How the Radio Ballads were made
The Radio Ballads: How they were made, when and by whom
by Ewan MacColl 1981
The Ballad of John Axon (1957),The Body Blow (1961), Song of A Road (1958), On the Edge (1962), Singing the Fishing (1959), The Fight Game (1963), The Big Hewer (1960), The Travelling People (1964). These ballads are available from Topic Records (click on Radio Ballads on the navigation bar).
In 1957, John Axon, a steam-locomotive driver, was making the down-run from Buxton in the Derbyshire Peak District to his home depot at Edgley, Stockport, when the automatic steam-brake pipe developed a fracture. The driving cab was immediately filled with scalding steam and Axon and his fireman, Ron Scanlon, were forced to take refuge on the steel step outside the cab. At this point, the locomotive was climbing a steep hill at a fairly slow speed and Axon advised his fireman to jump for safety. Scanlon did so while Axon remained hanging from the outside of the cab. It was his intention to alert the signalman at the Doveholes signal-box so that he, in turn, could warn the stationmaster at Chapel-en-le-Frith, further down the line. After cresting the hill, the locomotive with its 700-ton load began to pick up speed and in the course of the next seven miles built up to more than eighty miles an hour. The Doveholes signal-man was able to phone through to the Chapel station and the local diesel waiting there was quickly switched into a siding. A few seconds later, Axon's runaway locomotive crashed into an empty freight train there and Axon was killed. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross for Bravery.
Charles Parker approached me on behalf of the B.B.C. and suggested that I should write a feature programme on the event. It should, he suggested, be modelled on LONESOME TRAIN, Earl Robinson's impressive folk cantata on the death of Lincoln. I found the offer an attractive one and was duly contracted to produce a script.
Armed with tape recorders, Charles and I made the journey to Edgely with the intention of gathering background material on which to base the programme. So far there was no departure from normal B.B.C. procedure. We could record John Axon's widow and fireman and then, using the tape recordings as a guide, I would write a dramatic reconstruction of the events which would eventually be performed by actors and musicians. The original schedule had budgeted for three or four days' recording in the field. In actual fact, the total time spent in the area was some fifteen days spread over a period of nearly two months. When we finally returned to base we had more that forty hours of recorded actuality.
Now it was up to me to assimilate the information on the tapes and write a script. I listened to those tapes for the best part of a fortnight. Their impact was enormous and it was immediately apparent that we had recorded a unique picture of a way of life told in language charged with the special kind of vitality which derives from involvement with a work-process. The problem was how to use it. Could one re-write it without reducing it and falsifying it? The more I listened the more convinced I became that neither the standard format of the feature programme nor the elegiac framework of LONESOME TRAIN could accommodate the wild stuff we had recorded.
It wasn't merely that the speech had the ring of authenticity: there was something else- the excitement of an experience re-lived and communicated without additive and without dilution. Finally, there were those extraordinary moments when the similes and metaphors burst through the speech like rockets shedding their green and crimson fire across a November sky. At its best, the actuality had something of the quality of the traditional ballads- it moved with the same deliberation, combined words into phrases which had the familiar ring of clichés, but which, at the same time, demanded all of one's attention; and, like the traditional ballads, there would be moments when the flat, ongoing narrative would suddenly be illuminated by a phrase of extraordinary potency.
The traditional ballad, then, was to be the model for a narrative programme without narrators, caption voices or actors - a programme in which actuality recordings and songs and music written in the folk idiom would be interwoven. I didn't doubt that it would work. I had done similar work with Joan Littlewood in the 1930's when we had produced pageants at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, celebrating the International Brigade and the struggle of the Spanish people against fascism. On those occasions, we had Paul Robeson and a choir making the music while the actuality came directly from the mouths of those who had fought in Spain. Later, in the period after the Second World War, we used the technique again in the Theatre Workshop production of a ballad opera called JOHNNY NOBLE.
I wrote the music for JOHN AXON in ten days, conceiving each song as an extension of a specific piece of actuality, as a comment on that actuality, or as a single frame for a collection of actuality pieces. Some of the songs are written to traditional tunes; others are based on melodic motifs common to the English, American or West Indian folk music traditions; still others used ideas drawn from traditional jazz. The main weakness, as far as the music was concerned, was that it was rhythmically and harmonically orientated towards the North American tradition rather than towards the British, a point on which none of the critics commented until some eight years after the original transmission.
When Peggy Seeger began to make the musical arrangements for the programme, it became apparent that the selection and timing of actuality had not only to be precise but had to be finalized before the arrangements could be done. So Peggy and I spent a few days making a list of timed actuality and by the end of another week we had a fairly complete script, lacking only timings for the improvised jazz sections.
Charles received the script of JOHN AXON with a marked lack of enthusiasm. It was a long way from LONESOME TRAIN. He doubted very much that he could 'get away' with using raw actuality, and some of our suggested actuality excerpts were so short that there wouldn't be time for them to register on the listener's ear. Still, if it worked.....
The method of assembly was typical of current B.B.C. studio practice: over a period of two or three days, a team of singers and instrumentalists rehearsed and recorded all the songs nd incidental music for the programme. Thereafter, Charles spent a period of three or four days marrying the songs and music to the actuality. In the case of JOHN AXON, this particular part of the production was made impossibly difficult through a malfunction of the studio recording machines, which resulted in all the songs running at different speeds. Charles accomplished miracles with innumerable scraps of tape ranging from lengths measuring in yards to bits of microscopic size; and if (even after corrections) the musical pitches were not as firm as they might have been, they were not so infirm as to be unbearable.
It must be stressed that at this point we were recording on single-track tape. Multi-track recording facilities were still some four or five years in the future. It was because of the magnificent contribution made by Charles Parker as a tape-editor that I suggested that the credits for JOHN AXON be shared out equally between Charles, Peggy and myself. Peggy refused on the grounds that she had not been involved in the project for the very beginning and Charles felt that three names might present billing problems. So it was decided to present THE BALLAD OF JOHN AXON as the joint work of Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker with musical arrangements by Peggy Seeger. Had this particular billing been confined to JOHN AXON it would have been reasonable enough, but unfortunately, it was used for each of the Radio Ballads that followed.
When THE BALLAD OF JOHN AXON was finally broadcast, it received the kind of publicity that is usually give to a controversial play or to a novel banned by the censor. Robert Robinson in the course of a two-column spread in The Sunday Times, wrote: "As remarkable a piece of radio as I have ever listened to." Paul Ferris was equally enthusiastic in The Observer: "Last week a technique and subject got married and nothing in radio kaleidoscopy, or whatever you like to call it, will ever be the same again." Even The New Statesman - generally cautious in handing out praise - was congratulatory in a piece signed by Tom Driberg: "Flecker's dream of being read by a poet living a thousand years hence is unlikely to be realized, but a generation from now -- I would even say centuries from now -- listeners will surely still be moved by the recording of THE BALLAD OF JOHN AXON."
This was praise indeed, and the B.B.C. put its own seal of approval on the work by choosing it to be the British entry for the 1958 Prix d'Italia. We who had been most closely involved with the making of the programme were far from satisfied and were aware of its many defects. Everything had been too easy. The story of Axon's death was, in itself, highly dramatic. It possessed a built-in-chronology and a natural dramatic climax. "Of course it fitted into the ballad form," said the wiseacres. You just happen to have hit on a story which falls naturally into the Casey Jones - Wreck of the Old '97 formula." Poets and composers who, prior to this time, had viewed the folk revival with unconcealed contempt, were now prepared to concede that this new movement might possibly contain a promise of artistic potential. The poet, Louis MacNeice, commented: "So you have proved that the ballad and the idiom of traditional music can be a valid form of expression for the twentieth century, and for the mass media...but only when it is applied to a simple black-and-white situation." It was with these words ringing in our ears that we embarked upon the second of the Radio Ballads, which was to deal with the building of Britain's first modern motorway, the M-1.
Of the 19.000 men employed on this project, more than half were Irish, descendants of the men who had build Britain's canal and railway systems There were tradesmen of all kinds, engineers, scaffolders, bridge-builders, bricklayers, carpenters, asphalters, pavers, cement-mill operators; there were the labourers, the pick-and-shovel slingers, the ditch-diggers, the concreting gangs, the tea-nippers and the rest. There they were, with their bulldozers and dumpers, their caterpillar-tractors, steam-cranes and automatic shovels, their picks, rock-drills and nine-pound hammers, stretched across the first fifty miles of the project in a line roughly parallel to that other road which had once served the cohorts of Persian archers, Gallic swordsmen, Scythian spear-throwers and Iberian cavalry who made up Caesar's legions. In addition to the motley army of Irish, Scots, Welsh, Indian, Pakistani, Greek, Polish and English labourers, there were the designers, geologists, soil-chemists, archaeologists, planners, statisticians, contractors and sub-contractors.
The building of the M-1 provided us with a marvellous subject for a Radio Ballad. Had we approached that subject with the daring and zest that it demanded, we might well have created one of the great radio programmes of all time. As it was, we fumbled the opportunity and produced a work that was part Radio Ballad and part radio feature programme.
It was not until after I had accepted the contract for SONG OF A ROAD that Charles informed me that the head of his department in Birmingham felt that a less extreme form of the technique we had used in JOHN AXON should be applied to the new project. Charles himself felt that the subject called for a form somewhat akin to the formal feature programme, a form which would include recorded speech of employers and consultants as well as that of navvies, bulldozer drivers and other such workers. The result, it was argued, would be 'a more balanced programme". The result was a thoroughly confused programme.
For the best part of two months, Charles and myself (and often Peggy) patrolled the constantly changing length of the road, recording in hostels, dormitories, pubs, canteens and shelters. We recorded in the cabs of bulldozers and earth-moving machines and helicopters, in offices and plant headquarters. We found ourselves asking questions about bridge-building, about running a concrete batching-plant, about prefabrication techniques, about maintaining and running the Shavian Finisher and, in short, behaving as though our intention was to create a programme which would inform the listener how to build his or her own motorway.
At the end of the field-recording part of the project, we had between eighty and ninety hours of recorded tape from which to select between thirty and forty minutes of programme actuality. The initial selection was left to Peggy and me. For almost five weeks we worked at transcribing this great mass of material and juggling appropriate passages of actuality into the framework for a script.
In the course of the next three or four weeks, I wrote the songs and Peggy completed the musical arrangements, after which we made a rough tape-assembly of actuality and related songs. When Charles heard the tapes, he felt that we hadn't achieved the desired balance between "the human expression of the job" on the one hand and work processes on the other. He decided, therefore, to choose some alternative actuality himself. This was the only occasion on which he did so in any of the Radio Ballads and the results were less than satisfactory. The introduction into the script of actuality dealing exclusively with technical matters meant that new songs had to be written, songs dealing with technical processes such as building cantilever bridges, songs explaining geological systems, songs celebrating chains of command in management, etc.
When SONG OF A ROAD was finally broadcast, the Sunday Observer radio critic described it as a "near triumph by JOHN AXON standards and an absolute marvel by any other". As far as we were concerned it was a complete debacle though it taught us a very valuable lesson about the precise nature of the relationship of speech to traditional song-rhythms.
In the course of playing back the road-builder's actuality, we had observed that there were basic differences in the way in which words were used by our manual workers on the one hand and by the planners and white-collar staff on the other. The latter, though "educated" and "articulate" were, when played back, often boring and over-technical. Listening to them, we found that our concentration would begin to dissipate after two or three minutes. To our "uneducated" speakers, however, we could listen for long periods without any decline in concentration. Now this was odd since the soil- chemists, designers, planners and surveyors were (or so it seemed) getting far more job satisfaction from what they were doing than, say, the navvies, dump-truck drivers or joiners. We analysed the speech in several tapes chosen at random and came up with some interesting facts. Our managerial informants tended to use an extremely small area of the vocal effort spectrum. Their most characteristic effort was that of pressing, combined occasionally with short thrusts; or that of gliding or, less frequently, with subsidiary dabbing efforts. Irrespective of the subject under discussion they scarcely ever varied the tempo of delivery. Almost all of them made constant use of the impersonal pronoun. They were consistent in their use of tenses and rarely changed direction inside a sentence or phrase. Verbs were given no more vocal weight than nouns, and similes and metaphors were almost totally eschewed.
The labourers on the other hand used both similes and metaphors liberally. They changed tense constantly, often to emphasize a point or to sharpen an argument. They made use of extended analogies and emphasized verbs in such a way as to give every sentence an effort-peak. Almost all of them used the first person singular and the present historical with equal effect. Their single speaker would, in the course of an extended passage, sometimes use presses, thrusts, glides and dabs in much the same way that a boxer in the ring might use his body. A project manager drew attention to the two language groups in the course of defining the functions of a ganger: "He's the link between us and them. I sometimes think we'd be no worse off if they were speaking Swahili."
We incorporated our findings in a memo which we sent to Charles and in the course of the next few weeks the three of us met several times to discuss future plans. Those discussions produced guide-lines which were to prove useful in the creation of each of the subsequent Radio Ballads. Among other things, it was agreed that the selection of actuality should be left to Peggy and myself and that selected actuality excerpts with possible alternatives should be sent to Charles as soon as each episode of the script was complete. Finally, it was agreed that the Radio Ballads should not be concerned with processes but with people's attitudes to those processes; not with things but with people's relationships to those things; and with the way in which those attitudes and relationships were expressed in words. What we did not discuss was how the Radio Ballads should be billed from now on.
SINGING THE FISHING, our third Radio Ballad, was an important landmark for us. We began our recording programme in the field without any preconceived notions as to what the finished product would be like. From the beginning, we decided to allow the actuality to shape the programme. The areas chosen for the field recordings were East Anglia (the traditional but now decayed hub of the herring-fishing industry) and Northeast Scotland (Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire and Banffshire), the centre of the new post-war herring-fishing industry.
In East Anglia we hit pay dirt immediately when we met Sam Larner, an eighty-year-old ex-herring-fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. He had first gone to sea in 1892 on board a sailing lugger and, in the course of his working life, had seen the sailing fleet give way to steam-drifters. He had lived through the industry's golden age when Great Yarmouth had reckoned up the annual catch by the million barrels. Furthermore, Sam could sing. He knew dozens of country songs, traditional ballads, mnemonic rhymes for navigation and local legends. In the course of recording him, we set up a pattern which subsequently became our recording procedure.
In the first few days, we dealt with the broad outlines of his life and work. We then played back the recordings, noted carefully which type of question and method of questioning elicited the best response, listed lacunae in the narrative, made preliminary sketches for the songs in relation to speech-rhythms, and broke down the chronology of the narrative into manageable sections There followed a two-weeks' intensive recording period, during which specific areas of Sam's life were dealt with in detail. For three or four days, for example, we listened to him recalling the period of his early childhood. We probed and constantly changed the perspective of our questions until his emotion-memory was in full flight and he began to re-live and re-feel the experiences and emotions of three-quarters of a century earlier. There were times when the force of memory was so strong in the old man that he would forget that we were present and re-enact conversations with friends and neighbours dead these fifty years. The period of his adolescence and early manhood were dealt with in a similar way and in each successive recording session his eagerness to reveal the meaning of his life became more apparent. At the same time, the more deeply he entered into his past, the more rich and varied became his verbal imagery: similes, metaphors, proverbs, biblical quotations, weather rhymes, bawdy aphorisms - all combined to make his speech as active and as vital as if itself.
We noticed that as time wore on, he ceased to censor his memories. Work, huge, sexual appetite, pain and joy were all recalled with equal frankness. "I been a wicked man in my time," he said with enormous enjoyment "Ain't that right, Dorcas?" (this to his blind wife sitting by the fire). "You have, Sam, you have!" agrees Dorcas philosophically. "Yes," says Sam, his faded blue eyes alight with concupiscent memories, "I done some wicked things." "You been a wicked bugger, Sam," comments Dorcas again, and Sam shakes and wheezes with delight. "See? She knows what I mean, don't you me old dear?" And then, with passionate intensity, he says, "And I loved it! I loved it! And now that I'm too old for it, I don't care whether I live nor die. No, I don't, truly I don't."
At the end of this phase of the recording, Charles went off and Peggy and I spent several days transcribing the material and making a rough selection of the passages most immediately relevant to our purpose. By this time, the rough shape of the programme had begun to emerge. Sam Larner, without any prompting, had divided the story of the herring-fishing industry into three main chapters: sail, steam and diesel. We decided that our programme should follow this pattern and that the first section should be based on Sam himself. Some of the songs were already beginning to take shape from the actuality and I was by now so attuned to the rhythm of Sam's utterance and so familiar with his breathing patterns that I could imagine how the songs and actuality would dovetail and complement each other.
When we met with Charles to plan the third stage of the recording of Sam Larner, it was agreed that we should concentrate on getting him to expound his concept of the world around him. We asked him to sum up his eighty years' experience; to define his attitude to the community in which he lived; to comment on the changes which had taken place within that society; to define his attitude to work, politics, religion, old age, death - and the kind of songs he sang. His picture of death was akin to that of Langland's and the makers of the folk tales. Death was a cunning adversary perpetually engaged in a series of all-in wrestling bouts with human challengers. Naturally, death won most of the rounds, though occasionally he would be tricked and vanquished by a man of wit and determination. "It won't be the first time he come for me - and it won't be the first time I cheated him! Yes, cheated him! That time he come for me in the North Sea, when he came for me in the storm, when all them young chaps were cryin' and prayin' down below ... I done him down then." Returning to the theme, he said, 'I ain't got long now, but when he come for me, I'll look him in the eye. I ain't got nothing to be ashamed of."
It took us three weeks to record Sam Larner and after excising repetitions, introductions, interruptions and our own voices from he tapes we were left with almost thirty hours of magnificent actuality and three hours of songs, ballads and stories.
Ronnie Balls, a retired steam-drifter skipper from Great Yarmouth, did for steam what Sam had done for sail, but whereas Sam had used words in the manner of a dramatic poet, Ronnie's approach was that of a master of the lyric form. To hear the soft East Anglian drawl of this youthful sixty-year-old describing the finer points of a steam-drifter was to know tenderness and love in its most pure form - and that is not exaggeration. Ronnie Balls loved steam-drifters with the same kind of consuming passion that lovers in the medieval romances reserved for their mistresses. "Ah, the steam-drifter," he said, "the loveliest ship for the job that ever was built." The 'job', of course, was herring-fishing and that, too, he loved: physically, intellectually, spiritually, "There's no feelin' like coming into harbour with a good catch of fish. Hundred cran! Cor, lovely shot! Get your sample out, let's be sellin' 'em. See? And you ... you just lean back in the wheelhouse and you look. All I can think of is ... you know, if you was one of the old hunters in the old tribal days. Now you've brought home the meat. You share it out. Do what you like with it. I've done my bit."
In between the two world wars, the herring-fishing industry had declined and Great Yarmouth had declined with it. After the Second World War, a new fleet of diesel-driven boats were built, equipped with radar and echo-sounding apparatus. The centre of the industry moved to the northeast coast of Scotland. So we made our way northwards to record the third part of SINGING THE FISHING and set up base in Gardenstown (Gamrie), a small herring-fishing and farming community on the Banffshire coast. Within half an hour of arriving in Gamrie, we learned that almost all of the fisher folk were members of a fundamentalist religious sect, the Closed Brethren, and that there was scarcely any social contact between them and the ordinary country folk living there. Towards us, however, the fishermen and their families appeared friendly enough and in the course of the next few weeks we came to respect and admire them.
It was on board The Honeydew that we really began to understand these men and their way of life. The Honeydew was a trim, diesel-driven drifter that rode the big Atlantic rollers like a cork. She was small, after the manner of drifters, but tough and indomitable like the men who sailed her. On shore we had been treated with politeness mixed with some reserve, but after a day at sea we were accepted as members of the crew. We had obviously passed a test, though, to this day I don't really know what the test consisted of. While on board, Charles and I organised our recording schedule into shifts so that there was never a time in the 24-hour cycle when one of us was not on hand with a recording machine at the ready. We kept them running while we sat at meals in the galley, and in the wheelhouse where a radio-receiving set kept up a continuous chatter of information from every drifter within a fifty-mile radius.
We caught the marvellous feeling of excitement as the lookout sighted a shoal: "Herring on the port bow! Herring! Herring! Herring!." And we were there to hear the skipper, Frank West, cry out like a man in the throes of religious ecstasy: "There they are, the silver darlings!" We recorded the rhythmical clacking of the winch as the two- mile-long nets were played out and noted that it would make a fine cross rhythm against a triple time song. And we waited on the blacked out deck as the net-men pulled the herring-filled nets from the sea, hour after hour until it seemed that the world was a bottomless hole from which the shimmering green fire of herrings would never stop rising. Ten hours of pulling and two miles of fish drawn from the sea! "A good catch, well above average for this time of the year. You've brought us luck!" says the mate, an amiable giant from Cairnbulg. One by one, the weary net-haulers pass on their way to the galley, clapping us on the back, shaking hands, thanking us for having brought them luck.
Then it's a race back to Ullapool in Wester Ross, to catch the market while the prices are still high. An hour or two to unload and the off to sea again for more fish And it's like this six days a week, fifty weeks of the year. Work calculated to age a man premature and to kill off those with physical disabilities; brutal work and yet the men are not brutalised. They are serious men and when they talk it is of important things like work, man's relationship with his maker, the price of fish - and, so often, the bad old days of the Depression, the memory of which haunts all of them. They speak with the slow, deliberation of seers and prophets. If the East Anglian men's speech evokes occasional echoes of Langland and the maker of that old English Poem "The Seafarer", then these Northeasterners have the rich old speech of Henryson and Dunbar.
One of my most vivid memories is of sailing with them through the Northern Minch in a seven-point gale. The Honeydew looked and felt like a toy boat lost in a grey wilderness of sea and sky. At one moment she would be lifted to the summit of a great peak and the next would be ploughing through a deep trough ridged by banks of white-topped waves. I stood there on the deck terrified, clinging desperately with one hand to a steel cable while in the other I held up a microphone in a vain effort to record the storm - and by my side stood Louis Cardno, a Huguenot Scot from Cairnbulg who, in order to illustrate a theological pint, was howling into my ears lengthy quotations from Fox's Book of Martyrs.
The final playback and transcription of the actuality took Peggy and me the best part of three weeks. After choosing and timing the actuality for the programme we compiled a tape of alternative actuality choices. We would categorise these choices by subject or idea, such as "Hauling", "The Catch". The tape machine rolled and stopped as we put markers in the tape reel or correlate the transcript with the tape. The typewriter clacked on. Scraps of paper floated about the work-table: memos on which were scrawled odd words or phrases ("that night it blew a living gale") clipped to another scrap of paper with a couplet:
"In the stormy seas and the living gales Just to earn your daily bread you're darin',"
The scraps accumulated; "we need a song with a refrain here"; "how about the mandolin on this song?"; "it's time for something up-tempo". Or it might be an entire song text that would require only ten or fifteen minutes polishing.
The writing of the songs took me about a month or maybe a little longer. Peggy spent another two weeks on the musical arrangements . We then made rough tapes of the songs and played them to Sam Larner, Ronnie Balls and anyone else who was prepared to listen to them. Occasionally they would criticise a word or a line or a phrase or question a piece of information, whereupon I would rewrite the offending line or phrase and go on rewriting it until it met with approval. There were rare and wonderful occasions when Sam or one of the other fishermen would claim to have known all his life a song which I had just written. When this happened, we know we had really come close to capturing the true effect of the fishing life upon these men.
The studio work on JOHN AXON and SONG OF A ROAD had consisted of two days' intensive work with singers and musicians, during which songs and linking/descriptive music would be recorded. The marrying of music, song and actuality was performed by Charles Parker, the producer of the programmes. The studio technique of SINGING THE FISHING was entirely different from that of the previous two Radio Ballads. Actuality was now edited, timed and assembled in sequence on master-tapes and sound effect sequences were built up on additional spools - before the recording of the songs and music. Tape machines for feeding in actuality and sound effects were installed in the performance area of the studio and tape machine operators became members of the musical ensemble. That was Charles' idea and by adopting this procedure it became possible to record complete sequences of SINGING THE FISHING, sequences in which actuality , song, music and sound effects were simultaneously integrated into the final form. Singers and musicians were no longer in the dark but could match their performance to every nuance of speech in the actuality. Singers could now alter vocal density so as to complement or ride with a speaker's change of pitch occasioned by the raising or lowering to the emotional level. Musicians could now learn the breathing patterns in a piece of actuality and synchronise musical entries and exits so that speech and mucic became a single, unbroken line. In the same way, pulses and rhythms of speech could be matched exactly by a musical instrument without destroying the guidelines of the musical arrangements. For the tape machine operators it meant that actuality feed-ins cold be conceived as continuations of a melodic line, that the first heavily accented word in a passage of speech could be made to coincide with the accented beats in a bar of music, that short passages of actuality could be interpolated between the verses of a song in place of musical tags, or that they could be fed between two lines of a stanza and serve as refrains.
It took almost a week to record all the sequences. Everything had to work simultaneously: actuality, songs, musical background, sound effects - and the balance of them had to be just right. It was exhausting work for everyone, but exhilarating and at the end of it we were all conscious of having been involved in a mutual act of creation. Our original script had scarcely undergone any alteration. Of the actuality we had chosen, only one small passage (three lines) had been rejected in the assembly. When the sequences were joined together, their total time was only one minute and fifty-two seconds longer than the final broadcast version.
I have dealt at some length with SINGING THE FISHING, mainly because in the course of working on it we developed a routine which was followed in all the subsequent Radio Ballads. We still, however, hadn't raised the question of billing with Charles. In view of the fact that we had presented him with a detailed script of THE FISHING, in the formulation of which he had played virtually no part, it struck us as unreasonable that he should claim joint authorship.. The fact that Peggy Seeger was credited only with musical arrangements was grossly unfair. With the exception of the writing of the songs, Peggy had taken part in every stage of the creation of SINGING THE FISHING. When I raised the matter privately with Charles, he was of the opinion that it was not an auspicious moment to question the billing, as SINGING THE FISHING had been chosen for the B.B.C. Entry for the Italia prize. At the time it seemed a reasonable explanation so we let the matter rest. In any case, we soon had other things on our mind.
Within a matter of weeks, we were asking ourselves whether the success of SINGING THE FISHING wasn't due to the fact that the theme was one which lent itself readily to traditional type song; after all, our fishermen lived in the kind of communities which, in the past, had created the kind of song and poetry which make up our folk traditions. The mere fact that the sea was involved guaranteed, as it were, the quality of the drama. Then again with informants like Sam Larner and Ronnie Balls it was impossible to fail. "But," the argument went, "they are survivals from the past, representatives of a bygone age, individuals drawn from a way of life and work which survives freakishly in a world where individuals are themselves misfits. They spend their lives fighting an elemental force - the sea - and they are themselves elementals." This kind of argument was not easily countered; it posed questions which went beyond the validity of the Radio Ballad form; it questioned the entire basis of the folk-music revival, not only in Britain but everywhere in the modern world. The Radio Ballad team (for the three of us were a team) had learned many things in the course of living and working with railwaymen, road-builders, and fishermen, but all of us needed to learn a great deal more before we cold accept or reject such a point of view.
SINGING THE FISHING had taught us the value of what we called "depth recording", had taught us to recognise the moments when a person would use the kind of words that could transform an individual response into a universal experience. It had taught us to recognise the necessity of lying in wait for the moment when an individual ceases to be the one who is interviewed and becomes, instead, one who is compelled by some inner need to give creative expression to all the things he or she had experienced It had also taught us that in the actuality was to be found not only the subject-matter of the songs but usages, turns of expression, rhythms, pulses, idioms and all the elements out of which songs are made. We had also learned the simple fact that a songwriter's best critics are the people about whom the songs are made. A fisherman might, conceivably, accept a third-rate song about farm life as a true expression of the countryman's attitude, but he would never make the same mistake about a song which dealt falsely with the subject on which he is an authority: fishing and fishermen. Finally, we had learned to have confidence in the actuality and allow it to shape the entire work.
Armed with these lessons, we began work on THE BIG HEWER, a Radio Ballad about the miners of the Northumberland, Durham, South Wales and East Midlands coalfields. On the second or third day we encountered, for the first time, the legend which gave the programme its title: "the Big Hewer", the mythological superman of the British coalfields. In the weeks that followed we encountered him frequently under a variety of names: as Jack Tempest and Bob Temple in Northumberland; as Bob Towers in County Durham; as Jackie Torr in Derbyshire; and as Isaac Lewis in South Wales. It is a sad commentary on the state of British folklore studies that no collector of folk tales has ever noted this extraordinary legend which is not only widespread but is also a unique example of themes and motifs common to the classic Indo-European folk tales surviving in and adapting to industrial society.
We took our tape recorders into the pit-canteens, pithead baths, into pubs and miners' welfares. We dragged them through the galleries of drift mines in Northumberland and West Durham, down the deep shafts of East Durham and the hardrock mines of Wales, along the wide straight roads of East Midland horizon mines where the coal-getters advance like military units tearing at the coal-face with rotary cutters, shearers and belt-driven ploughs in a twenty-four-hour cycle; and we dragged ourselves along impossibly narrow passages into the hellish places where solitary miners lie on their sides and jab with short-bladed picks at the eighteen-inch coal-face.
At the end of our field-recording stint, we had taped between two and three hundred reels of mining "crack", the conversation of men who can make words ring like hammer blows on a face of anthracite, who, when they talk, enrich the bloodstream of the national vocabulary with transfusions of local pitmatic - the bold, bitter, ribald, beautiful talk of miners.
Meeting miners was, for Charles, a shattering experience. Up until this point he had managed to hold on to the somewhat Panglossian view that everything was all right (or nearly all right) in this best of all possible worlds. The coalfields changed all that. Indeed, before we were half-way through the field-work he confessed to feeling utterly uneducated in the presence of miners. Prior to this, he had maintained a stiff and uncomfortable manner during the recording sessions. With Sam Larner and Ronnie Balls he was a little more at ease than usual, but then he saw them as 'characters' and they, in no way, threatened his feelings of superiority. The miners refused to be viewed as characters, and how could one feel superior in the presence of men who appeared to have experienced everything and who could talk coherently about anything under the sun? For Charles it was a revelation and he was later to refer to it as the beginning of his education.
The actual job of transcribing and choosing actuality, organising the script, writing songs and arranging the music followed the routine established in SINGING THE FISHING, except that there was now twice the amount of actuality to be ploughed through. By this time we had a method of transcribing and cataloguing the actuality so that it could be easily located on the 7-inch reels of quarter-inch tape.
The Times greeted the broadcast of THE BIG HEWER with a two column review under the title of "Poetic Documentary with Worker Heroes". It described THE BIG HEWER along with THE BALLAD OF JOHN AXON and SONG OF A ROAD as being "among the few landmarks of postwar radio" and concluded by saying: "The total impression left behind is as genuinely heroic as that of the fishing communities in Riders to the Sea and La Terra Trema. And as tragic as that of the Japanese peasants who worshipped the volcano, a god who pours fertility on their lands in the interval before he destroys them." On the whole, the press was unanimous in regarding THE BIG HEWER as a serious and successful attempt to apply the techniques of folk creation to a contemporary situation. There was, however, a general feeling that we had taken the form as far as it could go, and there were those who argued that the technique of the Radio Ballad could not be used for themes and subjects which lay outside the orbit of the epic, situations where the dramatic conflict was confined to man's struggle with elemental forces. We were not sure whether they were right or not, but we were determined to find out.
In between SINGING THE FISHING and THE BIG HEWER, Peggy and I had written songs and music for a documentary film which dealt with poliomyelitis.We were critical of the somewhat stagey dialogue in that film and felt that the subject could have been more fairly and imaginatively represented. We convinced Charles that a Radio Ballad could be made on the psychology of pain and proceeded to map out a recording schedule. The budget was small (smaller than usual, that is) and work in the field had to be rationalised. Indeed, Charles recorded all the actuality in a single hospital in the course of a fortnight. The selection of actuality took rather longer than usual for we were considering some new editing and assembling techniques as regarded the recorded speech.
As early as SONG OF A ROAD I had suggested to Charles that one could take selected short pieces of actuality from several different speakers and build them into montage blocks which would have something of the quality of the stream of consciousness passages in Joyce's Ulysses. Peggy and I had just seen Last Year in Marienbad and our subsequent discussions crystallised into the technique that dominated THE BODY BLOW, that of the audio-montage. The idea was to cross-cut from speaker to speaker without fades or cross-fades, without bothering about transitions in time and space. Charles had failed to respond to the idea so now we set about trying to convince him. We taped a montage block made up of nineteen passages of speech from four speakers, each passage being a comment or part of a comment on the sensation of returning consciousness. The overall effect was overwhelming. Although not entirely convinced, Charles found the technical challenge exciting. Tending to regard the montages as a surrealistic trick, he nevertheless became expert at constructing them and they appeared frequently, with electrifying effect, in THE BODY BLOW.
The writing of the songs and music arrangements were completed in another ten days. The songs in this Radio Ballad were meant to serve as compass-bearings on the journey from unconsciousness and delirium, and through the various degrees of returning consciousness, pain, rehabilitation and readjustment to life outside the polio ward. Peggy scored the music for two singers and four instrumentalists and after two days on the studio floor our chamber-type Radio Ballad was complete.
Almost without exception the press was sceptical about the whole idea and some of the pre-broadcast press releases suggested that the whole project was in bad taste. On the day following the broadcast of the programme, the critics were just as unanimous in declaring it to be a tour-de-force (which it was not). On one level it was an attempt to extend the vocabulary of the Radio Ballad in an area of human experience completely removed from labour; on another and more important level it was an attempt to re-establish communication between two groups in our society (the physically disabled and the healthy) who were alienated from each other by feelings of rejection and resentment on the one hand and by pity and ignorance on the other. On both counts THE BODY BLOW scored a limited success - but the programme has since been used in the teaching curriculum of several medical colleges since, to help the students understand the psychology of paralysed people.
In the two years that followed the production of THE BODY BLOW, two further Radio Ballads were produced: ON THE EDGE (a study of Britain's teenagers) and THE FIGHT GAME (an account of professional boxing). Charles had other commitments which prevented him from taking part in collecting ON THE EDGE actuality. It was left entirely to Peggy and me. Not that it was difficult - on the contrary, it was as if the teenagers had been waiting for someone to hold a microphone in front of them. We interviewed them singly and in groups, the sons and daughters of labourers and company-directors, of professors and railway-porters, miners and filing-clerks. There were schoolgirls, apprentices, mods and rockers, unemployed. There were fifty-two of them, from Glasgow and Stirling; Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol and Reading; from Hackney, Poplar, Mile-end, Hampstead, Camberwell Brixton and the Old Kent Road. Once started, there was no stopping them. Like a stream of consciousness, everything poured out - their hopes, anxieties, bewilderment, fears, doubts, dreams, fantasies. Most of what they said was tremendously moving and we were really spoilt for choice when it came to choosing actuality excerpts for the programme.
The press received ON THE EDGE with enthusiasm. Peter Wilscher wrote in The Sunday Times: "I have sometimes had serious reservations about the way this method tends to swamp the material. With ON THE EDGE, their remarkable study of a youngster poised between childhood and growing up, I withdraw these completely. The match was near perfect." Ian Rogers of The Guardian numbered the Radio Ballad team "among the Brechtians of today." He concluded his critique by returning to the comparison. "Mr MacColl and Miss Seeger struck that note of sincerity which is necessary to the ballad form and by not trying to be too clever musically, their intoned narrative came close to the intent which Brecht had when he used all those placards."
These laudatory notices were flattering but, alas, undeserved in their totality. ON THE EDGE should have been the brilliant success which the critics said it was; certainly the actuality was brilliant enough. The fact is, we had allowed ourselves to be overcome by its richness. We were glutted with it - we had swallowed it whole and still hadn't digested it by the time we went into production. There were good things in the programme, including one or two very effective sequences in which the music dovetailed excellently with the actuality; but on the whole the songs were not organically related to the actuality. At best they illustrated the text without in any way amplifying it or contributing an extra dimension to it. Furthermore, at the studio-assembly stage, Charles' direction lacked the tautness and sense of excitement which had marked most of the previous Radio Ballads.
The first six Radio Ballads had been straightforward studies in human behaviour. THE FIGHT GAME, on the other hand, was essentially an ironic allegory in which songs and actuality existed in a constantly changing relationship to one another without ever threatening to destroy the overall equilibrium of the work.THE FIGHT GAME was (as far as the team was concerned) an unqualified success.
In each of the other Radio Ballads there had been things that didn't work. Perhaps an episode was out of kilter; or it was a song that had lost its performance edge, or a mix had blurred an important line of actuality or smothered the line of a song. It could be a song which had been speeded up to match the pace of a spoken line, or slowed down to match a fade or an effect; or (and this was the most serious fault) the rhythm of an internal sequence could have dislocated the overall rhythm of the programme. THE FIGHT GAME's actuality was nowhere near as rich as that of ON THE EDGE or SINGING THE FISHING. Most of its songs, unlike those in THE BIG HEWER, SINGING THE FISHING and even SONG OF A ROAD, could not easily be sung out of the context of the programme. Nevertheless, everything worked beautifully and the reason why it did so is a simple one: the training of a boxer follows a series of rhythmic patterns: running, shadow-boxing, punching a speedball, skipping, throwing a medicine ball ... all actions done to a specific rhythm. Our task was to note these rhythms and incorporate them in songs, musical sequences and actuality blocks. By ringing the changes on a sequence of rhythms we could have a new episode without breaking the links with all the other episodes that made up the programme.
We had chosen professional boxing as a subject in an effort to escape from the huge canvas of industry and the intensely private world of the sick and the adolescent. I think we imagined that we were embarking upon a Radio Ballad which, for a change, would be gay and light-hearted. How naïve we were! It soon became apparent that we had entered a world inhabited by people who regarded the prize ring as a symbolical representation of the larger world in which we all live. Boxers, managers, trainers, sports commentators, all stressed this point over and over again. Furthermore, we discovered that boxers, more than any other group we had worked with during the six years spent on the Radio Ballads, appeared to possess a strong sense of history. Almost without exception they compared themselves to the Roman gladiators, and their audiences to those who "got their kicks from seeing Christians thrown to the lions".
The final programme in the series was THE TRAVELLING PEOPLE, a study of Gypsies and Tinkers. It was a perfect Radio Ballad subject. Apart from any other considerations, the Travelling People are now among the chief carriers of the English and Scots folksong traditions, a fact which made the choice of musical idiom a natural one. As custodians of many of the classic folk tales they number in their ranks storytellers of great skill. It was from these that the programme was to take its pace and overall style. In social terms, too, the subject was a good one. Gypsies and Tinkers, for whom the family had always constituted the basic social unit, had continued to operate for some four or five hundred years in a hostile society the social organisation of which was determined by modes of production. As foreigners they had faced persecution and discrimination from the time of their first arrival in Britain and, in spite of it, had survived as a group. They possessed many skills of which rural society made use from time to time. They were skilled at working with iron and tin, they were excellent horse-copers and animal doctors. They could weave straw mats and make baskets and creels from oak and willow saplings. At harvest time they were fast and willing workers. Above all, their labour was cheap. Consequently, when they were needed they were tolerated; when they were not needed they were driven away, and this had been the pattern of the life of Britain's Travelling People throughout the entire period of their stay here.
Changes in the social structure had at times distorted the pattern but had not altered the essential nature of the conflict. The twentieth-century, however, has delivered a series of crushing blows, each one of which has made the possibilities of survival more difficult. The horse has been usurped by the automobile; mass-produced kitchen-ware has made the nomads' skills with iron and tin superfluous; the invention and development of plastics has put them out of business as basketmakers; machines are increasingly taking over from human beings in fields and orchards. At the same time, regional, county and borough authorities have introduced legislative acts which have given them control over every inch of potential camping ground. The Highway Code, the Litter Act, the National Parks Act and numerous other facets of 'progress' have combined to make the lot of the Travellers more and more intolerable.
Peggy and I had been recording Scots Tinkers and English Gypsies since 1960. During that time we had amassed a formidable number of songs, ballads and traditional tales and had become friendly with half-a-dozen Traveller families. It was natural, therefore, that the bulk of the field work for THE TRAVELLING PEOPLE should fall to us. I would guess that we spent between three and four weeks actually recording in the field, though it was spread over a period of some three and a half months. We recorded in the bow-tents of Argyllshire Tinkers; in harvest fields and roadside pull-ins in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and Banffshire; around campfires where storytellers told tales of the dead returning to the land of the living to pay off old debts. We visited the kitchens of grounded (that is, settled) Tinkers, and the caravans of Lincolnshire Gypsies from whose forebears George Borrow had learned the rudiments of Romanish - "the Gorgio, George Borrow who thought he could buy his way into our people with a packet of Woodbines", as one Gypsy put it. We recorded at Gypsy horse fairs in Westmoreland and on bits of sour waste ground in Kent and Surrey where victims of recent caravan evictions waited hopelessly behind barbed wire for the next disaster. We recorded in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Birmingham, London, Glasgow, Blairgowirie, Montrose, Aberdeen.
This was our last Radio Ballad, for we had reached the end of the road as far as the B.B.C. was concerned. For one thing, the Radio Ballads were expensive to produce (almost as expensive as an hour's all-in wrestling on TV) and the budget for radio productions was shrinking fast. Then again, there were the listener-research figures which showed that disc-jockey programmes of pop music appealed to audiences that were many times larger than the average Radio Ballad audience - and for a fraction of the cost. Paul Ferris, in the columns for The Observer, wrote: "If this is the best reason anyone could produce for the act of murder (and B.B. C. refused any details last week) it's a miserable one". Referring to an article which Charles had written for the journal New Society, Ferris went on to say: "As a statement of aims and supported by the evidence of eight programmes, beside which many of radio's attempts to mirror life sound like babytalk, it makes the charge of 'extravagance' seem a very thin and impotent reason for ending radio-balladry".
Our original thesis had been based on the idea that techniques implicit in certain types of folk creation could be applied to the mass media in a way that would be mutually beneficial to both media and traditional forms. We were given the opportunity of testing the validity of the theory under extremely good conditions. We found that it worked. The theory suited the Radio Ballads, Francis Newton, in the columns of The New Statesman, acknowledged this when he described our programmes as 'the most valuable products of the British folk music movement".
The B.B.C.'s decision to end the Radio Ballads came at a time when Peggy, Charles and I were discussing the possibility of creating a programme on the theme of Ulysses' voyage home from the Trojan War. Our Ulysses would be an Irish merchant-seaman whom we had met in a Mile End pub. Our intention was to create a twentieth-century analogy of Homer's tale. It was an idea which I had first aired to Peggy and Charles at the time of SINGING THE FISHING and which, to some extent at any rate, was prompted by the desire to work with that magnificent body of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British sea-songs. Over the next few years the Ulysses idea became something of an obsession with me. As the years passed I began to look forward to it as our magnum opus. I was convinced that it would be an entirely new kind of Radio Ballad, from which might derive, hopefully, all kinds of new creative combinations such as actuality folk opera, the actuality novel and the actuality play. None of these things were to be, however, and our SINGING ULYSSES has long been consigned to the lumber room along with all the other discarded projects and unwritten works.
Charles continued to talk and give interviews about the Radio Ballads and fairly soon the media was beginning to refer to our collective work as 'Charles Parker's Radio Ballads". In November, 1972, Gillian Reynolds published, in The Guardian, an appreciation of Charles in which she wrote:"He developed a style of programme called the Radio Ballad." In the four columns which followed, she referred several times to JOHN AXON, SINGING THE FISHING and THE BIG HEWER without even hinting that anyone other than Charles had been involved with them. Peggy Seeger, incensed by the article, wrote immediately to Charles: "In a Radio Ballad script you could take away production, effects, arrangements in many cases and you would still end up with a programme that had flow, rhythm, artistic integration of speech and music, i.e., you would still have a Radio Ballad. This musical and dramatic flow came not from me, not from you (although we augmented it), but from Ewan. He gives ideas right and left and doesn't bother to claim credit for them. So many of the features of the Radio Ballads were his and his alone - the subject, the songs, the script, the ideas of montage, use of dialect, dismissal of the narrator, etc. - and now an article in which all this is vested in you! I know what press people are like - they mix up facts, they mis-spell names, but they don't expunge them once you've mentioned them. I think a public rebuttal of the solo authorship idea is due. Overdue. I think you should make some kind of a statement now in the interests of intellectual honesty."
A few days later a letter from Charles appeared in the Reader's Correspondence columns of The Guardian: "If one name is to be associated with what was, in fact, a team operation, that name must be Ewan MacColl. It was my privilege to be able in some measure to provide the production and tape-editing techniques his genius demanded, as it was Peggy Seeger's to meet the comparable musical demands, and whilst both she and I can honourably claim co-authorship, the first begetter and continuing inspirer of this work is Ewan MacColl." On the same day, The Times carried a letter from Charles: "Sir, Your Communications reporter, Chris Dunkley, yesterday described me as the 'originator of the Radio Ballads' style of programme'. This is a popular misconception which had somehow sprung up, and I hope that you will allow me to correct it. The originator of the Radio Ballads was Ewan MacColl, absolutely and unequivocally; and while I, together with Peggy Seeger, can justifiably take a measure of credit as joint authors, this recognises the special integration of technical and musical elements in such a work, and its nature as very much a team operation. The origination and overall conception remains with Ewan MacColl". etc.
Neither of these letters appear to have been noticed by journalists and in July, 1973, Charles wrote to Peggy: "I've just seen the Carol Dix piece in The Guardian fathering the Radio Ballads on me despite my disavowals, and exploiting my incorrigibly garrulous tongue. This was supposed to be a piece on my Omnibus York Mystery film the previous week, but I'm so disarmed by a pretty face and as she was taking no notes, I assumed it was a non-starter. But why do these bloody feature writers so wantonly misquote?"
In 1980 Charles Parker died from a stroke and the Radio Ballad suddenly experienced a brief resurrection. They were, of course, referred to as Charles Parker's Radio Ballads, his creations, etc. Even the B.B.C. hollow men who had so callously sacked him ten years earlier, now described him as "the brilliant initiator of the Radio Ballad technique." Occasionally there might be a rather grudging reference to MacColl "who wrote the songs" but one would have searched in vain for a mention of Peggy Seeger.
As a folklorist I find it intriguing to be in a position to chart the development of a burgeoning myth. As a writer, however, I am not amused at seeing myself reduced to a footnote in that myth.
Ewan MacColl, August 1981
Note from Peggy Seeger:
I have made a few corrections and alterations to Ewan's original article, but only in the interests of clarity and intent. Ewan always spoke well for himself and wrote without pity or self-pity. In this article he was speaking for me as well as for himself and we both felt betrayed by what seemed to be a hijacking by Charles Parker of credit for the Radio Ballads. I say 'seemed' because things are not always 100% what they seem. The fact is that Charles took a great deal of trouble to keep the Radio Ballads in the public eye. He spent time, energy and imagination working on ways to convince the BBC to continue the Ballads. He put his job at risk and finally lost it. Ewan and I, on the other hand, moved on to touring, family and songwriting, with little attention to media or what they call today 'networking'.
Gradually it became a lesson hard learned for us, for Charles spoke well and with the authority that only a successful BBC producer can muster, about the Ballads. It would be natural for a media person to assume (unless reminded minute by minute that a Trio made the ballads), that Charles was the prime moving force. I have been urged to remove the last six paragraphs of Ewan's article for the sake of bygones. I have kept them in because I believe that one's work should be properly credited. Furthermore, history should document not just facts but feelings, not just actions but possible motives behind actions. Charles Parker was responsible for this argy-bargy because he did not contradict at the time, he did not emphasise at the time, he did not constantly keep the Three of Us in his sights. We were his buddies, his creative companeros. He knew - ex post facto - how hurtful it was. Charles DID feel bad about it - ex post facto.
What is not right is that those who carry the flame continue to call them Charles Parker's Radio Ballads. They are not Charles', they are not Ewan's nor mine. They are the work of everyone involved: people whose voices and lives are therein documented, the technicians in the studio, the musicians and singers and yes: MacColl, Parker, Seeger. In that order. Alphabetical. That's the way it is supposed to be done.
It should be noted that our friendship with Charles never flagged. Ewan would occasionally joke with Charles about it, Charles would occasionally write letters of apology whenever a new "Parker's Radio Ballads" article appeared. Ewan and I would steam a bit and then get on with life.
The lessons, referred to above, are, I suppose, to learn to blow your own horn but blow it modestly and fairly. And to blow the horns of others. Ewan's not here any more. I continue to blow his horn. Modestly and fairly, I hope.
(Peggy Seeger, 2008)
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