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Ewan MacColl

I have long wanted to have a page on Ewan MacColl and his songs. However this should ideally contain lyrics but fear of the copyright laws put me off the idea. However I've now seen these reproduced elsewhere so here goes.

I will not attempt to describe his life. This is done so well here All I will say is that I cannot think of any songwriter of the English folk revival who produced so many wonderful lyrics. They are nearly all songs of the working classes; their lives, their jobs, their struggles. He was of course fiercely left wing and his lyrics were almost politics set to music. There is a chap in Stafford Ramblers, Fred Waygood, who used to frequent the Troubadour Club in London in the 50s and 60s and he certainly vouches for the very political atmosphere.

The crossover with walking comes because rambling was a working class creation. In the early nineteenth gin was the quickest way out of Manchester. By the end of the century, the railways offered the prospect of escape to the Peak District for the workers of Manchester and perhaps even more so those from South Yorkshire. (I used to work with someone who had walked with the Manchester Ramblers in the 50s; they took so many out each week that they hired trains and told them where to stop and collect them!!) This wasn't entirely happy with much access to the high ground being denied by the owners of the grouse moors and this culminated in the mass trespass on Kinder.

MacColl came from Salford and was under 20 at the time. He wrote his first great song, The Manchester Rambler, for the occasion. Here is the lyric as sung by MacColl himself.

The Manchester Rambler

I've been over the Snowdon, I've slept upon Crowden
I've camped by the Wain Stones as well 
I've sunbathed on Kinder, been burnt to a cinder
And many more things I can tell
My rucksack has oft been my pillow
The heather has oft been my bed
And sooner than part from the mountains 
I think I would rather be dead
Chorus: I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday
The day was just ending as I was descending
By Grindsbrook, just by Upper Tor
When a voice cried, Eh you, in the way keepers do
He'd the worst face that ever I saw
The things that he said were unpleasant
In the teeth of his fury I said
Sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
He called me a louse and said, Think of the grouse
Well I thought but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me
He said, All this land is my master's
At that I stood shaking my head  
No man has the right to all mountains 
Any more than the deep ocean bed
I once courted a maid, a spot-welder by trade
She was fair as the rowan in bloom
And the blue of her eye matched the June moorland sky
And I wooed her from April to June 
On the day that we should have been married
I went for a ramble instead
For sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
So I walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I lie where the bracken is deep 
I belong to the mountains, the clear-running fountains
Where the grey rocks rise rugged and steep
I've seen the white hare in the gulley 
And the curlew fly high over head
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

However I've heard an extra verse. It was on a very old Spinners LP and it went:

There's pleasure in dragging through peat bog and bracken
And all kinds of walks, don't you know
There's even a measure of some distant pleasure
In trudging through three foot of snow
I've stood on the edge of the Downfall 
And I've seen all the valley outspread
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

However this was not his best song on walking and the hills. His masterpiece is  "The Joy of Living". It was one of his last songs and it was his farewell to the world. It is about a dying walker saying goodbye to the things he holds dear; there's one verse for his wife, one verse for his children and two verses about the hills. 

Here is the lyric:

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye
Moorlands and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye
Glyder Fach farewell, cold big Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven
Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living 

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion
Years pass by and they’re gone with the speed of birds in flight
Our lives like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine
And we’ll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living

Farewell to you, my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong may your days be long safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind
So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing
I’ll be part of the curlew’s cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I’ll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living

If you ever get the chance, buy it because it is stunning (the first Cooking Vinyl sampler album is the cheapest way). I even convinced my walking companion JD of its merits and usually he is about as easy to move as Everest.


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