Set Into Song
and The Radio Ballads
By Peter Cox
Published by Labatie Books
Fifty years ago this year, a new and exciting art form in media expression came into existance. The radio public had heard nothing like it, both its form and content were so radical their impact and pioneering techniques remain as corner stones of TV and Radio journalism today.
Working class voices were universally absent from radio in the post war years. This was a powerful media, more powerful than the press, access to it was tightly constrained. Yet here we had not only working class voices, but workers voices talking about work, about images of life and labour unseen and previously ignored. The words of workers as well as talking direct to the listening public were set into song and set to music by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. These were with great precision and technical skill turned into hour-long programmes by Charles Parker a man who pioneered techniques hitherto undiscovered.
They were an unlikely team, MacColl already an accomplished and visionary stage Agit prop performer, who had post war, brought folk style music and socialist realism to the stage together with more than a little jazz. The Theatre Workshop with Ewan and his wife of the period Joan Littlewood had been pioneering. MacColl had been a giant of progressive theatre and not one confined to ‘the lovelies' in London . In 46, he staged a play ‘of the greatest importance' but didn't announce its title or subject. It was Uranium 235 and was presented to a packed and thoroughly working class Butlins audience, where it was met with the enthusiasm and responses of the football terraces. The stage was bare but had amplified sound machines, passing cars, trains, whispering voices, and announcements of news items. People had seen nothing like it in content or form. The travelling Theatre Workshop form was to find a permanent home in what was then a very much run down East End. With Behan, Delany, & Norman in the 50s, it was to set the scene for the late 60s political and community theatre, at its inception had been MacColl.
Charles Parker, a long thin, and now stooped, former submarine commander (and war hero) worked radio decks and splicing equipment like musicians worked keyboards and guitar frets.
Peggy Seeger the product of an intensely musical and political American family still a wee lass by comparison, but lacking nothing in musical and directional skills .Her life had already crossed Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Ma Molly Jackson and the Lomax family, giants in American folk culture, cheek by jowl linked to the trade union and progressive workers movements. Her elder brother Pete had founded the Almanac singers in the 40s singing uncompromising songs of labour. They went on to become The Weavers with Guthrie and Pete as singer-songwriters selling millions in their heyday from 49-52, Leadbelly's ‘Goodnight Irene, Pete and Co's, Where Have All The Flowers Gone, Turn Turn Turn, We Shall Overcome, If I Had A Hammer. Songs, which would inspire generations of peace and justice protesters round the world, without most of them ever knowing where they came from. They were highly controversial; Pete explained, “only Commies used words like peace and freedom”. By 51, their lives started to fall apart as the US state went into steep repression. In that year at the height of their success Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted The Weavers. It split the family to an extent Pete and Peggy's father Charles, once progressive too, moved to safer political and geographical locations. Peggy says “My parents were radical in a certain way in the Thirties, tempered in the Forties. intimidated in the Fifties. I don't ever remember being disturbed, even by Hiroshima . We didn't talk politics as I remember at our table, and yet I was of a Liberal family that was supposed to be progressive and supposed to be political.”
Charles Seeger hadn't minded ‘progressive' but being called ‘left wing' was a step too dangerous, it was to cause angry reflections between him and Peggy later in life.
Peggy was in Copenhagen in March 1956 when the BBC finally tracked her down via Alan Lomax who had in turn contacted her Dad. The BBC needed someone for a TV version of the play Dark Side Of The Moon. Specifically they wanted someone who could play the five-string banjo, act, and sing Barbara Allen. Lomax had told the BBC he would get them “the best banjo player in Europe ”. She was 21 and had nothing more than the clothes she stood up in. We are told Lomax's then girlfriend was a model, who did a sluice down and fancy hair job on her, modern gear and “stood her in unfamiliar high heels”. By the time, she tottered into Lomax's basement studio to review the scripts all heads turned, MacColl's in particular.
MacColl was on the BBC dangerous man blacklist when Parker producing a programme on experimental theatre met him. Though chalk and cheese at this point they both shared a desire to make imaginative yet “true” radio, both were fascinated by the power and potential of the human voice. The portable tape recorder, massive by current standards, nonetheless was allowing Charles access to outside of studio
on-site homes and factories. He hit upon the story of a train driver who had been awarded the George Cross for bravery, John Axon.
When it hit the airwaves, it was a sensation. Ferris in the Observer (1958)
“Last week a technique and subject got married, and nothing in radio kaleidoscopy, or whatever you care to call it, will ever be done the same again. This was music with a purpose, its picture or a morning in winter, a family and friends….a train, a broken brake, and a man staying on to die, was a sharp and strange and powerful…anecdote turned into song, song turned into a hiss of steam…” With Charles gathering in ‘actuality', he had commissioned Ewan to compose the songs and music. Peggy wasn't on the scene interestingly enough as he'd fallen out with her while they were in Moscow . We are told, “when she sang rousing American religious rather than political songs”. She had then, against advice gone off on a singing tour of China . She ended her solo tour alone freezing and almost dying of pneumonia in a student dorm in Poland . Cox comments that this was an international crash course out of her cloistered childhood. In fact, Peggy was the missing link in making Axon work musically and dramatically. Ewan had spotted the great dramatic affect of the workers voices and dialogue, Charles bowked at it at first, then he began to see
the whole emerging:-
“For the first time you were telling a story without a narrator and without actors. being able to tell a story by context. After the crash…you have simply some cords on the guitar, another verse of the ballad and then the entry of the fireman, saying ‘it was still dark when they got to the shed that Sunday morning'…you realise it works it works.”
Initial audience research however had suggested it maybe didn't work, that the story got lost in the background noise and songs. Radio listeners were unused to this form, were used to conventional -start at the beginning and run through to the end- chronologically told tales. Ewan however adopted a ballad form, in which you don't tell the story straight out, but jump between present and past, dialogue, and narrative switching between tenses and viewpoints. For those unused it was a maddening jumble, for others it was brilliance. Nowadays it is a tried and tested form of film making, then it was totally new.
As it turned out the widow of John Axon, the railway workers and the journalists liked it. For the BBC's listeners panel's opinion was sharply divided. Opinion within the BBC as to whether there should be any more of these ‘Radio Ballads' for a time was in the balance. That ‘The man in the street' should have anything to contribute to the ‘sacred altar' of broadcasting was a novel idea, still more that he should be using this medium to express his own take on things, and in his own accent, sounded like an assault on establishment core values. External concerns were one thing, it was the internal battles over direction, control and content that nearly wrecked the project.
With characters as different, independent, and strong headed as MacColl, Seeger and Parker it is hardly surprising. Parker at first wanted to focus on the work, as in The Song Of The Roads , about road building, whereas Ewan wanted to focus on the worker. This was quite aside from the huge technical problems with the primitive editing and recording equipment available to Charles in this period. The three of them would take off ‘into the field' and record masses of actuality, far far more than could ever be used in a programme. This mass of unedited and often non-specific material landed on Charles lap, for selection and editing. The resulting voice scores were then sent on to Ewan and Peggy for musical and song illustration rising directly from the rhythm sounds and content of the voices. Charles would meantime beg steal and invent sound effects. All of this had to come back and be drafted into a tangible whole. At length after the selection of the spoken actuality, they would be played live into the studio with MacColl and Seeger taking up the musical and song adaptations as they came up as one entity. As if the spoken voices were another set of instruments on a single stage. It hadn't taken away the disagreements over direction and Song Of The Road in particular brought the team into near dissolution. With any thought of a third or more programme now very close to the edge Charles agreed some ground rules. That the programmes should not be about work processes and machines, but with workers attitudes towards them. Not with ‘the things' but with peoples attitudes toward those things, and the way in which those attitudes were described in words.
Thereafter as Charles saw the depth and quality that this shift in emphasis and focus brought he was sold on it too, there was afterwards little more than a cigarette paper of difference between Charles and Ewan after that. (Though Cox tells us “they would occasionally argue furiously over that cigarette papers thickness”)
Singing The Fishing brought the team into contact with some amassing characters, men like Sam Larner, archetypical one might say of exactly the kind of salty shanty-singing sea dog, a folk singer with a tape recorder might dream of finding. Sam's tales in his rich Norfolk accent, painted word pictures of the work of the fisherman such that non but the fishers themselves had discovered before. Here was the rolling ocean, mapped and plucked from memory, focused in great events and small filed in Larner's mental locker box, and ready-made, Sam's traditional collection of sea songs. When Peggy came to draft into song Sam and the other fisher folk's words, Sam would swear he had known that song all his life, for Peggy “When this happened. We knew we had really come close to capturing the true effects of the fishing life upon these men”.
Overall direction of Ballad themes seems at first random. In part, this had been due to the high cost of production, roughly the same as a TV production. Bad news for a medium in sharp retreat in the post war years. This put pressure on Charles to run some cheaper local programmes to bring down the average cost. This brought us a programme on jewellery making, Cry From the Cut on canals, and most dramatically and emotionally challenging of all The Body Blow about Polo sufferers.
Charles was to receive more public response to this programme than any of the others, all bar three of those, by people deeply moved and impressed by it. In many ways the sixth radio ballad was almost as challenging, Growing Pains, about a new social phenomena, teenage. To my mind and ear, this was the one that failed. Failed because of the insistence to take teenage ‘culture' into the folk media, to find folk singers young enough to sound like teenagers, but then addressing dialogue which struggled with the form. As Cox comments of this and another later cameo:-
“Not known In Demark Street was a programme about modern folk singers and writers, an attempt to counter what he and Ewan saw as the flood of debased culture arriving from America , exemplified by the pop music he loathed with a passion. These were the days of Elvis's imitators-Cliff Richards and the rest- singing ersatz American songs in ersatz mid-Atlantic accents-and I'm afraid the teenagers round the juke box weren't listening to folk music or discussing Weskers's latest play, then or ever.”
Back into the main stream, though not in what any of the lefts would have considered ‘the proletariat' was The Fight Game, about professional boxing. Yet the ballad is intensely class conscious and political:-
“All fighters have got to come off of poor families. Before you become a boxer you've got to be poor, you know, off a big family, or a poor family. But you don't get a doctors son coming to be a boxer because he's he's been spoiled, he's had a good upbringing, he's never wanted.”
As the ballads developed they perhaps became even more overtly class and politically conscious, The Big Hewer. Perhaps the most powerful drama of them all, in the voices and words on the men and women of the coalfields. Then fast on its heels The Travelling People. This one confronted one of the most deep-seated prejudices of working people themselves, about travellers, gypsies, tinkers. Nearly three full minutes pass without any instrumentation, a children's anti-gypsy playground song, then a roll call of pejorative names for travellers, followed by Ewan's opening song, sung in stark unaccompanied sean-a nos Gaelic style. For this, one Charles had two distinct sound profiles, outside and indoors. In the inside those who found gypsies intolerable and outside the sound of the travellers. “the murmuring of voices, dogs barking, a snatch of birdsong, children's play. And the first noises we hear are set in sharp contrast: our world and theirs. The ‘big twelve-wheeler that shook the bed' of Minty Smith as she give birth on the move, replaced by the steady clop of the horse as it moseys along in harness, finding its own way as she does so.” The programme develops musically as one of the masterpieces of the whole series.
The book goes on to talk of life after the programmes, the gagging of Charles by the BBC, and the movement to take some of the programmes on to TV which happened with disputed amounts of success or otherwise. It is covered in ‘Three Radio Ballads On Screen' a precise and review of the brave effort to transport powerful issues from one medium to the other. More particularly redeveloping the form back onto the stage, first with Charles own agit prop street and stage presentations of The Collier Laddie which intersected the rebirth of miners militancy in the 70s, and played to enthusiastic crowds from the pit communities larger than life and before their eyes, something of ‘a happening' and a special, almost spectacle, normal working people had never seen before. Then came the birth of Banner Theatre, which Charles launched, and carries on to day carrying the true mantle of the radio ballads and all the strands of its own inspirational origins.
After a hectic day of early rising, driving, lectures, meetings with Banner, rehearsing for the new production Steel, he was coming back from when suddenly he couldn't see. He died of an aneurism, later that same day John Lennon was shot dead. When Melvyn Bragg was asked a few days later, which figure most, inspired him, he said it was Charles Parker.
Anne Karpf comments, “some people reckon that the decline of the BBC began when Charles Parker was edged out of broadcasting in a cravenly bureaucratic fashion and the whole innovative flowering of radio came to an end.”
This book stands as a textbook on a genre, a mini bibliography on MacColl and Seeger and Parker, and their muse, on radio and stage. It concludes with The New Generation, the drafters of the recently aired modern radio ballads, contrasts, techniques, themes and voices, as well as highly informative technical endnotes on methods and instruments. It is dedicated
“In memory of
Ewan MacColl. 1915-1989
Charles Parker ,1919-1980
And in celebration of
Peggy Seeger born 1935”
I feel immensely proud to have known all three and valued them as friends and comrades.
This is the definitive history and rational of three inspired individuals and a novel and unique initiative.