Article MT020: The British Folk Revival - Chapter 3

The Battle of the Field: 1

The political context of the hagiography of the second British Folk Revival

[Introduction] [Beginnings] [The WMA and Topic Records] [Sing Magazine]
[Survival] [Ewan MacColl and The Policy Decision] [Notes]

"Had we more faith in ourselves, and were more sure of our values, we would have less need to rely on the images and monuments of the past." - Robert Hewison: The Heritage Industry, 1987, p.138.

"What people mean, I suppose, is that left wing political songs appear in the columns of SING which I edit.  I make no apology for this.  We've never tried to hide the fact that SING is political in the same way that the Spectator or New Statesman is political.  They devote a lot of their space to the arts, and so do we; but with us, it's only one art - song...folk song, and new songs in the folk tradition." - Eric Winter to Sydney Carter, 1960.

"The folk song has in recent years become the particular form of permissable idiocy of the intellectual fringe." - Tom Lehrer, 1958.

I must confess to an unwillingness to consider the folk revival as 'revolutionary'.  Yet, despite being formed from within and interacting with innumerable kinetic social practices, tradition is often perceived as revolutionary.  A tradition can be perceived to be older than the immediate past; hence the endorsement of tradition always implies a rejection of that immediate past in the interests of something uncontaminated, original.  Such rejection is always experienced as revolutionary, an overturning of the values of an immediate past which has outlived its usefulness.

From Herder to Child to Sharp to Lloyd, there appears to be a belief that if one were to embrace a new form of modernity in life, then a right of passage via elements of tradition had to be attempted.  This conviction also forms the basis of much post-war avant-gardism and this connection, together with a study of the political context of that movement, might help to make some sense of the advent of the second British folk revival.  Adherents appeared to claim, amidst that immediate post-World War Two environment, that tradition was available to all, but only via what was seen by some to be a rather revolutionary and specialised, yet 'natural' and 'truthful' way of making music.  Perhaps there was a search for a lost unity of life and music, together with a desire for reconstruction on a tangibly different level, with a promesse de bonheur.

But an endorsement of tradition through the rejection of the immediate past [which also presupposes the possibility of a different future], together with the adoption of tradition as an avant-garde factotum, poses two related questions for the popular music historian:

(i).  can a political musical-historical avant-garde contribute to a sense of cultural identity for the 'mass' of people when it has been established via sustaining a difference for a knowledgable minority?  And if this ultimately can be achieved?
(ii).  does there have to be a crucial weakening of that 'difference' in order for the tradition to serve a broader purpose?

The synchronic moment of any 'weakening' is very important to record, historically, for, in order for any movement as described above to survive in a capitalist country such as existed in the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s, it has to eventually face the prospect of either toppling or embracing that system.  The political ideology of the post-war folk revivalists was, for many years, bent upon resisting the over-arching economic reality of western capitalism.  However, eventually, in order to maintain a position in the music industry marketplace enterprises such as Topic Records were forced to accept a level of monetarist 'reality'.  Adherence to the Marxist framework had the effect of conferring a limited reading on the world; this was replaced by an appreciation of a more inclusive historical process.  This chapter will attempt to narrate the ideological journey of those involved with the Workers' Music Association and Topic, from incipient and ill-defined Marxism to realistic, albeit reluctant, capitalists.

Within the atmosphere of post-war utopianism, the folk revival launched an important attack upon contemporary music aestheticism.  There was a shock value to folk music in the 1950s.  Folk music was unadorned, uncomplicated, and even sounded rather mysterious.  In this challenging stage, the revival contributed to many people's sense of cultural identity.  There was a 'silent' history brought to the fore, a sense of power and integrity suggested by strong regionalism and political struggle.  Holistic modernity was challenged by the revival to such an extent that by, say, the early 1970s, a totalizing view of British musical and performance history had become anathema to many.  Other musical actions and choices had been presented.

Such a pity, then, that this challenge came to elevate its own internal dogma, suffused by the British tradition of class-based erudition and enlightenment.  Perhaps any soundtrack becomes immutable if one listens to it long enough.


We have seen that, post-war, the folk revival was one of those forms which replaced [as Eagleton might suggest] the 'failure of religion'; something which attracted adherents with a great deal of religious zeal and commitment and, spurred on by the advent of the Welfare State and the growth of socialism abroad [at least until the USSR invasion of Hungary in 1956], it enveloped a musical journey that both celebrated the past lives of the working classes [the new heroes of the United Kingdom after World War Two] all the way back to the Diggers and the Levellers; however it was also an inevitable consequence of mixing media mass-production methods with political fealty and radical, if not perhaps first order, historiography!

The United States had also embraced a politically-inspired folk revival before, during and after World War Two and this was a great stimulant to the British movement; for example, by 1943 George Korson had produced his third volume of songs based upon industrial folk song: Coal Dust on the Fiddle and he was aided in his collecting through 20 states by the United Mine Workers Of America.  In Britain, Bert Lloyd's work in 1951/2, Come All Ye Bold Miners, perhaps somewhat less ambitious but no less important to the British folk revival, was a similar example of how ideology was at work in the euphoric post-war atmosphere of the Festival of Britain [1951].

The context of Lloyd's collecting is highly revealing, for the mining industry [by this time nationalised] decided to contribute to the Festival proceedings with the first national collection of coalfield songs.  Lloyd had been recommended to the NCB to organise a competition in which miners were encouraged to submit songs relating to their lives in the pits.  The competition was conducted through the pages of the NCB magazine Coal, the Mining Review and cinema newsreel.  One hundred entries plus a few more songs from garlands and field recordings thus constituted Come All Ye Bold Miners.  It is arguable whether the whole project would have been possible without the social context and political willingness.  This volume, at least as much as The Singing Englishman, together with Lloyd's connections with the Workers' Music Association and their outcrop of Topic Records, helped to sustain an already established political perspective.  Both Come All Ye Bold Miners and MacColl's The Shuttle and Cage [1954] presented music for the politically committed.

The pre-war interest in folk song in North America also came to be regarded as a committed musical/political movement.  In a rather homogenised view, the British folk music devotee regarded the American revival as an example of youth and workers reappropriating music.  Via the work of Korson, American workers were also seen as politically motivated and knowledge hungry.  The historical veracity of any wholesale musical/artistic reappropriation remains in some considerable doubt; however it certainly existed through the eyes and ears of its radical thinkers and artists, especially those surrounding the Greenwich Village folk movement which included Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Alan Lomax and Fredrick Ramsay.

An interest in American songs led to an interest in American singers, especially the work of the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, and the conduit between the two, the aforementioned Pete Seeger.  The Almanac Singers were prevented from singing certain types of 'anti-war songs' in the USA during the length of the war, and, following the end of the conflict, proceeded to run in to more trouble after Seeger backed the Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, in 1948.  Wallace had been vice-President under Roosevelt, but had failed to attract re-nomination because he was considered to be too much of a socialist.  Communist support gathered around the somewhat embarrased Wallace and in the post-war 'Cold War' era in the United States this became a very dangerous political road to follow.  Following Seeger's near lynching at a political rally on the 4th of September, 1949, he came to attract a good deal of attention from interested parties in the United Kingdom.  Seeger had already been known by those few folk music lovers who were aware of any scene in Greenwich Village before the outbreak of the war, however the nature of his political activities during Wallace's campaign gave him a cult celebrity status among those who were interested in the uses of political song and folk music.  This new status also happened to coincide with Seeger's mass popularity as a pop star in the USA.

Seeger had formed a new singing group in 1948.  The Almanac Singers had stuttered into the 1940s but had all but ceased to exist after, according to Denselow, a February 1942 radio report of the group had described them as "Commie folksingers try[ing] to infiltrate Radio" and the Weavers became by necessity less political and more humanist and [to quote Seeger] "all those nice sounding things".  By 1951, the Weavers had enjoyed four million-selling singles by embracing a more popular sound with Gordon Jenkins' Orchestra.  But by 1952 in the midst of the McCarthy purges they discovered that even being unaligned left wingers in the USA was an impossible situation and they were black-listed.

Ewan MacColl was one of the few Britons who had made contacts with the American radical music scene in the 1930s.  He had met Paul Robeson on the latter's British Tour and had arranged various assorted fund raising for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.  In the 1940s he married the young actress Joan Littlewood and created their theatre company 'Theatre Workshop', which began life with MacColl as the in-house dramatist, using music.  Works such as Landscape With Chimneys and Johnny Noble became staple fare at the Theatre Workshop, and it was for the former that the song Dirty Old Town was written to cover a rather inexpert scene change [Denselow 1989].  Theatre Workshop was an itinerant company, which suited MacColl, however, a move to a permanent site in London following a funding crisis, discouraged MacColl and, as the new decade dawned, he and Littlewood separated.  From this moment on MacColl appears to have taken a more active interest in music rather than theatre.

His new musical direction of engagement with folk song was inspired in 1951 by the man who had also reputedly changed Pete Seeger's life, that being Alan Lomax.  Lomax had already visited Britain and had recorded MacColl's parents on a field trip.  MacColl was later to say:

When Alan Lomax came along with this music that had proved popular to generations and generations, I thought, "This is what we should be exploring!" The folk revival had a lot of things in it at its inception, and one was to make songs of struggle in an idiom that would be immensely acceptable to a lot of young people. 2
Like Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax was also already known to some revivalists.  Lomax had worked alongside his father for the American Library of Congress before the war and Alan had a reputation as a radical thinker.  In 1948 Collet's bookshop in London, the home of Communist literature, imported a songbook from the USA that was to cement ideas about the potentiality of traditional song.  Lomax and Pete Seeger had co-edited The People's Song Book, along with editor-in-chief Waldemar Hille.  Issued by Boni and Gear in the USA, this book had its antecedents in the US CP in the 1930s, but was one of the first large scale compilations to fully notate and detail lyrics of songs of protest.  It was set out in four distinct sections and listed songs in the following categories:
  1. Songs that helped build America [eg.  Joe Hill; Oh Freedom; Paddy Works on the Railway; Go Down Moses].
  2. World freedom songs [eg.  La Marseillaise; Peat Bog Soldiers; Song Of The French Partisan].
  3. Union songs [eg.  Solidarity; Talking Union; We Shall Not Be Moved].
  4. Topical-political songs [eg.  Strange Fruit; Jim Crow; Pity The Downtrodden Landlord].

Following its importation into Britain Ewan MacColl [who frequented Collet's] and scores of others used this songbook as a basis for their repertoire.  The book also acknowledged a "debt of gratitude" to an organisation called the Workers' Music Association in "London, England" for their "especially generous" song contributions.  Henceforth the musical/political example of The People's Song Book, together with the name of Alan Lomax, became synonymous with the direction and leadership of the second British folk revival.  Lomax stated in the foreword to the songbook:

Straight talk -simple tunes with a lifting quality- these songs have been tested in the fire of the people's struggle all around the world.  They emerged quietly and anonymously in the vanguard of apparently lost causes ... an emerging tradition that represented a new kind of human being, a new folk community composed of progressives and anti-fascists and union members.  These folk, heritors of the democratic tradition of folklore, were creating for themselves a folk culture of high moral and political content ... this is their book and ours, a folio of freedom folklore, a weapon against war and reaction, and a singing testament to the future.
It is thus quite evident that one cannot even begin to discuss the post-war British folk revival without including the United States and Americans; and so it proves to be, up to, including and beyond the period when MacColl and his cohorts took it upon themselves to systematically delete all American influences from the history of the British revival.  A curious action when MacColl claims to have been totally inspired by Lomax's words to 'start'[!] a folk revival in the UK.  That revival was, in any case, already underway after Bert Lloyd had written The Singing Englishman in 1944, and the EFDSS had created a ripple of middle-brow interest in American Round and Square dancing in the late-1940s.

There had been something of a Square Dance craze in the USA in the late-1940s, mostly surrounding the more affluent colleges.  Peter Kennedy, the son of Douglas Kennedy, director of the EFDSS, recognised this and, organising history to credit Cecil Sharp with the survival of the dances in America [" The first to recognise this American form and to recognise it as our own heritage was Cecil Sharp": Peter Kennedy 3 ], became the Society's square dance 'specialist'.  From 1947 onwards Kennedy the younger took it upon himself to promote this 'once-removed' English folk tradition through organising barn dances and square dances at first in Northumberland and Durham and then in the West Country and they became very successful.  At such gatherings Kennedy persuaded local players, singers and dancers to contribute to what the Society called a "ceilidhe [sic] spirit", openly singing songs in the first organised examples of 'singarounds' [although the 'singaround' is often thought to be an ancient tradition, particularly in Ireland, in fact, as a function within the folk scene, it does not go back any further into history than the 1940s, except, of course, in people's imaginations].  Kennedy actually did rediscover a number of little-known square dances on his travels, and called them 'new-old' dances.  His active interest also led to a number of singers being recorded by the Gramophone Company.

The square dance was thus championed at Cecil Sharp House and was introduced, in some cases as 'English Country Dancing', to schools via the BBC Third Network.  The BBC also broadcast a number of these 'Village Barn Dances' as entertainment programmes on the Home Service, and were responsible for a programme entitled 'Everybody Swing' which was basically a live square dance party from Bristol.  This programme became a regular and very popular West Region broadcast between 1947 and 1952.  The music for the programme was [naturally] provided by Peter Kennedy's own band, The Haymakers Square Dance Band.

This band recorded a series of records for Decca entitled Everybody Swing 4 and also a double-sided disc for His Master's Voice entitled Princess Margaret's Fancy.  This latter title was a square dance composed by Peter Kennedy for the Patron of the EFDSS, Princess Margaret.  The princess was a great fan of Square and Round dancing and danced to Kennedy's composition when she visited Cecil Sharp House on Tuesday, 21st June, 1949.  The composition was a polyglot, containing some of the most characteristic movements appearing in English country dancing at that time such as the 'millwheel', 'sashay', 'strip the willow', 'Spanish Waltz' and 'heel and toe' ... a sort of 'greatest hits' compilation.  The record did not prove to be a huge seller, but continued to be listed in HMV's catalogue for some years after, despite their wholesale deletion of 78s in 1955.  The Gramophone Company were probably loath to delete a recording that had the royal approval of the young, and very popular, princess.  The recording of Princess Margaret's Fancy is a good indicator as to the appeal of square dancing, which, although collected from the English lower classes, actually became a part of the upper class 'debs' circuit.  The square dance boom did not have any measurable impact upon the lower and lower-middle classes in the country who, on the whole, were not convinced, preferring the likes of David Whitfield and Johnny Ray prior to 1955, and Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan afterwards!

This lack of broad appeal failed to concern the EFDSS, however, who went their own rather exclusive way; oblivious, also, to the growing interest in 'trad' jazz and more 'political' folk song.  Recordings continued to be made by HMV "under the auspices of the English Folk Dance and Song Society" throughout the 1950s, but were restricted to limited runs and are now very scarce indeed.  Even when the square dance boom had subsided by the end of 1952, Peter Kennedy was still convinced that "square dancing is something new.  It is up to date, changing daily, creative and alive.  And yet square dancing is as old as the hills and valleys of our own countryside" 5.  However, Square Dancing never really captured the public's imagination en masse and, although it has continued unabated within the EFDSS, the more raucous, boozy and sexy Ceilidh has endured rather better without.

A few of the important square dance records emanating from the EFDSS and Decca from this period involve renditions of popular song as much as those considered to be 'traditional'.  The Society had actually begun to commission its first commercial recordings of folk music just after the end of World War Two [1946] when William Kimber and George Tremain were recorded by HMV playing 'ceremonial dance tunes'.  Georgina Boyes cites the following catalogue numbers of interest and this has been confirmed by my own archival resources of 1940s and 1950s HMV catalogues at the Institute of Popular Music: HMV B9519, HMV B9520, HMV B9539, HMV B9578, HMV B9579, HMV B9669, HMV B9670, HMV B9671, HMV B9672.

In addition to these releases, the EFDSS took up the option on the previously deleted pre-war recordings made by Maud Karpeles for Columbia Graphophone of Phil Tanner and Harry Cox [R101, R102], but these were also only accessible to members of the society.  As previously suggested, this procedure of limited releases became very common during later years.  Even Ewan MacColl recorded two 78s "under the auspices of the EFDSS" in 1952:

HMV B10259: 'Lord Randall'/ 'Van Diemen's Land' and HMV B10260: 'Sir Patrick Spens'/'Eppie Morris'
... and it appears that neither of these two tracks were on 'general release', as such.

MacColl, to his credit, was concerned about this rather upper-class retention of folk music and, together with Lloyd and Lomax, proceeded to wrest the music away from the clutches of the EFDSS and towards those who were not deified as 'folklorists' after the fashion of Douglas and Peter Kennedy.  Lloyd and MacColl first met in the late-1940s and their agreed initial brief appears to have been a promotion of British folksongs in the jazz cellars and skiffle clubs of London in order to revitalise a 'lower class' soundtrack in the face of American domination.

By the time the square dance craze had run out of steam Britain had its own 'version' of the Almanac Singers called The Ramblers, formed around 1952.  Members of the Ramblers were numerous but included at one time or another John Hasted of the National Youth Choir, Jean Butler, Neste Revald, Shirley Collins [a member of the NYC with Leon Rosselson] and Bert Lloyd.  Hylda Sims also joined this group which, calling themselves the City Ramblers, released a 78rpm disc on Topic [TRC 101] Round and Round the Picket Line / Nine Hundred Miles.  Ewan MacColl and jazz clarinettist Sandy Brown later became musically involved in a group surrounding Alan Lomax called the Ramblers, particularly during the writing of music for a TV documentary on prison life in Britain for Granada Television, however this was not the same group.  The National Youth Choir was an organisation closely allied to the British Communist Party.

Bert Lloyd brought a stimulating set of influences to the revival, but they, too, were highly subjective and contextual and, once again, political outlook is crucial.  He was a member of the British Communist Party over a long period of time, possibly much longer than MacColl who claimed to have left in 1953 [Denselow] and, significantly, his outlook was formed in the late-1930s.  By the time that war had broken out, Lloyd had already developed a strong interest in folk music from all over the world, not simply England.  He was interested in late-depression material from America and his song collecting as a stockman in Australia was also coupled with fishing songs collected from his personal experiences on an Atlantic whaling fleet in 1937-8.  He was also interested in traditional music from the Balkans, Rumania and Albania and was later to collect in this area.  Much of this collecting materialised on Topic long playing albums during the late-1950s and 1960s.

With the slump being on prior to 1939 he spent a great deal of time in the British Museum researching into his interests in folk music and economic and social history in the Reading Room.  Apparently, it was not the archetypal texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin that were centrally important to his development, for these were very difficult to come by at this stage [Gammon 1986].  Rather, it was the ethos and writings of communist historians and leftist intellectuals, that, coupled-with his own personal experiences of unemployment and the workings of the capitalist system, became acutely meaningful.  A L Morton's A People's History of England, first published in a Left Book Club edition in 1938, is important in this respect.  Morton's book had an enormous influence on the middle-class and Grammar School left in England, providing a totalising view of English history from a Marxist perspective.  Lloyd's membership of the British Communist Party stems from this period of his life and he stated in The Singing Englishman that he was "indebted to the historian A L Morton" [Lloyd,1944:30].

Another important historian who was very influential upon Lloyd was E P Thompson.  Thompson left the Communist Party in 1956, extremely disturbed and disillusioned at the actions of the Soviet Union in Hungary.  Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class [1963] is actually quoted in crucial passages of Folk Song In England.  In addition to Thompson, the writings of J L and Barbara Hammond were also highly efficacious.  Gammon [1986] states that Lloyd clearly read the Hammonds' The Village Labourer [1911] before writing The Singing Englishman in 1944.  Certainly, Lloyd's style in this small book owes a great deal to that of the Hammonds.  There is a suffusion of romantic regret for the passing of a lost age in both works and much of the criticism that the Hammonds have received in recent years for a cloying degree of historical-romanticism could just as easily be levelled at Lloyd.  When Lloyd gleefully asserted that there was a time before "folksongs turned into something empty and vulgar and debased, before they parodied themselves to death." 6 he was using the Hammonds' sentimentalism as his sample.  He might just as well have used Lawrence's The Rainbow:

Living on rich land, on their own land, near to a growing town, they had forgotten what it was to be in straitened circumstances.  They had never become rich...but always, at the Marsh, there was ample. 7
Lloyd received the singers' prize from the EFDSS in the same year that The People's Songbook was published [1948, also the year of the Berlin Air Lift] and then [rather amazingly considering their political point of view] joined the committee of the EFDSS.  From the late 1940s-onward a 'Mexican stand-off' between Lloyd and the EFDSS appears to have taken place.  He sat on the committee of the society but did not overtly challenge the running of that body.  The evidence for this actually 'appears' in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House via the very absence of data about Lloyd's involvement.  Despite considerable documented evidence in Cecil Sharp House of the Society's activities during the 1950s, there is very little evidence suggesting any manifest involvement by Lloyd in the society's structure or policies at this important stage of the revival.  Only a smattering of articles by Lloyd appeared in English Dance and Song [mouthpiece of the EFDSS] throughout the 1950s and his first review didn't surface until 1955.  Hunt high or low in Cecil Sharp House [January, 1995] I was unable to find anything more than an occasional passing reference to the rather hazy body that partially funded Lloyd throughout his writing, the aforementioned Workers' Music Association.

The importance of these two historical 'silences' in Cecil Sharp House is fundamental.  It is not only the content or existence of an historical document that is important when researching the historical methodology of a movement, but also the non-appearance of the same.  If chroniclers are often influenced by the prejudices of their time, then it is not simply the documented evidence that becomes a recorded source of those prejudices, but also unauthorised censorship of a short term political nature.  Divergent histories have to be weighed against each other.  Thus far, this does not appear to have been the case when reading the histories of the British folk revival.  The folk revival according to the EFDSS and the one propounded by, say, the followers of the doctrine according to the WMA, diverged.  In E P Thompson's telling phrase, divergent evidence [and lack of evidence] must be "interrogated by minds trained in a discipline of attentive disbelief." 8

So, whether by activity or absence, politics came to play a vital role in the advent of the post-war British folk revival, and many of these revivalists were drawn predominantly to the hard left.  The major exception was the EFDSS leadership and membership of the 1950s under the Kennedy family.  According to Boyes, the Kennedys were also founder members of the extreme right wing 'Kinship In Husbandry' movement:

Douglas Kennedy and Rolf Gardiner had certainly numbered the Revival among the "many movements it was important to percolate".  And arguably, Kennedy's post war populism and reorganisation of the English Folk Dance and Song Society on a national basis, concentrating its management in his hands, was part of this strategy. 9

This connection between the Kennedys and the [known] ultra-right wing sympathies of Rolf Gardiner has attracted some attention from Georgina Boyes; however it has also been argued by Derek Schofield 10 that Boyes exaggerates Gardiner's importance and influence upon the Kennedys.  Nevertheless, it does appear that Gardiner at the very least made a considerable, if not altogether desired, impact upon the Society during the 1920s.  He was an important critic of Sharp's conformity and had a substantial influence upon the formation of solely male Morris clubs during the 1920s, which the Kennedy dynasty broadly supported.  Even though Gardiner's influence did not sustain, this was as much to do with the growing political incorrectness/extreme right wing ideology in the United Kingdom by the 1930s.

The Kennedys were dynastic in their control of the Society.  Douglas Kennedy's wife, Helen was sister of Maud Karpeles and the two sisters were supervised at Chelsea Polytechnic in folk dancing by Cecil Sharp.  They came to be demonstrators for Cecil Sharp's lectures in various parts of the country and it was in 1911 that Kennedy and Helen Karpeles met; the same time that the Folkdance Club mutated into the larger English Folk Dance Society.  Helen became secretary of the larger society, Maud went on to be Sharp's assistant.  Douglas Kennedy and Helen Karpeles were married in 1914 and Douglas took over the Directorship of the Society in 1924 on the death of Cecil Sharp.  When Cecil Sharp House was opened in 1930, Helen Kennedy established the Royal Albert Hall festivals.  It could be argued that, by the early-1950s and the Square Dance boom, the Kennedys were running the Society primarily for their own amusement.

In utter contrast to the dynastically-controlled EFDSS, Lloyd's The Singing Englishman presented folksong as a 'genuine' representation of class struggle, intrinsic to Communist Party ideology.  There is no evidence to suggest that the revival was part of a 'Commie plot', co-ordinated by the KGB, but I would suggest that a FORM of Marxist idealism certainly played an indispensible role for many of the leading 'folkies' of the second revival [whether many of them actually read Marx might be a totally different matter].  They were spurred on instead by historical interpretations mixed together with a ferment of post-war optimism.  Names such as Lloyd, Lomax, MacColl, Gammon, Leader, Dunnet, Bush and Hasted were all extremely left of centre, politically, whereas the regime at Cecil Sharp House under the leadership of Douglas Kennedy and Helen and Maud Karpeles were more drawn to a Conservative, rather deferential quietude about 'their' music, something that was more akin to a pursuit of a half-conscious prejudice of outsiders, rather than any specific political agenda.  Both camps, however, appear to have become immensely smug about their roles in a very short space of time and stereotypes within the British class system were reproduced via not only the EFDSS adherents but also the fastidious politicising of a quasi-Marxist musical elitist.  Therefore, although Boyes has stated that:

Under all the circumstances, the proposal that any single organisation was responsible for the initiation and development of the movement - or even its 'cultural policy' - is simplistic in the extreme. 11
... and, quite clearly, there were impulses within the revival emanating from a variety of differing ideologies, her comments ignore the fact that, although the Marxism of the self-appointed leaders of the folk revival may have been classically ill-defined [in fact critically contradictory] it was, nonetheless, highly significant.  For example, in classical Marxist terms the urban proletariat already had the necessary qualifications to seize control over its own existence via revolution precisely because it was made up of 'modern' human beings.  These modern urbanites, according to Marx, were socially ripe for the task ahead, being both a product and a development of the "collapse of all fixed, fast frozen relationships".

And yet the task of the enlarging folk 'element' within the WMA in the 1940s and [more especially] 1950s also appears to have been curiously bent on the destruction of modernity in urban existence for the sake of a rather 'glossy-eyed' retrospective analysis of 'traditional' pre-industrial society, not dissimilar from the nostalgic rantings of Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor a hundred years previously.  There was a 'preferable then' available which could bring about a transformation of a 'bleak now' into a 'desirable tomorrow'.  In retrospect this appears to be closer to a rather wispy version of the post-1966 Maoist doctrine of cutting out the more advanced 'middle man' stage of human development and thus 'breaking with history', rather than hard-core Marxism.  But, of course, it was still politics.  Frank McCall:

That was the point, it WAS political.  To search for the roots of music IS a political act.  Tracing origins is bound to be political, you can't get away from it.  And for me it was also very exciting.  I was at a shipping company during the day and I couldn't wait for 5.o'clock.  I'd practice for 4 or 5 hours and spend the rest of the time organising the club.  All of that activity, to me, at least, WAS a political statement.  I was drawn to the music through an interest in people, I suppose, having a reverence for the music of the people meant that I cared about people.  Lloyd and MacColl were like father figures to me, honestly! 12
It would, therefore, be inaccurate to suggest [as Boyes has done] that the politics of the hard left did not leave an indelible imprint upon the revival.  Music may not be the best medium for carrying politics, but that does not mean to say that party politics cannot influence the conception of a musical milieu.  There may not have been an especially identifiable Political agenda for everyone, but it is quite clear that the origin of the revival was, indeed, political for many disciples.

The Workers' Music Association and Topic Records

("A company of obstinate integrity" - The Guardian, 1969)

The importance of the Workers' Music Association, alone, bears testimony to the vital input of a left-wing politic.  It helped to stimulate ideas about an 'authenticity' of workers' song, citing it directly as a musical representation of struggle, survival and communality.  The WMA also provided an organisational back-bone for the movement, a point of reference and authority, and an albeit limited but vital financial support.  For example, the introduction to the WMA Pocket Song Book, first published in 1948, stated that:

The majority of songs in this volume were chosen by plebiscite among members of the Workers' Music Association to provide for community singing in the larger labour movement in this country.
Not only does this statement suggest organisation, formulation and fraternity, but does so in pretty clear political language ['plebiscite'; 'members'; 'movement', etc.].  Even though Marxist thought came in for a great deal of revisionism within the ranks of the folk revival, whilst also failing to move some of those individuals drawn to folk music, it was undoubtedly the prime mover of that revival.

The WMA was founded in 1936 by a number of choirs in the London Labour Choral Union and the Co-Operative Musical Associations [then embracing some 44 choirs and 5 orchestras] in order to co-ordinate the musical activities of what it viewed as working class organisations, and provide them with the 'necessary musical material and professional resources' that it could muster as part of its resources.  By the middle of the Second World War, its aims and objectives [printed in The Singing Englishman] were as follows:

To utilise fully the stimulating power of music to inspire the people.
To provide recreation and entertainment for war workers and members of the forces.
To stimulate the composition of music appropriate to our time.
To foster and further the art of music on the principle that true art can move the people to work for the betterment of society.
It also stated that:
At the present time the Association emphasises the need to promote music-making of a character which encourages vigorous and decisive action against Fascism.  The WMA is pledged to foster the development of music-making wherever it can be encouraged-in the factories and in the Forces, in Civil Defence, in Youth Clubs and Schools.  Many eminent musicians and dance bands are working with us; a number of choral and instrumental groups are affiliated with us; progressive educational bodies, including Co-operatives and Trade Unions, support our work; individual sympathisers are enrolled as members.
The WMA, at least from a roll call of its vice presidents, appeared to be a very eclectic organisation.  An early [1944] list of vice presidents cited Benjamin Britten, Hanns Eisler, Alois Haba and Vladimir Vogel amongst its numbers.  It was initially incorporated as a limited company and, to begin with, held offices at 9 Great Newport Street, London WC2.  There was also a Scottish WMA with headquarters at 60, Glenapp Street, Glasgow.  However, in truth, the WMA was little more than a rather nebulous offshoot of the Communist Party of Great Britain and, according to Harker, was "effectively controlled by the party".  President Alan Bush was a paid-up member of the CP, as was the chairman of the Executive, Geoffrey Corbett, as well as National Organiser Charles Ringrose.  The publishing house Lawrence and Wishart was also linked to the WMA and CP.

As stated previously, it was the WMA who commissioned Bert Lloyd to produce The Singing Englishman as an introduction to folk song in their 'Keynote' series in 1944.  This, together with the later meeting of Lloyd, Lomax and MacColl, was undoubtedly one of the major fomenters of the second British folk revival.  The financial support of Bert Lloyd was an important entrustment for the WMA.  As Lloyd's profile grew, the connection continued and they were also 'on hand' [although severely financially depleted by this time] in the mid-1960s when they finally persuaded him to effectively 'rewrite' The Singing Englishman.  This became the seminal Folk Song in England.  In the preface to this later work Lloyd was quick to pay credit to the WMA for their financial encouragement:

In America, late in the depression and early in the war years, traditional song and its topical imitations were coming into vogue, particularly among young radicals, as a consequence of the stresses of the time and the rumble of newly-found or newly made 'peoples songs' was rolling towards us across the Atlantic.  The WMA, that admirable but over-modest organisation, sensed that similar enthusiasm might spread in England, and they were eager to help in the rediscovery of our own lower class traditions.  They commissioned me to write a brief social-historical introduction to folk song entitiled: The Singing Englishman.  It was put together mainly in barrack rooms, away from reference works, in between tank gunnery courses.  It wasn't a good book but people were kind to it perhaps because it was the only one of its sort: like the okapi, not much to look at but cherished as unique ...  The WMA's presage was justified; the folk song revival swept in ... 13
According to John Hasted, the Executive at the WMA was fully aware of the growing importance that many left-thinking intellectuals in New York's coffee house circuit gave to folk song.  It was also aware that, in the USA, jazz and folk had both been accepted by the Communist Party and the Confederation of Industrial Organisations.  Thus 'trad' jazz and folk music [both Ken Colyer and Bert Lloyd were deemed to be dealing in the 'authentic' styles of a bygone age] were viewed as being politically correct.  It was also supportive of theatre and the Workers' Theatre Movement, based at 59, Cromer Street, London WC1 was closely linked to the WMA.  Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood were both members of the WTM.

The WMA had enjoyed a very active war on the 'home front', not only promoting concerts and lectures about the verities of the Soviet Union, but also publishing pamphlets and song books of Soviet music.  During the war these were popular, for the USSR was an ally against Fascism and friendship was fostered.  They published songbooks such as Red Army Songs [1942]; Popular Soviet Songs [1941] and, with the help of Collet's Book Shop, 66 Charing Cross Road, WC2, helped to distribute sheet music from the Soviet Union such as Novikov's World Democratic Youth Song and the Soviet National Anthem.  By the end of the war the WMA boasted an impressive list of song and choral publications including works by Hanns Eisler [Cradle Song of a Working Mother; Ballad of Today; Miner's Song.]; Dunajevski [Land of Freedom; Young Comrades Song] and a number of political songs from around the world.  Alan Bush, president of the WMA was responsible for arranging and transcribing much of their printed music.  The WMA also issued a small journal during the 1940s [also entitled 'Keynote']; it was in this series in 1948 that A L Lloyd wrote a particularly informative article on the background to the song St. James' Infirmary, reprinted, almost ten years later, in Sing.

One of the WMA's moderate 'best sellers' in the late 1940s was The Internationale; arranged by Bush, the sheet music sold for 3d.  They also made quite a 'splash' in December of 1948 by issuing the first edition of the WMA Pocket Song Book.  Obviously inspired by The People's Song Book, together with the success of The Singing Englishman over the preceding four years, the WMA canvassed its members for a selection of songs, the majority of which were then featured in this first volume [selling enough for a number of reprints over the next few years].  Once again President Alan Bush sifted and arranged many of the songs, but was also assisted by Robert Gill, Will Sahnow [leader of the Topic Band on the very first Topic release TRC1], Bernard Stevens and Ralph Wood.  There were some duplications from The People's Song Book: Joe Hill; Pity The Poor Landlord; The Marseillaise; Hold The Fort, but more popular songs and folk songs from the British Isles were included.  However, the Pocket Song Book manufactured tradition to carry an ideological burden.  Songs as diverse as The Lincolnshire Poacher and Killarney were linked together via a political manifesto and, henceforth, the pervading folk ideology was then attached to these songs, despite no literal connection.

This is, perhaps, a good example of how a musical style indicator can be created.  Philip Tagg 14 describes how style indicators represent the 'compositional norms' of any given style.  Thus the simplicity of folk music and the use of three chords [usually the I, IV and V of a major scale] have more often come to indicate folk music rather than [say] Big Band Jazz.  Tagg, however, also describes how style indicators can be used as part of a musical acculturation process, incorporating 'foreign' elements into a 'home' style.  He cites the acculturation of the Hawaiian guitar into the Country genre as an example of this process [genre synecdoche].  This process can also involve ideology when similarities of musical structures 'unite' a number of songs, even though there is no apparent generic nor ideological connection.  If a song 'sounds' like it conveys a political message via its style indicator, it can be included as part of a given canon.  Therefore it became feasible for the WMA to include not only Roll The Union On but also Widdicombe Fair as part of their political polemic because they both 'sounded right'.

The song Pity The Downtrodden Landlord [Woolf/Clayton] was written during the war and became something of a staple left-wing satirical song in the late-1940s and early-1950s.  At a time of chronic house shortages and before pre-fab and Council House building had yet reached a climax, landlords were often viewed from the left as class-ridden parasites [see the later Stan Kelly Topic EP: Songs for Swinging Landlords To, TOP60].  The biting satire of the song became something of a political rallying flag for those who wished to see the advance of public ownership in property:

"...You are able to work for your living
And rejoice in your strength and your skill;
So try to be kind and forgiving
To a man whom a day's work would kill;
You can work, and still talk to your neighbour;
You can look the whole world in the face;
But the landlord who ventured to labour
Would never survive the disgrace.

So pity the downtrodden landlord
And his back that is burdened and bent;
Respect his grey hairs, don't ask for repairs,
And don't be behind with the rent!"

It was published in sheet music form by the WMA from the war onward, with a catalogue number of 9029, price 6d.

The Unity Theatre Club, based after World War Two in Goldington Street, St Pancras, NW1, became another outlet for political art and also produced small runs of sheet music from their stage productions.  People's Songs was the name for Unity's music publishing outlet, run from Collet's Bookshop.  Songs such as Strike While the Iron is Hot and Unity March [the latter from their 'pantomime with a political point' Babes in the Wood] were published and sold for 3d.  It would be the Unity Theatre who would join together with the WMA to produce recordings under the Topic label in 1953 such as Brother, Brother, Use Your Head TRC 2.  There were also a number of active Unity Theatres across the country by the mid-1950s [e.g.  Glasgow, Liverpool].

The popularity of folk song from 1948 onward inspired the WMA to re-issue The Singing Englishman in 1951; describing it as 'A Festival Year Reissue' [the Festival of Britain] it sold for 2/-, and it sold well.  Both the WMA and the EFDSS boasted growing memberships during these three years as folksong became part of an ever-increasing underground and folk dancing became popular with both the upper classes and the newly-enlarged teaching profession.  The WMA's continued co-ordination of jazz and folk activities eventually drew the BBC's attention towards the folk revival.

In the midst of Festival of Britain euphoria, they launched their 'Ballads and Blues radio programme [a bold step, for, prior to the coronation of Elizabeth II, radio still ruled the airwaves].  The chief contributor to these broadcasts from the jazz genre was Humphrey Lyttelton, whose jazz band shared the bills with British and American singers such as Jean Ritchie, Alan Lomax, Isla Cameron, Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl.  Lyttleton also became a vice president of the WMA alongside Bert Lloyd, Aaron Copland, Inglis Gundry and Paul Robeson.  Folk and jazz had a shared livelihood and the WMA supported both at political events, booking folk and jazz performers to entertain fans and protesters alike.

If the left-wing folk and popular music scenes in the USA had all-but disappeared under an anti-Communist paranoia by the early-1950s the WMA had helped to amplify the equivalent scene in the UK.  MacColl, Lomax and Lloyd were able to see themselves as pioneers of a left-wing music scene, alongside their jazz counterparts Lyttleton, Ken Colyer, Sandy Brown and Bruce Turner.  By 1955 there was even a generously-shared benefit for the Daily Worker [later the Morning Star], the newspaper of the CPGB which had a tendency to lurch from crisis to financial crisis.  The concert starred MacColl, Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and the Scottish singer Jeannie Robertson.  MacColl even joined the jazzmen on stage to sing a black American chain-gang song.

By the early-1950s the WMA were also holding educational classes at the Association's premises.  They claimed to have facilities for 'first class tuition in vocal, instrumental and theoretical training'.  They had also established correspondence courses throughout the country and periodical music schools, including their Annual Summer School held first in Edinburgh, then at Albrighton Hall, near Shrewsbury and eventually settling at Wortly Hall in Yorkshire [during every third week of August].  Also, by the mid-1950s, the WMA's Concert Agency [licensed annually by the London County Council] was offering a complete range of artists and musical entertainment.  They had become an entrepreneurial booking agency for like-minded and politically correct M.U. artists, many of whom worked in the folk, jazz and modernist/classical fields and advertised "full concert programmes and pageantry; lectures and recitals.  Dance bands [M.U.] are also available."

It was perhaps only natural that this ambitious arm of the CP should, like the EFDSS, get involved in commercial recording and by late-1952 the Workers Music Association had begun to manufacture double-sided gramophone records under the name of Topic ["gramophone records of historical and social interest"].  The Topic label was an attractive red and white re-working of the Workers' Music Association logo with the word 'Topic' following the inverted contours of the 'W'.  Their runs were limited and sales small with a few records being dispatched to the United States [especially to the Greenwich Village cogniscenti around Pete Seeger].  But Topic did make an important, albeit minute, impression on the recording industry at a time when there were very few independent labels in existence and major label interest in folk music was negligible.  In fact, for a Communist-led label, Topic were quite entrepreneurial, although their catalogue more than reflected their political leanings!  A press release from the late-1950s [National Sound Archive, Dec, 1996] refers to Topic, with some sense of pride, as "perhaps the smallest record company in the world".  Topic were located at Bishops Bridge Road, W2 at this early stage, moving to Nassington Road, NW3 in 1960.

Although correctly regarded by many as the most important folk record company in Britain, initially Topic did not over-concentrate on British folk music at all, as one look at the following list of available material in 1953 would testify:

All of the above were available on 10" 78 rpm shellac discs.  However, throughout the 1950s Topic recordings also appeared in an extraordinary variety of configurations.  From TRC 23, they moved over to the [then] more expensive, but unbreakable vinyl.  This caused the prices of their discs to rise dramatically [from 3/7d.  to 6/6d.] and their [already small] sales slumped accordingly.  This slump prompted Topic to experiment with a cheaper pressing plant, creating the oddest releases of all, namely the 8" and 7" long-players.  In the 1930s Woolworths sold a variety of sizes of cheap shellac discs, including 7", 8" and 9" sizes.  Towards the end of the 1950s, Topic conceived the idea of using these old smaller shellac stampers, but for vinyl releases, thus cutting down on raw materials.  The majority of these pre-war discs had been produced by the Crystalate Company, which had been purchased by Decca in the 1930s, and by the late-1950s were largely [but not exclusively] redundant.  This had, naturally, caused their market value to erode, and this information attracted the tiny WMA label, who were intent on remaining in production, despite rather disappointing sales, overall.

Topic, according to a press-release of the time ["Old Tools Do A New Job"], decided to use these older sizes in an effort to keep production costs as low as possible, suggest a certain novelty attraction to their products and maintain a level of solidarity with the pressing plant operatives.  The resulting records, according to the company, "offered the playing time usually obtained on a 10" LP for two thirds of the price".  It was not an altogether successful experiment [pressings proved to be of poor quality] but certainly made a few in the industry sit up and take notice.

Prior to this marketing experiment, and in a rather 'scattergun' approach, Topic released a variety of discs throughout 1954 on the more expensive 10" and 12" vinyl 78 rpm discs, including multiple releases, spread over a number of discs, such as Shostakovitch's Song Of The Forest [TRC 41-45]; however it wasn't until they began to release microgroove long players [7"; 8"; 10"] that their niche really began to appear.  It was on the advice of Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl in 1956 that Topic Records came to identify the folk revival as a potentially lucrative market.  Harker cites an album TRL 3, on which he claims Lloyd worked with Unity Player Harry Corbett, as being the stimulus behind Topic becoming more enamoured of the folk scene [Harker might have mistaken this recording for an earlier 78 rpm single TRC 3], but, although Lloyd did work with the Unity on a number of occasions, it seems far more likely that the astute Lloyd and MacColl identified Topic as an outlet for their own work [interview with Bob Buckle November,1996].

The evidence for this assumption is strong, as one glance through the massive MacColl and Lloyd output on the label will testify.  Rather than having to compromise their own rather specialised material in order to please a larger record company, it would have been far more judicious to co-opt the rather wayward, naive and ill-defined Topic record label [and their continued financial support from the WMA] as their delegated disseminator.  Buckle even suggested to me that the Topic-Lloyd/MacColl link-up was the only time he had been aware of "artists signing a label!".

By September 1956, Topic had announced that they were to become the first label in the country to have a consistent policy towards folk music by launching its 'Blue Label' towards the end of that year:

Topic have now overcome difficulties which previously limited their editions and promise that the new seven and eight inch 33 1/3 r.p.m. discs will be available to the general public.  The series, which will sell at approximately 16/- a disc, will be prepared under the guidance of experts in the field and will cover international as well as British songs.

Bill Leader has just taken over as production manager with Topic.  He has been associated with Sing since its first number and was instrumental in building our sales in Yorkshire before he moved to London. 15

So, by 1957, Topic folk recordings were available via Collet's, the growing network of folk clubs and by mail-order; they also attracted a little passing interest from those retail shops willing to place orders on behalf of their customers [source: The Musical Box, 1995].  Bert Lloyd quickly released a record of Australian bush songs for Topic, after having ended his contract with HMV.  He also recorded a 78rpm single for Topic with Al Jeffrey: The Banks of The Condamine/Bold Jack Donahue.  He was appointed Artistic Director of Topic Records whilst also obtaining for himself a record deal with the American Riverside label.  Harker states that:
Lloyd used this increasingly influential position not only to give an airing to the songs and music he had collected in Eastern Europe, but also to select what was suitable from his perspective for folk club performers in Britain.  Lloyd exerted a strong influence in this way, at a period when the major record companies had yet to cash in on the 'folk' market ... 16
In truth, there still wasn't an awful lot for any industry to 'cash in' on.  Nevertheless, what remains of Topic's early discography bears out Harker's claim for, even though Bill Leader and Gerry Sharp [an accountant who didn't like folk music] took over artistic affairs [Leader 1958, Sharp 1960] from Lloyd, both he and MacColl continued to dominate the label.  EPs such as Row Bullies Row, The Blackball Line and Bold Sportsmen; albums such as First Person, Sea Shanties, The Great Australian Legend; thematic works such as The Iron Muse, Leviathan!, The Bird In The Bush, The Valiant Sailor; not to mention field recordings such as Rumanian Folk Music; Folk Music of Bulgaria; Folk Music Of Albania were all Lloyd and/or MacColl projects released on Topic.  Although Lloyd's position as artistic director only officially lasted twelve months, his musical policies and interests pervaded the label for years to come.  For example, following the young Anne Briggs' appearance at the Centre 42 concert in Nottingham in 1962, her subsequent personal support from Lloyd ensured that she would appear on Topic.

The WMA had already worked with Ewan MacColl.  By March, 1954 both Scotland Sings [1953] and The Shuttle and Cage songbooks had been published by the Association.  The latter of these two small songbooks was solely dedicated to industrial folk ballads and was edited by MacColl.  It proved to be a great success and was continually re-printed up until the mid-1970s.  MacColl, by joining the roster at Topic, together with Peggy Seeger, ensured that there was a regular release of recorded product bearing their names.  MacColl and Seeger recorded innumerable tracks for the label, some very 'committed', others [like 16 Tons, Fitba' Crazy and The Wee Cooper o' Fife] rather less 'pure' than his political image might suggest.  By 1956/7 Topic [and the WMA] had become the significant disseminator for a growing folk network.  This was principally because they released records by not simply three of the most important recording artistes on the British folk scene, but actually the folk equivalent of the Holy Trinity: Bert Lloyd; Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.  The WMAs role was further galvanised by the support of the left-wing song journal Sing.

SING magazine

Sing was a bi-monthly publication initiated by the London Youth Choir in May, 1954.  Financially assisted by the Workers' Music Association, the London Youth Choir was also linked to the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Leon Rosselson, Shirley Collins and Hylda Sims had all been members of the NYC.  The editor of Sing was party member Eric Winter and his music editor was John Hasted, a member of the 'agit-prop' Ramblers singing group.  The importance of Sing's influence on the British Folk Revival cannot be underestimated.  By 1956, it was presenting both British and American folk songs to its readership and was being mailed to various interested parties the length and breadth of the country.

Sing could correctly be described as the folk revival's first real mouthpiece, for, although the EFDSS' English Dance And Song had been in existence for a number of years, by the mid-1950s it was considered both ideologically 'unsound' and concentrating too much upon dance.  Sing's principal duty was to print songs, not dances.  Each edition was rather like a small songbook with [somewhat typically] only a limited space being given over to articles.  Sing also re-printed songs from its more illustrious colleague in the USA, Sing Out!, both before and during the skiffle boom [but less so as time went on: correspondence raising the issue of 'traditional material' in the summer of 1957; the instigation of MacColl's policy in 1958].  It also reprinted many songs from the various WMA songbooks.

In October, 1957 an English Folk Music Festival and singing competition was organised at Cecil Sharp House and it was following this event that the stylistic and ideological battle-lines were drawn-up between Sing and the EFDSS.  There was great disagreement at this time between Winter and Fred [Karl] Dallas on the one hand, and Douglas and Peter Kennedy, on the other, about presentation and accompaniment of folk song, and from that moment on the two folk camps were codified.   Despite its obvious influence, however, Sing was never that far away from financial disaster and after making innumerable requests for donations during its lifetime, it eventually 'ran out of gas' in the mid-1960s.  Dallas then founded the influential Folk Music in 1964 and was to contribute for many years to the Melody Maker folk pages.


Unlike a great many associated with the Historians Group of the Communist Party, Bert Lloyd [along with Morton and Eric Hobsbawm] stayed with the party after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.  This might have been as much out of financial probity as political ideology.  Harker states that Lloyd was never totally independent of some sort of CP patronage and he was intermittently funded up until 1967 [and possibly beyond] by the WMA and Topic for a variety of different projects.  However, by the early-1960s, despite the acumen shown by both Bill Leader and [especially] Gerry Sharp, Topic Records were struggling, financially.

By 1960, the impact of the folk revival was changing.  A new generation of ex-skifflers were discovering folksong, looking for it not only in the folk clubs, but also on record.  Yet Topic were unable to capitalise upon this growth area, being severely financially restricted.  By the end of the 1950s they were receiving very little financial support from the WMA because it, in turn, had also dramatically contracted.  At least ten thousand members had left the Communist Party after the Hungary debacle in 1956 and the CPGB in itself became little more than a 'ginger group'.  The WMA, as an offshoot of the CP was thus severely deprived of funds.  By the end of the decade its London headquarters had already moved from Great Newport Street, to Bishop's Bridge Road and thence to a modest basement address in Westbourne Terrace.  In fact, in 1958 Topic were forced into relative autonomy and, by 1960, under the new director Sharp, they had moved to a separate address in Hampstead, beginning what they subsequently described as "a period of consolidation ... for a while new releases were few" 17.  In other words, in order to survive as a truly independent record label, they had to reconsider their ideology in a growing commercial market-place for recorded folksong.

Topic did continue to release a few 10" and 12" albums as the new decade began, but they had severe competition from other labels promoting a mixture of British and American product.  Two notable Topic albums from 1959/60 were Still I Love Him by Isla Cameron and Ewan MacColl [10T50] and Streets of Song by Ewan MacColl and Dominic Behan [12T41].  However, Top Rank released an album by Margaret Barry [25/020] and obtained a licence to release the Newport Folk Festival albums.  Folkways, previously distributed by Topic, were made directly available through Collet's, while Jac Holzman's Elektra label obtained a British distribution deal with Pye.  Decca records redesignated its spoken-word Argo series to include more folk music [Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger were quick to jump onto this band-wagon] and the short-lived independent Collector label actually recorded some of Topic's 'names' such as Jeannie Robertson, Shirley Collins and Robin Hall.  Even Dobell's jazz shop was releasing occasional folk music such as Rat-A-Tap-Tap...English folk songs Miss Pringle never taught us [Dobell F-LET1].  The market was, indeed, beginning to stir, but Topic had neither the financial 'clout', nor the business acumen to prevent incursions into a field that they had established and ploughed for three years [with limited financial success].

1960 was also the year in which the EFDSS went through a major upheaval resulting in the resignation of Douglas Kennedy in 1961, but the direct influence of the CP-backed WMA was beginning to diminish owing to their chronic lack of funds brought about by a dwindling devoted and the activities of those linked to Sing began to predominate.  Sing editor Eric Winter had become a member of the EFDSS and he and Sydney Carter, editor of the Society's journal English Dance And Song, got together to produce a 'pirate edition' for New Year of 1961.  This was after Carter had been writing a number of 'provocative' editorials in ED&S during 1960.  For example, an editorial from 24/2, September, 1960, written by Carter, stated:


This is the English Folk Dance AND Song Society; but you wouldn't think so, to look at our post-bag.  Most of the articles and letters we receive are about the Dance, and not the Song.  Delighted though we are to find the Dance so flourishing...we are a bit concerned about the Song.  Does this apparent lack of interest really reflect our attitude as a Society?

Perhaps it does.  But it certainly does not reflect what is happening outside the Society.  There is a new interest in Folk Music [especially folk song] in circles which have never heard of Cecil Sharp.  Cecil Sharp wanted to give Folk Music back to the people.  Well, it has happened-though not always in the way we expected.  Some of the things called 'folk' in 1960 may surprise us: but we ought at any rate to be aware of them.

That is why we have reviewed no less than eighteen 'folk' records in this issue.  We could have reviewed another twenty but for lack of space.  To make room for even eighteen we have had to move a few of the old landmarks.  This magazine, like Folk Music itself, is in a state of flux.  Ye Olde and the new are rather strangely mixed up at the moment [and this applies to our lay-out and typography as well].  Things will get sorted out, we hope; but it takes time.  Meanwhile, your comments, even rude ones, will be welcome.  With this brief warning and apology we hand you on to the Director.

Topic were unable to immediately capitalise on this musical alliance between Carter and Winter.  Still connected, politically, to an ever-receding ideology, particularly after the erection of the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart [a.k.a. the Berlin Wall] in August 1961, as a record company it produced very little that year and was unable to press a single album in 1962, relying upon EPs only.  At least three of these EPs were in demand, but Topic even experienced difficulty in locating the finances to re-press:
TOP69: Songs Spun In Liverpool.  A live session recorded by the Spinners. TOP70: 3/4 A.D.  The seminal blues/jazz fusion from Davey Graham and Alexis Korner. TOP76: Ceilidh at the Crown [Live at the Jug Of Punch] by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.
Bert Loyd, meanwhile, had embarked upon a trades union backed tour in 1962, entitled Centre 42, and organised by Arnold Wesker.  Overt Communism was placed to one side with the tour intending to [rather more imprecisely] 'decentralize art from London' [Ken Hunt 1990].  It was perceived as intended to deliver 'good left-wing culture' [Gill Cook 1990], however, whether the Trades Unions sanctioned any out-and-out Communist messages remains doubtful for the culture in question was a variety of musical genres, art work and drama together with poetry and jazz organised by Jeremy Robson.  Robson later commented [1969:15] that despite this eclecticism Centre 42 still "tended to draw one kind of audience".

But it also drew upon a pool of first-class performers.  On the folk side were Ray Fisher, Louis Killen, Bob Davenport as well as Bert Lloyd himself.  Also included [and reflecting the growing uses of Irish and Scottish song in the 'English' revival] were the McPeakes of Ireland and the Stewarts of Blairgowrie.  After the tour's visit to Nottingham, an 18 year old Anne Briggs was added to the tour's [and Topic's] roster.  Briggs' memories of Lloyd at this time make interesting reading:

As a person he was a quiet and very positive sort of bloke.  He had a great sense of humour and a tremendous insight into people and situations.  He had a very delicate way of looking at things.  He was a very clever bloke and I learned to appreciate that side of his nature.  When you're 18, 19, 20 you're very impressionable but people like Bert don't come up more than once or twice in your lifetime. 18
The Iron Muse

This "tremendous insight to people and situations" eventually led in 1963 to Topic releasing the album that was both seminal to the changing mood of the British folk revival and a salvation to the company.  Including Briggs on two tracks [The Recruited Collier and The Doffing Mistress] The Iron Muse [12T86] was a highly selective study by Lloyd of what he described as 'industrial folk song', but it was far less overtly political than much of his other work for Topic.  In the wake of a great deal of abandonment of Communist party ideals within the folk scene, together with the mass recognition of the Beatles the same year, the album's regionality and political vagueness struck an appealing chord, firstly amongst the folk clubs and then among the general public, and duly sold in substantial amounts.  Topic was essentially saved as a going concern and, henceforth, for many people, would be regarded as the label producing 'concept' albums well before that 'concept' had reached the sphere of rock music in 1966-7.  Like The Iron Muse, records such as Farewell Nancy [12T110] and Tommy Armstrong of Tyneside [12T122] featured the best singers in the revival and became essential purchases.

The Iron Muse had tapped into a growing sense of critical regionalism abroad in the country, and Topic was no longer seen as so obviously tied to Communist party politics.  Folk music had, in fact, become 'trendy'.  Popular film and television programmes such as A Kind of Loving; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; 'A Taste of Honey; Z Cars and Coronation Street had already begun to draw the public's attention towards the regions in a much less stereotypical way.  Because of its level of ideological obscurity, The Iron Muse was able to slot into this mood much more than any previous Topic releases.  By laying aside ideology and a level of historical accuracy, this record became Topic's most commercial project to date.  Subsequently, label director Gerry Sharp steered Topic along their albeit musically uncompromising road until his death in the mid-1970s, but he followed a more indeterminate political pathway than had previously been the case.  One of Sharp's most satisfying achievements was to issue in Britain, in 1968-9, the 10 LP collection The Folksongs of Britain [12T157-61, 194-8].  These recordings were drawn from the field work of Peter Kennedy, Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson and others, and until that time had only been available on the American Caedmon label.  Topic, however, were able to obtain a license to release these albums and sold them both as two volumes and individually.  This series sold well and introduced more Britons to the voices of Harry Cox, the Copper Family, John Strachan, Elizabeth Cronin, and many others.

Because of The Iron Muse, Topic was able to reach its 200th number and the 1970s at one and the same time and in some degree of financial security.  The success of this important album even moved Elektra to issue it as their first Topic release in the USA in the spring of 1964.  During the 1960s, following the critical moments of 1962-3, Topic were able to release about 10 or 12 records per year.  Some early issues were deleted [chiefly the runs of EPs which were proving too expensive], but by 1970 they developed a firm policy of keeping in catalogue all that remained whilst also becoming increasingly attentive to Irish music.  By the mid-1970s, connections between Topic, the WMA and the British Communist Party had ceased to occupy the minds of all but a hard-core, and, although some of those involved in the label remained staunchly political, they did not allow politics to overtly interfere with the running of the label.  Stalwart Tony Russell was later to state to this author that the more Topic "actually became a record label, the less Bert Lloyd was involved." 19  In 1978 Topic and the WMA formally parted company.  By the late-1970s, and after 20 years and 250 titles on their catalogue, Topic justifiably claimed to have the most substantial and wide-ranging collection of recorded British folk music in the world.

Ewan MacColl and The Policy Decision

As folk luminaries go, few come larger than Ewan MacColl.  Born in Auchterarder, Perthshire in 1915 as Jimmie Miller he died in October, 1989.  His loss was still being lamented some years later:
... were you to ask me just who it would be that future historians will deem the greatest loss, then there is no contest.  It has to be Jimmie Miller.  Jimmie who?  Oh yes, I know that the cognoscenti are well aware of just who it is I am referring to, but for those of you still guessing, let me give you a clue.  Born in Auchterarder, Perthshire during the second year of world war one.  Composer, political agitator, playwright, essayist, folk-singer, actor, Stalinist and visionary ... Of course I refer to the great Ewan MacColl, to give him his professional name. 20
Just as we have our copious supplies of revision notes on Trollope and our casebooks on George Eliot, based, still, on the Leavisite model, so it often appears that certain elements within the folk world would have us enter into a quasi-religious dialogue based around affective values and basic mythologies concerning the difference between communal and consumer music.  Ewan MacColl is frequently cited as the epitome of that difference, the evidence of the truth behind that difference.  He was greatly influenced by what he experienced first-hand during the Depression years, and by seeing what advanced capitalism had done to his own father and others around him, and so his life-long allegiance to the Communist Party [although he also claimed to have left the Party during the 1950s] is somewhat understandable 21.  His own historical context created a vision of society and performance that was highly contextual and utterly relevant ... to Ewan MacColl.  However, what MacColl as a theoretician shared with the aforementioned Leavisites was a universalising gesture, a sign which, somewhat ironically, was historically rooted both in the bourgeois enlightenment to which he appeared opposed, as well as the Marxism which he embraced.  By pitching the forces of an anti-modern musical 'enlightenment' against the technocracy of modernity, MacColl unfairly reduced practically all musical modernity to little more than degeneration.

Furthermore, while claiming historical 'meaning' and 'difference' for his beloved folk music, his refusal to embrace any substantial reception theory in his analyses [i.e. that interpretation of text is as much the responsibility of the individual, as a self-appointed folklorist] produced an holistic interpretation of musical communication, which is both historically questionable and undesirable.  In fact MacColl's hagiography is possibly one of the weakest forms of history writing, empty of critical content and full of romanticism; the latter of which habitually ignores the ideological inconsistencies of the inauthentic.  Take, for example, the influence of Peter Pears accompanied by Benjamin Britten, singing The Foggy Dew, or Herbert Wiseman's 'Singing Together' on the Home Service; both were influential on young people growing up in the immediate post-war era, despite their departures from MacColl's narrative of authenticity.  Jack Froggatt recalled the latter:

Oh yes! we all had to listen to that at school.  It was technology entering the classroom, having the radio there, and we would sit and listen and then sing along ... the teacher would lead us.  Much of the time we were singing folk music as far as I can remember, and our teacher was very keen on this stuff.  She was also fond of country dancing, and that would be on the radio, too, so we'd all line up and the girls would make you blush, and we would dance to the radio.  I discovered many years later that our teacher had been a member of the EFDSS and so she rose in my estimation!  I think that this was quite the done thing for a lot of teachers in the late 40s early 50s.  Looking back it seems to me that there was a sort of unwritten agenda; you know, a type of 'official' sanction of folk music in schools and on the Home Service.  Although it made me aware of folk music, it didn't succeed AS SUCH ... that came much later when I started listening to American singers like Guthrie.  But it was there ...  it was always there.

You got the feeling as a kid that there was a sort of pact NOT to return to the thirties, and that one of the things that was employed in this pact was folk music, so that it made you appreciate the more distant past and the music of the 'working classes'; sort of made you think that it was important.  A bit complex, that, but I did feel that to be the case.  I also remember much later reading something called The Idiom of the People by James Reeves, and that expressed a sort of agenda from what I can remember.  MacColl and a guy by the name of Colclough had The Critics Group and this was a very political group within the movement which wanted to direct you towards the correct interpretation of folk song.  It was very noticeable for always being 'right' [I mean 'correct'].  It was very evangelical. 22

Despite showing some interest in the social functions of skiffle [and even recording a skiffle EP with the Lomax Ramblers for Decca] MacColl was far from impressed with the music's commercial success.  He was furious that the left-wing scenes that had openly promoted this new dialectic for popular music [trad jazz and folk] had been overtaken by a non-political, inauthentic [and 'mercenary'] hybrid.  His backlash to the successes of Lonnie Donegan, the Vipers and Chas McDevitt was a highly-charged 'knee-jerk' reaction, but one which also became written in folk tablets of stone for many years.  This was the 'decree' of the policy club and the formation of the Critics Group.  Even today, the repercussions can still be heard.  MacColl stated that he:
... became concerned that we had a whole generation who were becoming quasi-Americans, and I felt this was absolutely monstrous!  I was convinced that we had a music that was just as vigorous as anything that America had produced, and we should be pursuing some kind of national identity, not just becoming an arm of American cultural imperialism.  That's the way I saw it, as a political thinker of the time, and it's the way I still see it. 23
His decision to formulate the Critics Group and subsequently to create a policy rule in the Ballads and Blues Club, and then the Singers Club was highly controversial, even then.  Especially given the fact that after the advent of skiffle in 1956 many fans of the popular Lonnie Donegan were drifting into folk clubs.  Many felt that MacColl and the group were setting themselves up as a politically elitist authority on folk music and, as Denselow suggests, it was a "political as well as an artistic gesture".  However, in an interesting insight into the potential power of 'sour grapes', Boyes has also suggested that MacColl was particularly vexed by the poor review that the journal Sing gave to his Topic recording of the American song Sixteen Tons [Merle Travis].  By the late-1950s MacColl had:
... decided on a policy: that from now on residents, guest singers and those who sang from the floor should limit themselves to songs which were in a language the singer spoke or understood.  We became what began to be known as a 'policy club'. 24
To begin with, these policies emanating from the Critics Group actually addressed much of their attention to floor singing.  Floor singing had become a salient feature of folk clubs by the end of the 1950s and usually involved members of the 'audience' [although this expression became less and less relevant as the decade went on] being invited to stand up and sing unaccompanied.  This was regarded by some as an essential and democratic feature of the folk club, however it was also seen by others such as MaColl as rather musically anarchic.  Singer Fred McCormick remembers: He would allow only three floor singers and would cancel them all at a whim if he thought it was necessary.  That's the real way he ran things ... for himself. 25 It is hardly surprising that, following MacColl's intervention, the floor singing spot subsequently became the moment at which the same person usually stood up to sing the same song at the same time at every meeting; thus creating a vocal and visible display of hierarchy rather than democracy, via performance.  Given the potentially oppositional status of the folk revival at this stage, MacColl's interference was illogical.  On the one hand, he was supposed to be championing a free-flow of 'workers' music through a channel of democratic, non-mediated dissemination, yet, at the same time he was arguing against the view that music was an international language!   If the singer was American, the song also had to be American "so what you didn't have was a bloke from Walthamstow pretending to be from China or from the Mississippi". 26 A performance hierarchy evolved because the policies of MacColl and his supporters searched for both the authentic and the repertory.  Styles of singing were also brought into the equation; it was debated, for example, whether a folk song actually remained a 'folk' song if it was performed in what was viewed as a 'contemporary' manner.  Contemporary meant a number of things: firstly if the vocal inflection was 'American'; secondly if it was even vocally 'syncopated'; thirdly if the singer added instrumentation to a [say] ballad that was considered to be extant as an unaccompanied artifact.  Ultimately it meant 'inauthentic'.  A folkie from Beverley recalled to me in 1995:
I went along with it but I remember thinking that it was like trying to entertain the mother-in-law, you know, making sure that you didn't blaspheme or laugh in the wrong place!  It was quite ridiculous.  What if, say, Buddy Holly was your idol?  How can you stop yourself wanting to sound even a little bit like him? ... After all this time a lot of American music, whether it's rock 'n' roll or the Kingston Trio, is as legitimately traditional as Auld Lang Syne! 27
But according to MacColl and Peggy Seeger there had to be a correct way of singing a traditional song and a level of consonance had to be reflected.  Therefore the Critics Group were also assembled in order to analyse each other's singing.  The Critics Group were interested in vocal nuances, inflections and timbres that could be described as 'authentically English'.  Not surprisingly they were reviled by some as being utterly dogmatic, but they prevailed.  Boyes states that from this time the movement was turning on itself.  Bob Buckle thought that this was an early indication by the revivalists of a 'death wish':
... yes, a 'death wish' all right! I look back on it now and I physically cringe.  I mean the policy in our club [West Kirby] was that we basically didn't have a policy.  'Come All Ye'! But the very expression 'Policy Club' became rife.  'You can't sing this, you can't sing that'...'you must have a policy about floor singers'...even...'you must take the musical initiative from the Singer's Club in London'.  We MUST? We didn't take much notice, and when we had a singer in from that particular clique of folkies it tended to be a pretty dour affair, pretty much unaccompanied 'finger in the ear stuff'.  Pete and I [The Leesiders] would have to get things going again.  Word got around that we were rather liberal and one night in the mid-1960s, MacColl sort of warned me about it when we were in London.  You know, sort of half-jokingly 'come the revolution'...that kind of stuff.  We'd turned up at the Scots Hoose, I think, after playing at Cecil Sharp House.  We'd had a few beers, sung a few songs, but Ewan was there and he wasn't pleased.  We discovered that our rather irreligious reputation had preceded us! 28
And Sydney Carter interviewing MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1960 stated:
... there's no doubt that a lot of English people LIKE singing American folk songs.  Now I know some people disapprove of this.  Alan Lomax, for example, was always urging us to get back to our own stuff.  But I'm not so sure; because I remember that in my own case my enthusiasm for folk songs really started in Greece with Greek folk songs.  I should be sorry to think that we must only sing our own things. 29
But Peggy Seeger remained unmoved "Well, let's put it this way, how would you like it if everybody in the world spoke one language ... Esperanto ...?" 30

However, although attendances suffered immediately after the introduction of the policy rule, they recovered well in a short space of time.  People were still rather used-to being 'organised' in the 1950s.  The very structure of a folk club closely resembled that of a Scout or Boys' Brigade meeting, in any case, with subscriptions, lists and announcements, and soon an audience was built up from those who were quite willing to follow the song policy.  But if intertextuality in song performance was unacceptable and contemporary material anathema, how could this historical avant-garde possibly hope to remain a challenge to any perceived musical/social status quo while it receded into antiquarian connoisseurship?  It was certainly no coincidence that, by the 1960s, the folk scene had already begun to bleed into a pop protest culture.  The blues/baroque and singer/songwriters brought important intertextual challenges to bear on the Critics Group.  Pop was both topical and immediate; pop revolted against the very abstract expressionism inherent in the policy club decision; pop was commercially viable as well as being exciting; pop's critical regionalism even drew attention towards the folk scene!  And yet MacColl and his devotees still thought of pop as an Adornian manipulative and massified product.

For MacColl, the political struggle was not simply for better housing, work and wages, but also correct cultural traditions in sound.  A cultural melting pot was total anathema:

If we subject ourselves consciously or unconsciously to too much cultural acculturation, as the anthropologists call it, we'll finish with no folk culture at all.  We'll finish with a kind of cosmopolitan, half-baked music which doesn't satisfy the emotion of anybody. 31
He stated that his policy was "not nationalistic, but political", even equating the potential dearth of the idiomatic with Hitler's attempts to exterminate regionality in song and language in pre-war Germany.  When he decided to travel the country collecting and performing in the mid-1950s, he argued that his policy had worked, in any case.  For he claimed that the Singers Club alone had 11,000 members, and that 1,500 clubs had opened up across the British Isles carrying his singers policy [Denselow 1989].  He also claimed that those involved with folk music were predominantly drawn from the working-classes.  How true these claims were is, indeed, open to debate and further research.  Certainly the figure of 11,000 appears to be a gross exaggeration.  Harry Boardman, often cited as the first folkie to open a club in Manchester [e.g.  Boyes 1993] in 1954, actually stated to Folk Review in 1975:
... we didn't even know the term 'folk club'.  It didn't exist.  There was a classical guitar session in a Manchester pub called the Guitar Circle, so Lesley [Boardman] and I thought of starting a 'folk circle' ...I was not even aware of MacColl's Ballads and Blues club until 1957. 32
And in the 'What's On and Who's Singing' column of September, 1959, Sing was only able to identify nine English folk clubs [Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and six in London].  Although this list is probably incomplete, it in no way, shape or form resembles the perhaps outrageous claims of Ewan MacColl.

One also wonders whether MacColl's claims for youthful working-class loyalty was as much a political PR exercise as anything else, for while he was flogging around his beloved folk club network, were not Harry Belafonte and Lonnie Donegan vying for working-class appreciation of folk song in the British Hit Parade?  MacColl refused to acknowledge the full power of multiplicity in musical communication, and also refused to acknowledge the positive potential of a proliferating media.  In fact, Dave Arthur, one-time potential biographer of A L Lloyd, stated in 1973 with some exasperation that:

The folk music revival in this country seems to have been built and fostered on misconceptions.  For a start it was not started, or perpetuated, by the working classes, who to this day are blissfully unaware of its existence.  It would appear to be the product of left wing intellectuals who somehow lost control of things when it was taken up by the young middle class intelligentsia, grammar school boys, university graduates, teachers and the like.  The movement rather than breaking down barriers has set up a whole load of its own, with the conventions upheld by romantic idealists, and pedants, of which the revival has more than its fair share. 33
Despite all of MacColl's activity, popular music from the late-1950s onward was able to ground itself more in the activities of the working-classes, from both a financial and a social point of view, thus making it a real representation of common expression.  While the folk revivalists were treating music-making like boffin-like technicians in white lab-coats, folk popularist Lonnie Donegan was actually 'meaning' something to people.  After a successful tour of America in 1957 Donegan shared the bill at the London Palladium for two weeks with the Platters and then starred with Chas McDevitt, Nancy Whiskey and Bob Cort's Skiffle Group at the first Skiffle Festival at the Royal Albert Hall!  Skiffle's time in the limelight was short and Donegan might have [debatably] ended-up as a "rather tacky cabaret performer" [Denselow 1989] but it was he, and not MacColl, who revolutionised music perception and use.  It was Donegan who almost literally placed acoustic guitars into the hands of a generation of teenagers, not Ewan MacColl.  In fact, Donegan remains arguably the most important and influential UK artist of the post-war era.  Without Donegan there would be no Quarry Men.  Without the Quarry Men...?

MacColl's notion of a folk revival was constructed as a packhorse to carry an ideological burden.  He was always preternaturally sensitive to the needs of what he saw as his social class.  However, like Matthew Arnold before him, he also saw an urgent need to cultivate the 'philistine' middle classes who had, prior to the advent of the 1945 Labour government, been unable to underpin their growing political and economic power with a socially enriching ideology.  What both MacColl and Bert Lloyd failed to realise was that their actions controlled and enslaved older musical forms as visions of a working-class past for the advantage of a beneficial middle-class present.  They not only negated the potential for individual production, but also reception.  Producer and recipient in music are always distinct, no matter how homogenous the public might appear.

Additionally, by authorising and accepting certain soundtracks [but not others] into his universalising museum of objects, MacColl was limiting any potentially provocative nature of his chosen music.  The concept of objectifying folk music into a canonical resource ultimately rejects any revolutionary manifesto.  No claim to protest can be maintained under souvenir-like conditions.  Hence, perhaps, the institutionalised 'arts and crafts' museum image that the folk scene has conveyed well into the 1990s.

It is all the more ironic that MacColl is best remembered by the public for his wonderful song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.  He wrote it, ostensibly, as a personal tribute to Peggy Seeger in 1957, and throughout the mid to late-1960s it was performed by a number of 'middle-of-the-road' US folkies such as Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and the Smothers Brothers.  However, when released by African-American soul singer Roberta Flack in 1972, the song became a US number one hit single and an international pop smash.  MacColl deservedly received an Ivor Novello award in 1973.  Everybody from Elvis Presley to Mantovani then recorded The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and without the royalties from this highly successful pop song he would have been unable to start his record label [Blackthorn] the following year.  But he was "appalled"; daughter-in-law Justine Picardie:

He hated them all.  He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled 'The Chamber of Horrors'.  He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet.  And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and completely lacking in grace. 34
Ewan MacColl was [for the most part] a first class songwriter and interpretor and his artistic legacy is great.  His absence might appear, as Dai Woosnam 35 suggests, like a "gaping wound" to many; however what his 'policy club' effectively brought about was the illogical imposition of a singular historical/political consciousness determined by 'time' [Marxism, the Industrial Revolution, 'Advanced Capitalism'] upon song.  This came to be challenged by another determined via a multivalence of 'space': the 'here and now'.  The musical manifestation of which was pop.

Irwin Silber, the editor of Sing Out!, the influential American folksong magazine, already acknowledged in January, 1964 that :

The Beatles, at least, gave us Hard Day's Night, and if any reader has missed this film, our advice is to rush out and see it next time around.  It's one of the great film comments of our age.  Compare it to Hootenanny Hoot, for instance, and a lot of things fall into place.  The basic fact, of course, is that folk music and rock and roll are not the two separate worlds that many think.  Much genuine folk expression of our time has come through the medium of rock and roll, and we venture the thought that Chuck Berry, B B King, and Tommy Tucker have created an identification with this generation that few folk singers can duplicate.  Perhaps if more folk singers did not choose to hold themselves aloof, some of the great realistic elements of the folk tradition would merge with the basically healthy moral outlook and musical sound we now call rock and roll. 36
Many subsequent letters to Sing Out! declared support for Silber's populist eclecticism.  This, for example, from September 1965 [after Billboard had run the headline FOLK+ROCK+PROTEST=DOLLARS]:
I think that the Beatles should be on the cover of SING OUT! Also the Rolling Stones.  I'm sick of arguing about Dennon, Lylan, Seeger, commerciality, ethnicity and all these exhausted targets. 37

Mike Brocken

A more-or-less complete Topic Records Discography, initially researched
and complied by Dr Mike Brocken, appears elsewhere in these pages.

[Introduction] [Beginnings] [The WMA and Topic Records] [Sing Magazine]
[Survival] [Ewan MacColl and The Policy Decision] [Notes]


Article MT020

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