The Radio Ballads:

a personal overview of the series

Topic TSCD 801 - 808

“As a boy, four, five, six year old, I remember my father talking about this legendary figure, Temple; Temple, the Big Hewer.  Whether he was real or purely legendary I never knew, even to this day.” Jack Elliot, from The Big Hewer.

This is not a fact that you will find scarred on the edifice of any conventional history, but the termination of hostilities at the end of world war two left the powers that be with a large surfeit of concrete.  Like swords into ploughshares, the arbiters of social progress channelled the stuff from the construction of airfields and sea defences into the more pacific stratagem of re-housing the working class.  Cover pictureThe post war housing programme was a noble undertaking, and the world of the council estate was a vast improvement on the hovels which housed the heroes of a previous European conflagration.  Nevertheless, it was dull and grey and soulless and monotonous, and it was devoid of any sense of identity or community.  It was the world in which I grew up.

The prevailing view of the lower orders, as a lumpen unindivuated mass, was by no means confined to housing estate architects and town planners.  It informed the entire social policy of the era, including the programmes of health and social security and industrial nationalisation.  It was also the bedrock on which the 1944 Education Act was founded, for the researches of one Cyril Burt had demonstrated that the vast majority of the members of the working class could only be educated up to a certain level.  That Burt was subsequently found to have falsified the data which supported these conclusions did not affect the ethos in which he made them.  The working class were deemed incapable of independent thought or action.  They could not lead, they could only follow.  They could not create, they could only absorb.  They were not capable of articulating or appreciating anything of artistic or cultural worth.  Above all, they had no individual or collective history or culture or identity.

The role of the working class, then, was to stand in line and be told.  We were a problem to be dealt with by slide rules and statistics, rather than a collective of feeling, sensate personages, whose individual talents and aptitudes required nurturing into fruition.

It was precisely because they countered this attitude of assumed plebian insignificance that the radio ballads were such a revelation.  They were an art form, certainly.  They were ground breaking, without a doubt.  They gave the folk revival many fine songs to sing and that is not something we should undervalue or ignore.  Indeed, some of the finest songs Ewan MacColl ever wrote were written for the radio ballads.  Yet, their greatest significance lies in their demonstrating two simple facts.  Firstly, ordinary working people, "two arms, two legs, just like me", have a tale to tell and a voice to be heard.  Secondly, the tale, and the manner of telling, are things peculiar to the working class.  They are the products of working class experience, and oral culture.

It was this latter realisation which led to the moulding of the radio ballad format, and which also caused the production team - Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger - to thus christen the new genre.  Ostensibly, to use the term ballad was nonsense.  The traditional ballad tells the story of a single event as a sequential narrative.  The radio ballads do not.  They present sound pictures, impressions in fragmentary interlays, of song and speech and music and chanted chorus.  They show what is like to be a miner, or a fisherman, or a teenager on the edge of the adult world.  Even so, the radio ballad resembles the traditional ballad in several crucial respects.  Both forms are impersonal, both are segmental, and both move from section to section with no connecting narrative.  Neither makes use of preamble, neither has any superfluity of detail.  Most important of all, both utilise a language which is terse, pithy, direct and to the point.

It is this pithiness of speech which is both crucial to the radio ballad form and which distinguishes the radio ballad from the radio documentary.  The speech of other social groups is too verbose to facilitate honing into minute slivers of actuality.  Without slivers of actuality, there would have been nothing around which to build all the other fragments of sound.  “You could make a documentary about bank clerks”, I recall producer, Charles Parker, saying, “but you couldn’t make a radio ballad”.  If you doubt those words, listen to the speech patterns in Song of a Road.  Listen to the site engineers talking about how they planned and oversaw the construction of the London - Yorkshire Motorway, and contrast their speech with that of the fitters and drivers and shovel slingers, whose sweated labour built it.

The radio ballads were a broadcasting revolution.  Nowadays, the technique of allowing ordinary people to use their own words, without the aid or interference of a narrator, is standard procedure.  In 1958, when The Ballad of John Axon, the first of the radio ballads, was made it was unheard of.  They were a revolution also in developing many of the broadcasting conventions which we now take for granted.  In honing slivers of sound, Parker also honed the close editing techniques which are now such a commonplace of radio and television.  Even so, the radio ballads were a part of those traditions of social realism, which had been a signal feature of radio documentary almost from its inception, and there is a clear debt to several pre-existing media forms.  Actuality, albeit spoken by actors, had been used in documentaries for at least the previous two decades, so had chanted choruses.  Also, while Parker and MacColl acknowledged the inspiration of Earl Robinson’s folk cantata, Lonesome Train, one can only guess at the influence, direct or indirect, of Soviet labour documentaries.  There are certainly strong messages of labour heroism in the way the radio ballad portrays the worker.  He is a warrior of work who grapples with the earth like the central character of some primeval epic.  Cover pictureThe Soviet labour parallel is at its most striking with the prodigious output of that mythical character, The Big Hewer, but it occurs and it reoccurs throughout the radio ballads.  It is there when Sam Larner talks about the fishing, it is there when the boxers talk about the ring, and it is there when John Axon stacks his life against a runaway steam locomotive.

There is another sense in which the radio ballads were revolutionary; they were Marxist.  By that, I do not mean simply that they venerated the worker as hero, for veneration of sweat and toil is not an exclusive characteristic of Marxism.  It is rather that the programmes tilted at two fundamental tenets of Marxist thought.  Firstly, there is the idea, central to everything Marx ever wrote, that the human animal is instinctively creative and that fulfillment and satisfaction come about through creative activity.  Man is homo sapiens certainly, but his cerebral and artistic capabilities are states which he arrives at through first being homo habilus.  For Marx, work is the instrument through which Man makes meaning of the world.  It invests him with a sense of purpose and it is the mechanism through which he achieves oneness with his surroundings, with his fellow human beings, and ultimately with himself.  Time and again, the message comes straight through the speakers; Man is Man by the sweat of his brow; Man is Man because he is master of his environment.  Man is labour, and labour is dignity.  You may wonder where that leaves the fifty per cent of the working class who aren’t men.  That is a question we must hold in reserve for the moment.

The radio ballads are Marxist also in that they tear at the foundations of what Marx called consciousness; the ideologies which people hold by virtue of class allegiance.  The theory of consciousness is too big to deal with here in its entirety.  However, the bit which concerns us runs like this.  In stable economic conditions, where there is unequal access to the means of production, the class which owns that means of production holds the reins of power.  By virtue of that fact, it controls the means of education, and of information dissemination generally.  In a divided society, it uses these institutions to imbue the working class with a vision of the world which is actually antagonistic to working class interests.  The status quo in fact conveniently permeates working people with an ideology which protects the status quo, which justifies exploitation and iniquitous wealth distribution, and which makes working people feel inferior and insignificant and incapable of articulation.  For followers of Marx, the downward dissemination of ruling class interests is the means by which stability is achieved in an unfair and unequal world.  It is also a house of cards which stands in place only as long as people believe in it.  If people can think, if people can articulate, if people can realise that they are more than mere cogs in a machine, might they not then rise up against the system which had turned them into cogs in the first place?

“For the men who win the coal, better days, better days,
Gone the margarine and dole, better days.”

- from The Big Hewer.
However, if the radio ballads are Marxist in philosophy, they are scarcely so in content.  Indeed, to a large extent, they confirm the ruling ideology of the era.  This was that capitalism was here to stay, that the old problems of boom and bust were over, that efficient industrial organisation and a powerful economy had become ingrained facts of British life, and that the best thing the working class could do was to get on the shovel and dig.  We hear of hard times and danger and, in the case of miners, of militant trade unionism, but they are products of the past.  They are relics of a time when men were treated "almost like bloody animals".  Now, with good trade union organisation, improved technology, and enlightened employers, to say nothing of a nationalised Coal Board, we are into an era where miners and fishermen and road builders are treated with some respect.  Again and again, in Singing the Fishing, Song of a Road and The Big Hewer, the message is one of optimism.  The battle is as good as won.

The ‘industrial’ radio ballads - Axon, Road, Fishing, Hewer - constitute the first half of the series.  Like the epic or the folktale, the radio ballad had begun to work to a formula.  You take a group of workers, you ask them questions and then you string together a series of sequences, about their work, about their apprenticeship, about danger and about hard times, and about where the industry is going.  Each of the three subsequent programmes is an attempt to break out of the mould; an attempt to show that the radio ballad can work with other contexts and subject matter.  Yet, if those epics of industry represent a struggle which goes on within, and which is constrained by, the existing social order, we find much the same thing with The Body Blow, On the Edge and The Fight Game.  The boxer struggles within the rules of the ring.  The polio victim struggles for rehabilitation in the everyday world.  The teenager wages a not dissimilar battle to the latter, for the teenager also has to find a place within that world.

The first seven radio ballads therefore are normative in the sense that they codify acceptable patterns of social action.  They are about integration.  They are about social stability, and the role of the working class in maintaining that stability.  The question of integration took a radical turn with The Travelling People, the last and most disturbing of the entire series.  Of all the radio ballads, perhaps of all the radio programmes which have ever been made, this was the one which came closest to scorching the sun.  Unlike the others, The Travelling People was not an ethnography.  It did not set out to portray a way of life.  Rather, it focused on a particular problem; the appalling treatment of the traveller communities of England and Scotland.  It was not about how we incorporate the worker, but about how we eliminate the outcast.  It was angry and it was unsettling.  By all accounts it rattled a few cages in the higher echelons of the BBC and it strengthened the conviction in certain quarters that the radio ballads were dangerous propaganda.  Indeed, Charles Parker claimed that the reaction against The Travelling People was a major factor in the withdrawing of funds for further radio ballads, and that it played a large part in his ultimate dismissal from the BBC.  To be honest, I doubt that history would done much to support his case.  Too many radical dramas and documentaries emerged in the years following the last of the radio ballads for Parker’s notion to have had much substance.  Remember The Big Flame, After a Lifetime, Destiny and Cathy Come Home?  In particular, I remember an angry TV documentary about travellers, called Where Do We Go From Here?  Cover pictureIt never set the world to rights, but it never caused the demise of its producer, Philip Donnellan, either.  Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate what might have happened had the radio ballads been allowed to continue.

For the moment, let us consider whether Topic’s repackaging lives up to its subject matter.  For those familiar with the previous issue of the radio ballads, the ones brought out by The Argo Record Company, the first thing that strikes the eye is that this is a complete set.  By that, I do not just mean that all the programmes have been included - The Body Blow and Song of a Road were never issued by Argo.  Cover pictureRather, it is that the art work has been uniformly designed to emphasise the realist nature of the programmes.  The booklet illustrations are tougher and grainier, and much more graphic than those which adorned the LP sleeves.  That glaring no entry sign, on the CD cover of The Travelling People, tells us far more about the restrictions imposed upon travellers, than a picture of well-scrubbed children playing on a gypsy caravan ever could.  I was though relieved to find that Charles Parker’s marvellously eloquent sleeve notes have been retained intact, or almost.  I noticed that, by some quirk of typesetting or editorial decision, one of the sentences in The Travelling People has been modified.  Previously it read, ‘As material for a radio ballad these people were a pushover’.  In the CD notes, the word ‘pushover’ has been replaced by ‘natural’ and I am puzzled as to why.  Perhaps the editors felt that, in the politically correct world of the new millennium, there was a need to conceal Parker’s utterance.  I have to disagree.  To those who knew him, Charles Parker was a gloriously obsessive and passionate individual.  He believed, with a burning conviction, in the dignity and probity of the human race and in the power of the broadcasting media to express those qualities.  By the time I met him he had become a convert to Maoism, yet his unshakable faith in humanity seemed rooted more in the philosophies of Jean Jaques Rousseau and Jesus Christ than those of Marx and Lenin.  His beliefs informed every manifestation of his art, including those sleeve notes.  Surely, in the context of what he had to say, and as a measure of how deeply he felt, they should have been left alone?

The booklets also contain a useful article, written by Laurence Aston, which details the history of the radio ballads.  It is because of this that I have not dwelt on their history here, and I would advise anybody wishing to be suitably informed to read what Mr Aston says.  I did however pick up a curious commentary relating to the use of montage.  It says that the decision to use this technique was made during production of The Body Blow and that it was inspired by montage sequences in the Alain Resnais film, Last Year in Marienbad.  In point of fact, montage, as the interspersion of short bursts of action and dialogue, is an axiom of traditional ballad construction.  It is one of the techniques which the production team were quick to lift from balladry and you will hear it all the way through from the opening passage of the programme detailing John Axon’s final run, almost through to the last gasp of The Travelling People.  Moreover, while the production team acknowledged a creative debt to cinematic techniques, their prime inspiration was not Alain Resnais.  Rather, their source lay with the inventor of cinematic montage, the Soviet film maker, Sergei Eisenstein. 

Before moving on, I want to consider two other aspects of radio ballad technique, both of them crucial to the success of the idiom.

The first of these is mimesis, or the replication of sounds and sensations by other sounds.  It is a technique used time and time again to convey audio images of a miner grappling with the living earth, or a prize fighter grappling with a living opponent, or a steam drifter pounded by the elemental blows of a living gale.  Like montage, it went through the radio ballads "like Blackpool went through rock".  A superb example occurs early on in Axon, where the physical exertions of the fireman become intertwined with the motions of a train crawling into life.  The sequence begins with Ewan MacColl’s worksong-like Long Handled Shovel mimicking the slow motion of the train.  play Sound ClipThen, as the speed increases, the chorus takes over and the tempo changes to the rocking rhythm of the train in full motion.  Finally, we are flat out racing down the iron road - "the hard road where the work is never ending". (sound clip)

Closely intertwined with montage and mimesis is something which Charles Parker called folk orchestration.  There has been considerable debate over the past few years as to who was the real creator of the radio ballads.  It is a moot point but, without MacColl’s knowledge of balladry, his feeling for folk speech, his understanding of Marxism, his grounding in worker’s theatre, his songwriting ability, and most of all, his freedom from the conventions of the BBC, the radio ballads would not have been.  Against these factors have to be weighed Parker’s knowledge of directorial techniques, his absolute dedication - manic and mercurial - to the medium of radio, and what Ewan MacColl described as his near genius as a tape editor.  Yet, even when all these elements had been laid in place, the cornerstone came from Peggy Seeger.  If the radio ballads had never been orchestrated, or if the orchestration had been done by somebody less familiar with folk idioms, they would have been remembered as little more than interesting documentaries; flies in the aspic of broadcasting history.  But they are radio ballads, and in radio ballads, the spoken message is underscored by the music.  In radio ballads, the instrumental passages highlight and separate sequences of montage.  Cover pictureIn radio ballad mimesis, the key factor is the orchestration.  Hear the instruments reproduce the dull damp darkness, and the mixed feelings of the novice miner creeping to his first day at the pit head.  Listen as the concertina shrieks the message at you that the polio virus has claimed its victim.  play Sound ClipPicture yourself coiling ropes in the rope room of a herring trawler, and hark at Sam Larner’s interjection; "They’d drill you.  You had to coil them so you could trickle marbles on them".  Then listen as Alf Edwards’ ocarina does exactly that.  (sound clip)

That is what makes the radio ballads live.  That is why the feeling that you are right there in the middle of the action comes over so strong.  If you’ve never heard a radio ballad, if you’re staring at these words wondering what’s all the fuss about a few codgers retailing what they do for a living, extract the requisite sum from your life savings and buy Topic TSCD 803, Singing the Fishingplay Sound ClipTake it home, and in the secure comfort of your armchair, play the storm sequence of track 7; When the Wind is Freshening.  I can promise you the most hair raising five minutes of your life. (sound clip)

But the radio ballads are not about sensation.  I have described this essay as a personal view because, when I first heard these programmes, they shocked me into realising that I, as an overall wearing member of the working class, had a history and a culture and an identity far more valid than that which had been heaped upon me by the State education system.  They made me realise that the job I did, that the life I led, that my very existence as a member of the human race, were things possessed of intrinsic value, and that the same goes for every other single member of humanity.  That is not something any schoolbook ever taught me.

That was a long time ago.  The radio ballads belong to an era of industrial might and full employment and powerful trade unions.  They belong to a time when radio could afford to be a nurturing medium for expressive art, and a time when the British folk revival looked as though it would make a permanent dent in the politics and culture of this island of ours.  Today, hardly any of these factors apply.  Today, in Sam Larner’s immortal phrase, we are on the knuckle bones of our respective arses.

Before winding this exegesis up, it would be wise to consider how well the radio ballads have withstood the march of time.  From an artistic and a technical point of view, they have survived the passage very well indeed.  If some of the edges of the first two programmes, Axon and Song of a Road, still sound rough and experimental, we should accept them as the birth pangs of a new idiom.  Fairer criticism can be levelled at the ballad maker’s art, where certain sequences of Axon, On The Edge and The Fight Game, are concerned.  They sounded contrived and theatrical then, and they still do.  In the same vein, time has done nothing to assuage my irritation at MacColl’s infuriating habit of peppering some of his songs with unnecessary - and sometimes inaccurate - technical jargon.  Yet, as an exercise in understanding humanity, the radio ballads move me as deeply and intensely now as they did when I first heard them.  That is the truest test of any art.

A’ the week yer man’s awa.
A’ the week ye bide yer lane.
A’ the week ye’er waiting for
The minute that he’s comin’ hame.
- from Singing The Fishing
Even so, the issues they raise are issues of their time.  For instance, as far as I can remember, out of the whole eight programmes, there are just two expressions of concern for the environment.  I struggle also with the status which the radio ballad accords to women.  play Sound ClipThe female voice is clear enough in The Body Blow and On the Edge, while in The Travelling People, the angry tones of the traveller women constitute perhaps the strongest card in the whole pack. (sound clip)

But there are no radio ballads about women.  In other programmes, they remain on the sidelines.  They sit at home anxiously waiting for the mining shift to end, or for the final outcome of the boxing bout.  They gut herring on the quays, an arduous, thankless and painful task, but it is the men who live at the epicentre, who brave the "stormy seas and the living gales".  It is the men who tear the guts out of the earth with picks and shovels and earth moving machinery as epical as the Big Hewer himself.  That is because the world in which the radio ballads were conceived and created was man’s world, and it was man’s function to tame it.  How much subsequent radio ballads would have reflected changing attitudes is something we will never know, but The Travelling People demonstrated that here was a weapon to confront the outstanding moral dilemmas of our time.  There should have been radio ballads dealing with the iniquities of war and racial discrimination and homelessness and unemployment, and the disgraceful treatment of homosexuals by supposedly straight sections of our community.  “The audience should leave the theatre feeling bloody angry”, Ewan MacColl once observed, recalling his Theatre Workshop days.  In what frame of mind would he have had the listener switch off the radio?

I mentioned earlier, Parker’s disgruntlement over the winding up of the radio ballads and his blaming their proletarian content generally, and the contentious stance of The Travelling People in particular.  It is much fairer to say that creative radio had had its day.  Squashed beneath the impact of commercial television, the ‘bland bastards’, as Parker called the powers that be of the BBC, simply could not afford his exacting methods, or the spiralling costs of radio ballad production; forty hours of actuality for Axon, three hundred for The Travelling People.  There was no longer a place in radio for the sponsoring of innovative art forms for a minority audience.

The ruination of creative broadcasting was by no means confined to radio, for the need to be cost effective seeped into television.  It is directly responsible for the incessant diet of comedy shows, soap operas, audience participation extravaganzas, and those stupifyingly pointless fly on the wall documentaries, which have come to infest our lives.  The latter, by the way, are an unfortunate descendant - bland and bastard - of radio ballad technique.

After his retirement from the BBC, Charles Parker became a visiting lecturer to groups of media students at one of the London universities.  His talk on the radio ballads, which he used to deliver like an old testament prophet, so fired one student that she went home and switched on the radio.  It is reported that she searched from station to station and from waveband to waveband and she said that she could not find anything like that anywhere.  That is just how I feel whenever I open the Radio Times.

Fred McCormick - 27.7.99

Links to individual reviews:

John Axon Road Fishing Big Hewer Body Blow On Edge Fight Travellers

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