Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl Various artists Cooking Vinyl
There is a risk of cheesiness associated with such ventures, when a venerable musician’s offspring take it on themselves to curate a tribute. But, to their credit, Neill and Calum MacColl swerve effortlessly past almost every potential pothole in this double-album testimonial to the songwriting legacy of their dad, Ewan MacColl, the centenary of whose birth has been marked this year with a series of critically acclaimed concerts as well as this recording. The sons have not only produced this album but also turn up as instrumentalists on most of the tracks, alongside distinguished musicians ranging from long-term MacColl devotees such as Dick Gaughan (who back in 1978 recorded the outstanding Songs of Ewan MacColl with Tony Capstick and Dave Burland) and Christy Moore, to next-generation stalwarts including the Unthanks and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. MacColl was one of the more luminous stalwarts of the British folk revival, widely admired as a singer-songwriter but also deeply resented among some for his Stalinist approach to cultural tradition and rendition style. Luckily, he did not consistently abide by his own diktat, leaving behind a diverse body of recorded work when he died in 1989. One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was The Joy of Living, a poignant farewell to the people and places he loved. The trouble with tracks such as this is that MacColl’s arresting vocals and distinctive style prove to be a challenge for overly respectful cover artists. That is not an issue for the likes of Gaughan (who performs Jamie Foyers, celebrating an International Brigades volunteer in the Spanish Civil War), Moore ( The Companeros, a cheerful nod to Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries), Billy Bragg ( Kilroy was Here) and Steve Earle (who tackles the much covered Dirty Old Town), each of whom puts his own stamp on the song in question. Nor does it matter for the four members of the Waterson-Carthy clan, who contribute individually to this worthy project. Paul Buchanan, meanwhile, deserves a special mention for taking on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with an elan that owes little to the familiar versions of this Grammy-winning song recorded by Roberta Flack and Peggy Seeger — the latter, mother to Neill, Calum and Kitty MacColl, being Ewan’s muse in this particular context, as well as his long-term artistic collaborator and partner in life. It is no surprise, meanwhile, that nearly half of the 21 tracks here come from the striking Radio Ballads that MacColl, Seeger and Charles Parker recorded for the BBC in the late 1950s and early 60s, notably The Travelling People, an audio documentary on Britain’s gypsies. More broadly, kudosworthy contributions from Karine Polwart, Kathryn Williams and, unexpectedly, Jarvis Cocker add to this album’s status as keeper, even though it excludes seminal MacColl songs such as The Manchester Rambler and Ballad of Accounting.