Monday, 19 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 95. Song of a Road

Top 102 Albums. No 95. 
Song of a Road - Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger

Ewan MacColl is now probably best known as the writer of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town, either of which would guarantee the debased immortality available to us poor sons of Adam.

I could have selected one of Ewan's albums of the Child Ballads or of Sea Shanties but for me the most extraordinary albums he produced were the Radio Ballads, in collaboration with Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger. These records share Harry Partch's fascination with the voice and are made up of sound collages and songs, the songs often arising directly out of the interviews with which they are intercut.
This seems to bring together a lot of strands. MacColl, like Alan Lomax and Séamus Ennis, was a great collector of songs and here it is as if he was collecting the very life itself from which the songs arose.

I have picked Song of a Road, which is about the building of the M1 motorway in part because of the way it acts as a monument to the many Irish labourers who provided so many of the two footed machines that helped to build this and many other Irish roads. It also provides a template for The Irishmen, a Radio Ballad for TV which Charles Parker made in collaboration with the great second generation Irish documentarian Philip Donnellan. It also includes the voice of Séamus Ennis, whose influence on Irish and British folk music can hardly be exaggerated.  His BBC Radio series, As I Roved Out was a key influence on MacColl and Charles Parker.

But, personal interests and historical importance aside this is an extraordinary achievement which never loses its appeal for me. All the disparate elements meld into one and there is an authority to these voices and a sincerity in the conception that never fails to move me.

"I still prefer the muck and the dirt and the grease and everything to being inside in a factory. I don't think I could work in a factory. I like the rough and go you know, plenty of rough and go.."


  1. This is amazing stuff Seamus; thanks for bringing it to me...

    1. You're welcome Trevor. I think the Radio Ballads, as a whole, are pretty much the zenith of radio for me. I'd love to hear someone like, say, Mike Skinner, do a few modern ones.