Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
[Damn, they took the video away!]
This is an almost hour-long BBC feature about one of my heroes, singer and union activist Ewan MacColl. I’m posting it really just to show you the snippet from 00:40 to 2:25, because that portion was filmed in the very room where I used to go to listen to MacColl and his wife, Peggy Seeger — the Singer’s Club at the Bull and Mouth pub in London. I was 20.
Do you like the idea of a chick playing the banjo like she’s sold her soul to the devil (a la Robert Johnson)? Then watch that bit of the film.
I fancied myself a budding young folk singer back then, having missed out on the folk revival. (Sad, but then again I also missed out on the Vietnam War, so.) Each Saturday night while a student in London, I’d walk a couple of blocks over to the Bull and Mouth and listen to these brilliant folkies, Ewan specializing in old Scottish ballads and contemporary songs of his own and Peggy bringing to life the old songs of Appalachia. They were entrancing for a kid like me, from suburban America in the ’70s.
I’ll never forget the way Ewan held his hand to his ear to sing, closed his eyes, then filled the room with his high, quivering, reedy voice that transported me to ancient days. To hear his version of “Tam Lin” was not just haunting — try supernatural! Then there was the tragic tale of a girl being married off to a little boy, “Lang, Lang A’Growin’.” Tears to the eye stuff. Peggy would come in with an old West Virginia ballad, playing guitar, banjo, dulcimer, and autoharp, or the song that made Ewan famous and well-off, “The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face.” She was the one he wrote it about. (It’s in this video too.)
Watching that clip in the Bull and Mouth (which is a flippin’ noodle restaurant now!), I felt that if the camera were to pan around, I might encounter my 20-year-old self there in the second or third row, watching intently, admiring, absorbing, and, most of all, trying to learn.
What’s that line of Faulkner’s again? “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”