Monday, February 14, 2011

Music Monday ~ Valentines by Ewan MacColl & Jimmy Nail

Something a wee bit different, Valentine-wise, for this Music Monday, 14 February ~~love songs, of course - but love songs to places. Americans have hundreds of 'em. Off the top of my head (or my husband's head):
I Left My Heart in San Francisco, Oklahoma, Chicago, New York, New York, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Moonlight in Vermont, Rocky Mountain High, America The Beautiful.....and so many others.

The Scots and Irish, great wanderers and exiles, are past masters at writing love songs to places, filled with longing and nostalgia. The English, not so much. But two love songs about places in England spring to mind, because these are among my all-time favourite songs: Dirty Old Town and Big River.

Dirty Old Town was written by Ewan MacColl "dangerous radical" (astrology follows) in 1957 about the city of Salford, as it was then. It's a city close to Manchester in the north of England. Big River was written and sung by Jimmy Nail about the River Tyne, and his hometown Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north-east of England. I can't hear either of these songs without a lump in my throat and a tear or two. I'm a northern gal myself and have a soft spot for all the cities of northern England. I was born in one of 'em but nobody has written a song about Hull, as far as I know.

Dirty Old Town. The original lyrics included a reference to Salford ("I smelled the spring on the Salford wind") but "Salford" was replaced by "smoky" later, due either to pressure from Salford municipal authorities or by the numerous Irish groups and singers (eg: Dubliners, Pogues) who hi-jacked the song. Many now suppose it was written about an Irish city.

In spite of a rather bitter tinge to the lyrics, I still see it as a love song, not only to Salford but to all cities, especially northern English cities as they used to be, once upon a time - grimy from smoky factories, and with a distinctly down-trodden feel.

The old, original version of Dirty Old Town sung by Ewan MacColl and his 3rd wife Peggy Seeger (half-sister of Pete Seeger). I love the great jazzy accompaniment, quite unexpected! (Other, Irish-tinged, versions available at YouTube.)

Big River
by Jimmy Nail, who is primarily an actor with some hit UK TV series under his belt: Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and Spender for example. He had a couple of hit singles too, and played the role of Agustín Magaldi in the movie Evita.

I've always considered that Jimmy Nail is vastly under-valued and under-used. It's a pity we don't see and hear more of him. He was born on 16 March 1954 by the way - Sun and Mercury in Watery Pisces, so appropriate that he wrote this love song to a river!

Ewan MacColl, who wrote Dirty Old Town, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and hundreds of folk songs, was born on 25 January 1915 in Salford, England.

MacColl was a political activist, socialist, prolific songwriter and poet with links to the theatre through his first wife Joan Littlewood. He was father of singer Kirsty MacColl who died in a tragic accident in 2000.

The UK Independentnewspaper, in 2006, reported that (HERE) that:

Ewan MacColl, the celebrated folk musician and father of singer Kirsty, was tracked by the security services for more than 20 years on the grounds he was a dangerous radical. Top-secret files released today, which date back to 1932, reveal that Special Branch even kept watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his first wife Joan Littlewood, the celebrated theatre director and actress.

The plays and concerts staged by the high-profile couple, who were both ardent members of the Communist Party, were also closely monitored in a bid to establish that the pair were spreading extremist propaganda.

The MI5 documents, now made public by the National Archives, also reveal that the BBC banned the MacColls from taking part in broadcasts because of their Communist connections.

A hero for the common man, Ewan MacColl - real name James Henry Miller - influenced generations of dramatists and performers with his protest ballads and subversive plays.

The chart is set for 12 noon. Rising sign and Moon position will not be accurate.

A clip from biographical detail written by Peggy Seeger allows us some insight into the kind of guy he was. (See here for complete piece)

There were two Ewan MacColls, the id and the ego: the man he was and the man he wanted to be: The first was all feelings, vulnerable and insecure, the boy who wanted to go unnoticed in school; who was convinced that his ears were bigger and more prominent than Dumbo's; who wrote "Nobody Knew She Was There" but could not hug his mother; who was terrified of physical violence yet who believed that real social change was impossible without it; who knew he was talented and was frightened of not doing justice to that talent and to his class; the one whose last years were tormented by a sense of failure. This persona would surface in times of inebriation (rare), stress (chiefly in his later years) and illness (periodic and finally chronic).

The second man was the thinker. He walked with a little strut, like a wee hard man, a man who always made sure that he was the centre of attention in any group; who had a unique way, at a social gathering, of homing in on and isolating anyone he wanted particularly to talk to; who needed to be an authority on every subject; who was convinced that he could write a play or song about anything (which he could); who wanted to live a middle-class life and still be considered working-class; who gave the impression, even while feeling he was a failure, that he was living a happy old age. Persona #2 was well aware of Persona #1 and kept the latter in check.

He was given to exaggeration and sometimes one doubted whether he really knew the truth about certain matters upon which he was confidently holding forth. He would learn something about a subject, then expound on that area of knowledge as if he knew all about the whole subject. This tendency to expand and decorate facts and to employ his verbal weaponry selectively could irritate both family and friends but it often benefited his songwriting.

Hearty chuckles followed as I pulled up his natal chart! Of course the man was a radical - what else could he have been with Sun in Aquarius conjunct Uranus (ruler of Aquarius)- not only that it's part of a cluster spanning 4 to 27 degrees of Aquarius: Sun/Uranus/Mercury/Jupiter. There are people born in February 1962 with globs of Aquarius planets, but they don't have Uranus in Aquarius, so do not have the same driving force towards radicalism.

In the extract above it is said that he was given to exaggeration - Jupiter planet of exaggeration (and publication) is part of the Aquarius stellium; also Venus (planet of the arts including music) in Sagittarius the Jupter ruled sign adds an extra layer of excess to the mix.

I can't help but notice how clearly Peggy Seeger's words describe this man's astrological indications. Even his "two sides" can be linked to two oppositions
:Sun/Mars opposed by Neptune and Venus opposed by Saturn. The creative vulnerable side represented by Neptune and Venus opposed respectively by the rationality of Saturn and the Aquarius planets.

It's a pity there's no birth time available. Natal Moon could be in either late Taurus or, if born at 2:00PM or later in early Gemini. His writing/communication skills lead to Gemini, but equally Venus-ruled Taurus relates to music - so it's a toss-up!

Oh, go on then...a proper love a person, for Valentine's Day -

First Time Ever I Saw Your Face - a version sung by Roberta Flack, for me it's the definitive. However, the song's composer Ewan MacColl reportedly hated this, and all other cover versions of his beautiful song. According to some sources it was written in 1957 for his long-time live-in partner (later to become his 3rd wife) Peggy Seeger, half-sister of the legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger. The Flack version is much slower, and twice as long as the original:


anyjazz said...

Good post.

As always full of research and thought.


Wisewebwoman said...

I am enlightened, T. And thanks for that, I thought it about Londonderry, go figure.
Both powerful songs.
Interesting in that I am working on The Play at the moment and intrinsic to it is a love song to a boat.

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~~~ Thanks muchly.
I suppose these songs are rather obscure, especially for people in the USA. They mean a lot to me though.

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~~~ My pleasure WWW.

Oh that's sweet (re the boat)!
There ought to be more love songs to things like that, things that bring us hours of pleasure and many pleasant memories. :-)

The Next President of the United States said...

I knew Jimmy Nail's name but hadn't heard his music. Nice tunes, make me want to hear more.

I knew some about Ewan MacColls and songs he'd written. First exposure was "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." He was listed as the songwriter on Roberta Flack's 45, and I discovered he'd written a couple other songs I recognized.

Every writer has the right to pass judgment on how others treat his work, but I have to beg to differ with Mr. MacColls' opinion of Roberta Flack's cover. Her version is "this close" to being a perfect song. It was a huge hit on this side of the pond, partly because it was included in the soundtrack of "Play Misty For Me." Roberta's version was a great make out song for a testosterone-pushing young American male. Not that I was one or anything ... that's just what I've been told!!

Anyway, it's sad Roberta Flack has slipped between the cracks when people talk about great American female soul and blues singers. She's still out there making good music, her voice still strong and mellow.

Twilight said...


Jimmy Nail is a multi-talented guy. I'd recommend you see some episodes of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" but I'm pretty sure you'd need subtitles due to the heavy Geordie (NE England) accents. It was even difficult for me to catch every word when it was shown on TV in the UK. "Crocodile Shoes", his first single was a hit in the UK, but some of his other songs were better. I used to have his first album, but can't find it now - probably lost it in "the fire" in 1996 (along with eveything else).

I agree with you about Roberta Flack, and MacColl's comments about covers of his song. He obviously didn't know what he had there - a wee bit blinkered he was, in some ways.

I'm always thrilled to find new versions of old songs (as in Beatles' songs). When a piece has true quality/beauty there's no end to how many ways it can be presented and still not lose its essence (in my view).

R J Adams said...

I, too, consider Jimmy Nail 'vastly under-valued and under-used'. He has a great voice and is a marvelous actor. Recently, we tried watching Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, but gave up after the first series as it just took too long, requiring pauses every few minutes to translate and explain the dialogue to my American wife.

If Ewan MacColl didn't like Roberta Flack's version of 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', then he had serious problems. Possibly the greatest soul record of its type, ever.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~~ Ah - you've confirmed what I thought would be the problem! I wonder, too, if a lot of the humour of Auf Wiedersehen Pet would not be accessible to Americans - as some of theirs is barely accessible to thee and me!

Jimmy Nail has such an unusual face - along the lines of how Liam Neeson used to look (I think Liam has had a subtle nose job). I love those ugly/beautiful faces!

Re "First Time Ever...." - Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger were very protective of their songs (most of which were highly political), and perhaps that protective feeling slipped over into songs for a more general audience. Just guessing. But from the article I've linked, written by Peggy Seeger, I'd say Ewan could be VERY obstinate, and ornery - not to mention obtuse!