Ian “Mac” McDeson, who has died aged 82 of lung cancer, was living proof that folk music’s audiences are just as important as its performers, and some of its most important characters barely sing a note.
Mac – as he was universally known, to the extent that when I learned his full name it felt like being let in on a deep secret – was an institution at Sharp’s Folk Club, propping up the bar every week.
This booming, gravel-voiced man could be intimidating to the newcomer but it soon became clear he had a deep love of the music and admiration for those who sang and played it. He was, in fact, extremely warm and supportive – a gruff cry of “well sung” from the back of the bar was just about the highest praise a Sharp’s performer could hope for.
That praise meant even more when it became clear that Mac’s roots in folk music ran deep. He had been involved since at least the early 1960s, as a regular at Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s Singers Club, where he made a number of lifelong friends, and also had strong links to London Irish folk music.
Although he was born in Swindon “with railways in his blood”, as his friend Jim Morrison said, Mac followed his father into the bricklaying trade and came to London aged about 18 to find work.
He met his future wife, Barbara, at a folk club at the Three Horseshoes in Hampstead in 1964 and they married in July 1966.
Through his work and the trade union movement he met numbers of well-known Irish traditional players in London, and even shared digs with a few.
His working-class credentials as a bricklayer endeared him to MacColl – in fact, he ended up tiling the chimney breast of MacColl and Seeger’s home in Beckenham – and they shared a passionate commitment to socialism.
Mac’s father, to whom he was very close, “may have been a communist, certainly a trade unionist and activist”, according to Morrison, and Mac too was dedicated, right up until his death, to the cause of working people.
He was a staunch member of the builders’ union Ucatt and one of the organisers of its Camden branch; his daily paper was the Morning Star and in his younger days he sold its predecessor, the Daily Worker, on the street. In recent years he was a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.
The Red Flag was the first song I ever heard Mac sing, in fact – one May Day at Sharp’s, when he had been talked into climbing from his stool.
“Sharp’s regulars will know I only have a repertoire of two songs,” he said on the night I heard him perform the other one: 20 October 2020, when Seeger dropped in to the Sharp’s Zoom session and many people sang MacColl’s songs on a night dedicated to him. Mac performed The Drivers’ Song, aka Come All Ye Gallant Drivers, in a fine characterful baritone that made listeners wonder why he sang so rarely.
‘Mac’s gruff cry of “well sung” from the back of the bar was just about the highest praise a Sharp’s performer could hope for’
That night was a Covid stopgap: in normal circumstances Seeger and many others would have gathered in Russell Square on 22 October, the anniversary of MacColl’s death.
Mac not only organised the twice-yearly event, on the day of MacColl’s birth and death, but he had arranged for the planting of the memorial oak tree where it was held. He also brought flowers – and a suitcase full of alcohol – whenever he was able to attend (mobility problems sometimes kept him away, but he was there two days after the Sharp’s session, along with a handful of others).
That was typical of his generosity to friends and strangers alike. A few years ago a group of young women came to Sharp’s one evening, one of them celebrating her 18th birthday. Hardly typical club regulars, and they could have been forgiven for feeling ill at ease. But at the interval Mac engaged his gentle charm, and in the second half one of them borrowed a guitar and held the audience spellbound as she sang a song she had written.
Mac usually stood all the drinks at Sharp’s on his birthday, and at the MacColl memorials he would offer a glass to curious passersby and gently but enthusiastically explain to them who we were honouring and why.
In recent years mobility problems meant that the only club he visited was Sharp’s, where he had been a regular from the early days. Before that, he had often been seen at the Cellar Upstairs and Musical Traditions, as well as Towersey Festival. Aside from folk he was a keen jazz fan.
Although the internet wasn’t his natural environment he became a regular at the Sharp’s in Isolation sessions during lockdown once a few people had arm-twisted him into learning how to use Zoom – and his refrain of “well sung” boomed from the computer speakers after a particularly fine performance.
Mac was diagnosed in January with lung cancer, which he believed may have been linked to the widespread use of asbestos in the construction industry during his working days; many of his former colleagues had died from asbestosis.
After a spell in the Royal Free hospital he was moved to the Marie Curie hospice in Hampstead, where he spent the final eight weeks of his life in peace and comfort.
He is survived by Barbara.
Ian “Mac” McDeson, born 13 June 1938; died 23 April 2021. This article appeared in Folk London 313, June-July 2021
Letter: Richard Humm
Ian “Mac” McDeson was a fighter for building workers’ rights and there are some pictures of him in the book Construction Safety Campaign by Tony O’Brien. In 2003, the CSC initiated the Robert Tressell Awards, and Ian was one of the recipients in 2007.
Letter: Paul Cowdell
I’m sorely grieved by Mac’s death: we shared many a pint, and many an intense political discussion where despite our solidarity we didn’t quite see eye to eye. I remember some particularly good ones over the Shrewsbury pickets, as Mac was immensely proud of having been one of the few Ucatt members arrested in London during their defence. So thank you for a nice obit.
I didn’t know he’d sung The Red Flag, although I’m not surprised: I think that actually took his repertoire to three songs, the third being Nancy Hogan’s Goose, which he picked up when he was hanging out with a lot of Irish traditional singers.
I’d been casting around for what to sing now my local club is back open, and now I have my answer.
Letter: Kathy Dent
One night at Sharp’s I was introducing a parody of The Grey Funnel Line (The Grey Flannel Line) and was spinning a yarn (ha, ha) about this being the inspiration for Cyril Tawney as it was sung to him by his mother, a ferocious seamstress, it being a rare example of a sewing shanty.
I could see Mac sitting, as usual, side on to the bar, watching the singers from his grandstand position. At the mention of Tawney his ears pricked up and I could see he was listening intently and taking it all in. As I launched into the song I could see the penny drop that it had been a complete fabrication and that he’d been hoodwinked but he took it in good spirits and didn’t hold it against me, bless him.