Monday, January 22, 2024

Music Monday: Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and the Critics Group in Beckenham

In musical terms the folk singer Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) is associated in most people's minds with the Salford where he was raised (the subject of his song Dirty Old Town) and the Scotland of his parents with which he so strongly identified. But many of his most creative years were actually spent in the outer reaches of South London.

MacColl seems to have first lived in London for a short period in the mid-1930s shortly after marrying his  first wife, Joan Littlewood. They hoped to pursue their radical theatre ambitions in the capital. In 1936 they lived for a while in 'a borrowed flat on the north side of Wandsworth Common' then 'rented an enormous run-down house at 113 West Side, Clapham Common, paid a month's rent deposit and a month's down, furnished the place with hire-purchase goods and set about communal living' with a group of young drama hopefuls. The money soon ran out and later that year they moved back to Manchester, though Littlewood was to return in the 1950s and become a major figure in theatre, living on Blackheath (where she hosted Brendan Behan - see previous Transpontine post).

In the 1953 MacColl moved back to South London with his second wife Jean Newlove - a dancer and choreographer who he had met through their involvement with Theatre Workshop. They rented a flat at 109 Rodenhurst Road in Clapham Park then later that year rented a flat at 11 Park Hill Rise in East Croydon; 'Old Theatre Union friends Barbara Niven - now a full-time fundraiser for the Daily Worker - and her partner, the social realist painter Ern Brooks, took the flat upstairs'. MacColl and Newlove put up visiting musicians and friends there including the American singer Big Bill Broonzy, folk song collector Alan Lomax and Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

Ewan and Jean had two children together, but by the time the second was born - the singer Kirsty MacColl - Ewan had fallen in love with the American folk singer Peggy Seeger. Peggy first lived in London in 1956 and over a couple of years lived as a lodger in Greenwich (16 Crooms Hill) at the home of another influential figure in the folk revival, A. L. Lloyd - as discussed previously here.

In 1959 MacColl and Seeger rented a flat at 55 Godstone Road, Purley before in 1961 taking out a mortgage on the upstairs flat at 35 Stanley Avenue, Beckenham, Kent - where MacColl lived for the rest of his life. This was not just a family home but a productive centre of London folk music. From 1964 to 1972 a group of folk singers met there regularly to study and sing. The Critics Group recorded a number of albums including two collections of London songs in 1966 'Sweet Thames Flow Softly' and 'A Merry Progress to London'. The collective with its floating membership was active in left wing politics, particularly opposition to the Vietnam War.

As described by MacColl biographer Ben Harker: 'The stalwarts who congregated in the Beckenham workroom on one, two or three evenings a week in 1964 were mainly in their early twenties. They were typically from working-class backgrounds, had been caught up in the skiffle craze, and had subsequently renounced American-based music in favour of British or Irish traditions'. Early members included Sandra Kerr, John Faulkner, Frankie Armstrong and Gordon McCulloch, as well as for a short while Luke Kelly of The Dubliners. Children's author Michael Rosen was a later member.

Sweet Thames Flow Softly, written by MacColl, was sung on the Critics Group recording by John Faulkner. A song of a pleasure boat trip from Woolwich Pier to Hampton Court, it has become something of a folk standard, sung by many including Christy Moore/Planxty, Sinead O'Connor, The Dubliners, Maddy Prior and of course MacColl himself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s MacColl and Seeger ran their own Blackthorne Records from their Beckenham home where today there is a plaque commemorating 'political songwriter and playwright' MacColl.

All quotes above from Ben Harker, Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl (2007)

1 comment:

Tom Murphy said...

I worked in Beckenham Library in the early 1990s, and Peggy Seeger used to donate a load of records