant version of The Companeros.

My final choice from Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl is Kathryn Williams’ cover of Alone. Kathryn has released nine solo albums, plus a collaboration with Neil MacColl. Her most recent album Hypoxia was released earlier in 2015. It’s one of her finest albums. On Alone, she delivers a wistful, melancholy vocal, with just guitar for company. That would’ve been the perfect way to close the compilation. 

Sadly, that wasn’t case. Closing Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl was David Gray’s cover of The Joy Of Living. It’s one of the weakest tracks on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl down. However, it’s not alone. Billy Bragg’s Kilroy Was Here is an utterly forgettable track that will have you reaching for the remote control. So will Jarvis Cocker’s version of The Battle Is Done With. The former Britpop star sounds like a third-rate Tom Waits’ impersonator. Mostly though, Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl is a fitting way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ewan McColl’s birth.

Especially with artists of the stature of The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan, Steve Earle, Paul Brady and Christy Moore, Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson Eliza Carthy and Martin Simpson. Along with Karine Polwart and Kathryn Williams, they play their part in what’s a fitting celebration of one of the most influential folk singers of the past sixty years. He penned over 300 songs, and recorded over 100 albums. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

Away from music, Ewan McColl was a writer, actor and political activist. He never shied away from controversy, and sometimes, that proved costly. At one time, BBC radio were loath to play Ewan McColl’s songs on radio. He was seen as an political extremist. However, in reality, Ewan McColl had principles, and possessed something many other musicians of his era didn’t have, a social and political conscience. That was clear in his music, much of which is still relevant in 2015. It’s reworked on Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl, which was recently released on Cookin’ Vinyl. Maybe, Joy Of Living-A Tribute To Ewan McColl will introduce a new generation of music lovers to the music of Ewan McColl, singer, songwriter, actor, writer and political activist.



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