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The Joy of Living

Written by George Fisher

Image for article The Joy of Living

Now don’t judge me on this alone, but I really like folk music. There’s something about it that seems to go hand in hand with real ale and walking the fells. Although I don’t suggest you try pottering over Catbells with a pint of Old Peculiar in your hand … And so I was delighted to see the hugely influential folk singer Ewan Maccoll inducted into the Radio 2 Folk Award Hall of Fame this year.

Ewan Maccoll born in Salford, Lancashire to Scottish parents, produced somewhere in the region of 300 songs and scores of albums throughout his career. Such wonderful songs as Dirty Old Town, Shoals of Herring and perhaps his best known, The Manchester Rambler. Little do the teary teenagers who warble on TV singing contests know that their recently butchered version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was not the work of Roberta Flack but rather that of a folk singer, communist, labour activist, poet and playwright  born 100 years ago.

Ewan Maccoll known then by his real name Jimmie Miller, organised the publicity for the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout on April 24th 1932. His song of the same year, The Manchester Rambler tells of the draconian laws that restricted public access to the British countryside in the 1930s.

You can’t beat a good protest song and I’m quite sure Ewan Maccoll played a part in shaping the future of Billy Bragg. Of course Billy Bragg penned A New England, a favourite of mine, which is perhaps more commonly recognised by Kirsty Maccoll’s version. Kirsty being the daughter of Ewan.

My favourite of Ewan Maccoll’s songs, well at least of those I’ve heard; my knowledge is quite limited really, is The Joy of Living … The last time Ewan Maccoll climbed, or in his words “To be more precise failed to climb” Suilven was in his 72nd year. He was with his wife Peggy Seeger and daughter Kitty at the time. “You go ahead,” he told them “I’ll meet you at the top.” But “The flesh is bruckle, the fiend is slee” and he hadn’t gone more than half the distance when his legs refused to carry him further. Ewan Maccoll sat down on a rock feeling “utterly desolate”. He concludes, “The feeling lasted for several days and then my grief and feeling of loss gave way to nostalgia and I wrote The Joy of Living. In an odd kind of way it helped me to come to terms with my old age.”

Ewan Maccoll may have passed away in 1989 but his music and his ideology lives on and this world has had his presence for 100 years and I for one think this world is a better place because of it.


* Bruckle = Brittle or fragile , Slee = Sly (Scottish dialect)