|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 186 March 2015
Dreamed a Dream by the Old Canal…
By Lily Murphy
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Ewan MacColl who was a great influence on the folk music scene of the 1950s and 60s, renowned for writing and performing songs reflecting working-class life. Born James Henry Miller in Salford on 25 January 1915, he adopted his stage name to acknowledge his strong Scottish heritage.
One of his compositions, Dirty Old Town, has become a much loved staple of ballad singers across Britain and afar. Written in 1949, the song offers a snapshot of life in the industrialised town of Salford, in Greater Manchester, where MacColl was born and reared. It was written for a play he wrote called Landscape with Chimneys. Dirty Old Town served as a three-minute interlude during a difficult scene change, but the song took on a life of its own when the folk ballad scene became popular.
Originally intended to be sung with no instrumental backing, by the mid-1950s MacColl recorded it with Peggy Seeger and the Ramblers, along with the help of renowned folk music collector Alan Lomax. Since then, many artists have covered it, including The Pogues (1985), Donovan (1964) and Rod Stewart (1969).
Dirty Old Town plays out as a love song against the backdrop of gritty industrialisation. The singer takes his girl for a stroll by the canal tow path, the only place untouched by the grime of factories and the dirty smoke of chimney stacks. The croft in the first verse was a patch of wasteland next to the gasworks, by the old Manchester Bolton and Bury canal – Salford was particularly busy. Sirens sounded from the docks.
MacColl’s leanings were on the far left of the political spectrum and the socialist voice of the northern working class shines through, although the song could be about any working-class town. After Luke Kelly brought it to the fore with the Dubliners in the 1960s, there was a common misconception that the song was about Dublin! It’s an easy mistake to make as this simple yet powerful tale of working-class life resonates with many. While love songs in the folk ballad scene were often set by riverbanks or meadows, the courting in Dirty Old Town takes place in the shadow of tall chimney stacks instead of willow trees!
Yet the song also reflects MacColl’s love-hate attitude to the grim reality of life in Salford. He wrote poetically about how the smoke from the steam trains set the night on fire and how he could smell the spring on the smoky wind, but reserved the last verse for his rebellious streak, wanting to cut the town down like an old dead tree.
Some controversy arose from the song. Salford councillors objected to the original line, "Smelled the smoke on the Salford wind", asking for it to be changed. MacColl amended it to: "Smelled the spring on the smoky wind". Many who later recorded the song stayed true to the original lyrics.
The Salford of today is a far cry from the one Ewan MacColl wrote about in 1949. The gasworks have been demolished and the steam trains setting the night on fire are now electric trams. Urban renewal may have brushed away some of that grit that drenches through Dirty Old Town but, as long as the song lives on – with a strong working-class voice – so does the smoky romanticism of towns such as Salford and beyond.