Take a walk down to Russell Square on a certain noonday and you’ll see a curious little ceremony unfold by a young oak on the eastern side of the park.
A crowd of a couple of dozen or so slowly drift together. Cans of beer and tots of whisky are produced and passed around from a seemingly bottomless suitcase. Pleasantries are exchanged, photos taken.
And the chatter gives way to song – voices raised in chorus, and in celebration, against the background roar of traffic just a few metres away.
Twice a year this ritual unfolds – on 25 January and 22 October, to mark the birth and death of the great Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), in whose memory his friends planted the tree, with its plaque reading “Folk Laureate – Singer – Dramatist – Marxist”.
It’s surprising that the commemoration is so low-key considering MacColl’s stature. Even leaving aside the rest of his titanic legacy as a songwriter, collector, activist and pillar of the folk revival, two of his songs alone – Dirty Old Town and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – are sung and loved far beyond the bounds of folk clubs.
But every year draws new faces, whether friends of MacColl or admirers of his work. Many, me included, only heard about it by word of mouth.
It went ahead as normal in October, with a reduced crowd taking care to obey lockdown restrictions.
MacColl’s widow, Peggy Seeger, now 85 and often the sparkling MC and focal point of the event, didn’t risk the trip down from Oxford during the pandemic.
Seeger – herself a giant of folk music both as MacColl’s musical partner and in a distinguished solo career reaching back to the 1950s – has been a regular attendee down the years of an event which began, as so many great ideas do, in the pub.
The commemoration’s organiser and alcohol supplier, Ian McDeson, a gruff-voiced Sharp’s regular known universally as Mac, takes up the story.
Mac, now 80, founded it with his friend Bruce Dunnet, for years the organiser of the Singers Club at which MacColl and Seeger were regular performers.
“There was at the time of Ewan’s death still three wives living” – Seeger, Jean Newlove and the theatre director Joan Littlewood – “and they would not or couldn’t agree to a public event”, he says, so only a few people were invited to MacColl’s funeral.
“Myself and Bruce Dunnet were two of them and afterwards Bruce and I went to the pub. We were sitting in the pub and having a few drinks and saying what a pity it couldn’t have been in public and how many people there would have been, just chewing the fat.
“And we said: perhaps we could do something later – not a concert, there’ll be loads of people doing concerts and memorials, we want to do something more lasting.
“So the next thing was, we’ll plant a tree. What sort of tree? We were just in our cups, thinking. ‘Well, it has to be an oak, of course.’ And that was how the idea got started.”
Dunnet, says Seeger, was “a really crazy Dickensian character … what they used to call a wide boy – it’s an old-fashioned term for crook, but he wasn’t really a crook, he just saw possibilities for making money everywhere but never made money out of any of them”. She adds: “He was part of the whole folk scene, and he and Mac were buddies, close buddies. And Mac has carried on the whole idea but Bruce and Mac were the ones who got the idea of putting the tree in Russell Square.”
They picked the spot, Mac says, because it was in the borough of Camden, which had hosted all but one of MacColl’s Singers Club venues. The council approved the idea and the tree was dedicated to MacColl on 25 January 1990, on what would have been his 75th birthday, a little over three months after he died. “There was a whole load of us involved when it came to the day of the planting, there was quite a few of us there then. But there’s been as few as two of us there at the tree and as many as 200-plus.”
Seeger adds: “It was just a sad little sapling when we put it in. There was a ceremony and we poured whisky on it – I think it was single malt.”
Doc Rowe, the folklore expert and collector who worked with MacColl and Seeger from the late 60s, was also present. He recalls that Seeger and Dunnet “both seemed to tower over the fresh oak sapling that had been planted – especially Bruce!”
Dunnet died in 2002. Since then, Mac says, “I’ve kept it going because Bruce started it with me. Bruce always used to bring a couple of bottles of light ale and when he died I kept it going and I brought beer and I brought whisky and I brought wine and orange juice and it just became a thing that I did, it was building up a tradition in itself.”
Mac’s connection to MacColl dates back to the early 60s, and not just through the Singers Club. “The first evening that I went there it was Ewan and Peggy with Bert Lloyd and Dominic Behan. And then Joe Heaney came in that night as a guest.
“It was a fantastic evening of traditional song, and I was kind of taken up with it at that time. And Bruce Dunnet, who was the kind of organiser of it through the Co-op, him and I became mates on that occasion.”
“So I was there every week and then I went out to Beckenham a few times [where MacColl lived]. Ewan had a big fireplace, floor to ceiling fireplace, and he wanted a sill to it so I got him one made,” says Mac, a bricklayer by trade – “or was! I couldn’t bend down to touch my toes these days.”
He goes on: “And when I went there and put it down for him he said: ‘Would it be possible to have the whole lot tiled.’ So I tiled his chimney breast.”
Mac’s poor health has kept him away for the last couple of years but he was there on 22 October, with the aid of a wheelchair. “I physically haven’t been able to. I’m now walking on two sticks and I’ve had a hip done. I was going to be there this year but something else went wrong with my leg and I was back in hospital. Just got over that and now they think I’ve got a slipped disc,” he says.
He is one of what Seeger describes as “a lot of people there – at least a dozen – who’ve been coming for 20 and 30 years. Every year they come. Every year they come. Every year they come.”
‘It was just a sad little sapling when we put it in. There was a ceremony. We poured whisky on it – I think it was single malt’
Alongside them – at least, in normal times – are a sporadic but slowly growing group of newer faces, including some who knew and admired MacColl during his lifetime. “We meet twice a year and each year more people come,” says Seeger.
One is Sheila Miller, the organiser of the Cellar Upstairs, who was prevented by work commitments from attending until 2015 despite an association with MacColl and Seeger stretching back almost 50 years. “I first heard Ewan and Peggy in the autumn of 1971, when I went to the Singers Club with a friend. I was fairly apolitical back then, but I was impressed by both the great singing and some of the political issues.
“I booked Ewan and Peggy for the Cellar four times (first in September 1983, when we were still in Cecil Sharp House). I’d wanted to book them before 1983, but felt nervous about approaching them, as people had told me they didn’t like playing in ordinary – ie, less political – folk clubs. However, when I did pluck up the courage to ask, there were no problems, and we had four excellent evenings with them.
“I still remember Colin Meadows (a long-time Singers Club regular, and one of my club’s residents at the time) telling me nonchalantly in 1989: ‘Ewan’s had another heart attack.’ Ewan had suffered a series of heart attacks over the previous 10 years, but had never let them stop him from working. Sadly, that was the one that killed him.
“I knew Ewan only slightly, but Peggy has been a friend for quite a long time now.”
Chris Lamb – well known at Sharp’s, the Cellar Upstairs and the Goose is Out among other folk clubs – says he heard about the commemoration “about four or five years ago, when it was mentioned at Sharp’s Folk Club, and I have been attending it regularly since then because I am a great admirer of MacColl’s work as singer and songwriter”.
He was a regular at the Singers Club from the summer of 1965 and “was immediately spellbound by MacColl’s singing, especially by his powerful rendition of the great Scottish ballads like Eppie Morrie and Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie. The power and the passion of his performance made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
“When I started singing myself many years later, it was the songs I had half-absorbed from listening to his singing over 20 years or so that resurfaced and became a large part of my own repertoire. I now take enormous pleasure in going to Russell Square twice a year to join with other friends and admirers in reminiscing, chatting, singing, reciting, and drinking a toast to his memory.”
The occasional stranger gets roped in too. As Rowe says, “Mac will be seen proffering a glass to the stray joggers engaged in their daily laps of the square; frequently and noticeably they slow down on the next lap and inevitably stop by the third or fourth to learn about our odd assembly … and drink can be taken!”
Brian Pearson, a singer and member of MacColl and Seeger’s Critics Group in the 60s and 70s, similarly “didn’t become particularly aware of the event until relatively recently”, despite his long association with MacColl. “It was quite a big tree by the time I went!
“It was a very interesting spread in January – there were lots of old faces like Richard Humm [also of the Critics Group] and Mac and Peter Cox, who wrote the book on the Radio Ballads, people like that. And also a couple of young lads from I think Yorkshire who just heard about it and happened to be in London.”
Pearson had “fairly intense contact” with MacColl through the Critics Group, which he says “arose really out of Ewan having fairly strong ideas about the folk revival and folk song style”. The group, including Sandra Kerr, Frankie Armstrong, John Faulkner, Jack Warshaw, Terry Yarnell and many others, met regularly to discuss and critique performance techniques – “kind of a masterclass, really, although I don’t think the term had been invented at the time”.
He laughingly acknowledges that “Critics Group” was “an absolutely f—ing suicidally bad title because it was absolutely guaranteed to put everybody’s back up because everybody immediately thought that we were out there criticising them! Which was not really the idea. The idea was that we were criticising ourselves.”
Pearson paints MacColl as complex, hugely talented and divisive. “Ewan was a very fluent and dominant figure, with very clear ideas about what he thought was good and what he thought was bad.
“He had an enormous store of knowledge and a fantastic repertoire, of course. And he was an amazing speaker – Ewan could talk the birds out of the trees when he set his mind to it, he was extraordinarily fluent. And he had a huge, huge range of knowledge of all sorts – not only of folk music but of literature, of theatre – because he’d founded the Theatre Workshop with Joan Littlewood, which was one of the two great pioneering theatre companies of the immediate postwar period, that and the Royal Court.
“Ewan always got up the noses of a lot of people so the world did tend to divide into people who thought that Ewan was the best thing since sliced bread and people who thought that he was the embodiment of evil. He was a bit of both, really. Like most people he was complicated.
“I personally got along very well with Ewan and we had a very good relationship. But he could be very dogmatic. And he could be really quite intimidating, and it was very difficult at times to challenge his opinions.”
MacColl’s name still tends to provoke heated discussion on the likes of Mudcat – but despite this, I suggest, it speaks volumes about him that so many people turn out to pay tribute to him twice a year, more than three decades after his death. “It is extraordinary, isn’t it?” says Pearson. “It’s an odd mixture of people. I find it quite moving.”
Although Seeger wasn’t able to attend in October, she says that healthwise “I’m doing fine! I’d love to be there but it’s the getting there that is the problem.” She adds: “I may go down at some point when things ease up just to be there. When I go to London, I often go there and I just sit. It feels nice. It feels good.”
There are questions about the long term of the event, though. The plaque is fading and in need of replacement – “we’re working on that but Covid has got in the way of it”, says Seeger, although the tree itself “is doing beautifully. It’s doing wonderfully.” In a decade or so, though, “I don’t know who will facilitate it. These are people who remember Ewan, they’re people who worked with him.” Humm has picked up the baton when Mac’s health has kept him away, but what next?
“It’s possible that people might come along but I’m not sure that anybody would bring the whisky and the cookies. And Mac does bring it! And he brings paper cups for everyone and it’s all rather wonderful.”
The usually buoyant Seeger sounds strangely despondent, though, when asked whether she believes MacColl’s name and work will be enough to inspire people who never knew him to keep the event going. “If the old guys and I were not here, I have no idea but you never know.
‘MacColl did an incredible amount. I think that the folk scene would have been much poorer had he not been there’
“There’s a mixed legacy around Ewan. There’s people who have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who have awful things to say about him. And there’s people who never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who say nice things about him but never met him themselves. So they go, because it’s what people do. Our rituals are important.
“And it’s nice to know that people come … but whether they’ll keep coming? I don’t know that he has enough of a legacy for that. And I think also all of the crises that are hitting us, we’re going to find out things that are more important.”
Perhaps I’ve caught Seeger on a bad day. Pearson is in no doubt that MacColl deserves to be memorialised. “He did an incredible amount. I think the folk scene would have been much poorer had MacColl not been there, just in terms of the repertoire and the seriousness with which he took it.”
Certainly Seeger’s pessimism seems unwarranted given, to name just one example, the packed crowd, young and old, at the tribute event at the Barbican in 2015 to mark MacColl’s centenary.
One reason I wanted to write this article was to bridge that gap between the couple of dozen people who turn out at his tree twice a year and the legions who love and draw inspiration from his songs, his singing and his political principles.
Surely the regular gathering is just a fraction of the people who would attend if they were aware of the event – and knew that it’s friendly and welcoming to anyone who wants to celebrate MacColl’s life. “Definitely not an old chums crowd,” as Pearson puts it.
Rowe says: “A revaluation of Ewan’s contribution and importance I think is severely long overdue.”
A fittingly low-key first step for the memorial itself would be the replacement of MacColl’s plaque plus the completion of a project Mac has had his eye on for several years – having a bench put in beside the tree.
That is now going ahead, thanks to donors to a crowdfunder organised by Folk London with the blessing of Mac, Seeger and the MacColl family. It took less than a month to raise the £1,600 quoted by Camden council to install a bench, and the surplus will go towards renovating the plaque.
The generous response to the appeal shows MacColl’s stature among folk fans and, hopefully, proves to Seeger that her fears about his legacy are unfounded.
Hopefully the new bench will be in place for the next event, on MacColl’s birthday – and hopefully lockdown will lift enough to allow us to mark it in style.
If you’ve ever been moved by MacColl’s singing, touched by a lyric of his or inspired to action by his righteous political anger, come down to Russell Square on 25 January to raise a glass and strike up a song with the rest of us.
The Ewan MacColl memorial takes place at noon on 22 October and 25 January in Russell Square Gardens WC1. MacColl’s tree is by the footpath about halfway up the east side of the square.