“Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Twenty-six years after his passing and upon the centenary of his birth, Ewan MacColl remains a challenging figure. Equal—and often polarizing—parts folklorist, singer, actor, activist, and hypocrite, MacColl had tremendous influence on the revitalization of the traditional British folk scene.

However one comes to Ewan MacColl’s music, once there it is a challenging visit. A fine vocalist, he wrote of historical and cultural elements far from North American experience. Therefore, his songs can be perplexing when one doesn’t have the context to comprehend references and language use. No mistaking, “Dirty Old Town,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “The Joy of Living,” and “The Shoals of Herring” are incredible songs.

I come to MacColl the usual way, via his children: she who requires no introduction—Kirsty MacColl—and—he of the long-ago, almost one-hit wonder, the Roaring Boys (“Every Second of the Day”)—Neill MacColl. When following Kirsty MacColl via British import singles and Smash Hits and NME articles, mentions of her folksinging father were three-a-penny. Even with the Pogues recording one of his songs, I never really paid mind to Ewan MacColl until much later when I found myself mired in perplexed astonishment of folk music’s magic.

Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl is freshly released in North America via Compass Records. A double album produced by brothers Calum and Neill MacColl, it features both the most recognizable names from the modern British folk scene, as well as those whose vintage is considerably more senior. The set has much to offer.

The album is a wonderful blend of nu-folk and auld-school sounds, both traditional and contemporary. Despite disparate elements, the sound is consistent across the discs, across the years of experience, in no small part a result of the MacColl brothers playing on almost every track. On a range of instruments—guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, banjo, piano, and more—the siblings are the fundamental foundation of the recording.

For those who don’t follow the British folk scene terribly closely, many of the artists paying tribute to MacColl here will be unfamiliar. For those who have more than a passing affection for English, Irish, Welsh, and Scots folk music, Joy of Living is a bit of a treasure trove.

The richly-voiced Damien Dempsey kicks things off with the moving “Schooldays Over,” a powerful song of heading into the mines. Members of Bombay Bicycle Club—Jack Steadman and Jamie MacColl (Neill’s son)—contribute a stunning arrangement of “The Young Birds,” a MacColl composition about a plane accident that cut close—the children killed were schoolmates of his first son Hamish.

Martin Simpson’s interpretation of “The Father’s Song” is a might devastating; to have had such guidance! Seth Lakeman reaches deep to find the essence of “The Shoals of Herring,” while timeless vocalists including Dick Gaughan, Martin Carthy, Christy Moore, and Billy Bragg deliver stunning performances of less-familiar MacColl compositions.

Paul Brady’s “Freeborn Man,” thematically linked with Eliza Carthy’s “Thirty-Foot Trailer” (about the end of the Romany traveller lifestyle within the UK,) Karine Polwart’s “The Terror Time,” and Norma Waterson’s “Moving On Song” (additional travellers’ tales) explore an unfamiliar element of British society. All the more powerful for it, too.

The Unthanks’ “Cannily, Cannily” is a positively stunning lullaby that I understand naught. The only (slightly) disappointing track is Steve Earle’s rendition of “Dirty Old Town,” in which he sings in a voice of affectation; the performance is quite fine, but one wishes it sounded a bit more like, well, Steve Earle, long-ago Texan and resident New Yorker.

Frequent Neill MacColl collaborators Kathryn Williams (“Alone”) and David Gray (“The Joy of Living”) close this remarkable journey is the most elegant of fashion—gentle and accepting.

Running at more than 80 minutes, Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl is quite the brilliant introduction to and celebration of the agitator, visionary, and artist born James Miller. The highlights are many, the low-points mere quibbles. If only all folk music sounded this true, honest, and vibrant.

Joy of Living