Ewan MacColl’s Call From The Grave

Ewan MacColl

“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave — and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another, and keep our word along the way. What do they say, In the Beginning there was the Word?” — Kirsty MacColl

“Music to my fears this morning, my Muse mourning. For our one sphere of influence comes from hearing tears, and putting them into words.” — Lorraine Hansberry

The mendacious words related to the injustice associated with the death of Kirsty MacColl hit me hard this morn, as I was listening to what’s known as the most popular Irish Christmas recording of all time, which hits unbearably heartbreaking notes at times.

Words, words, words.

I found myself focusing on the recent Grenfell Tower Fire, which seemed to be the result of so many worthless words, people not honoring their words. As Kirsty used to say, “It’s one thing to tell a lie and quite another to believe it.” Like too well-paid, disingenuous officials? Too greedy capitalists? Racists for whom the mere repetition of their own lies leads to truth? Mildly reformist activists seeking approval? Kirsty and Sean MacGowan, who sang with her on Fairytale of New York, were no strangers to controversy respecting words. But they stood tall when it came to lyrics, as Kirsty’s father did.

Tuning in to the Pogues’ Dirty Old Town on the turntable, I couldn’t help but think about Manchester and all the industrial towns ’round the world… choking. But measured pollution aside, there’s plenty of filth that can’t be quantified so easily, like what’s come down recently throughout UK centers. And in lots of civilized counterparts all over this troubled earth, yes? Yes. Ongoing abominations words cannot describe, journalists’ incessant rundowns — distracting* and meaningless — notwithstanding.

*Distracting, in part, because of the limited foci insisted upon; the recent media obsession with numbers, the Royal Family’s generic response and very general talk about “issues” have all diverted attention away from the individuals who bear responsibility and social dynamics which make atrocities like Grenfell inevitable.

The Ewan MacColl song — covered by multitudes — was written about Salford, an industrial center in the heart of Lancashire, England, that predates the Industrial Revolution. Growing up there, MacColl knew intimately how horribly factories spewed carcinogenic smoke into the sky and dumped toxic waste into rivers. He knew, too, how Salford — being a hub — invited trains and other modes of transportation to contribute to the abominable environmental desecration.

Born but a little over a year before the Easter Rising, he was also quite informed about the violent history of the English. And that of the Irish. He was quite familiar with the terrorism which plagued the entire world. But though he lived long enough to witness the first Earth Day, he never knew about Geocide. Nor did he ever have to consider terrorism on the scale that we’re taking for granted today.

He didn’t live to see the thrust of what was the (totally avoidable) Irish Famine repeated ad nauseum in so many earthly quarters. Part of him — the prophetic poet in him — might have guessed what was slated to come down the pike. But… that’s only my guess. He would have been without words, I imagine, respecting the greatest loss of species since the dinosaurs, and the daily desecration of distant innocents with teen-run drones. The Troubles were of a whole different order of discombobulation than plastic proliferation and the penetration of indecency as entertainment into the lifeblood of almost every community on earth.

His one huge hit was the Top Ten smash that Roberta Flack recorded, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. A romantic track that can be knocked back now for instruction. For personal insight, for social consciousness to embrace firm commitment. Clarity anew for concerned citizens.

We all need to now acknowledge how each individual one of us is making this world dirty. Giving it a face that we can hardly look at anymore. Admit the disgrace which we are responsible for, not dump ALL responsibility onto the nameless corporations. And, furthermore, we must — we must — see that state terrorism (like that of the UK, the U.S.A. and other world powers) is the kind of terrorism — our terrorism — which we must address first and foremost. As it terrorizes us in paralyzing concert with geocide, the grave disappearance of all that makes life worth living giving too many nightmares all day long.

The Answer to the Grenfell Towers Abomination are words which have yet to be spoken. One no more hears that the U.S. Military is, arguably, the greatest single polluter on earth than one hears a word about exactly who is in the decision-making capacities that cause block towers to be so neglected, ignored in the face of fervent pleas.

We need to remember the first time ever we saw the lovely face of this earth. This does not have to be a dirty old world. Physically or morally. A child’s first impression will do. The smells and joy of miraculous Mother Earth can give birth to the death of the terror in our hearts and go a long way toward getting rid of the toxic dirt between our toes.

“And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil 

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” — from God’s Grandeur

What do we do? How can we have a collective shot at dealing with all this? Well, the first thing is to think more in terms of oneself. What each of us has to do… alone. That must come before movement in solidarity can be meaningful, have lasting positive impactIndividual courage is called for first. Personal creative compassion coupled with a frank acknowledgment of grave challenges which rear their heads. Boldly confronting them head on with authentic, unsullied words.

It is a simple matter. But we let words — too many words — distract us. Polite words exclusively… in schools… in media circles… in the realm of damned officialdom.

The original lyric for “Dirty Old Town” contained the line, “smelled the smoke on the Salford Wind.” This displeased the Salford Council to the point where they pressured MacColl to change it to “smelled the spring on the smokey wind.” What Sean sings leading the Pogues in the link I opened with here. It stinks. It stinks worse than foul water of Salford did. Worse than the pressure that was applied to Ewan.

I call him by his first name now. For he stood up to the authorities as the kind of individual I’ve said is now called for. He recorded what had to be recorded. He set the record straight, stood his ground. And in subsequent recordings, many artists chose to remain faithful to the original lyrics, in part because many of them were familiar with Salford, and knew the song to be a realistic portrait of the dirty old town. They refused to tweak to placate, to pass, to secure approval.

I’ve got no idea why the very radical Pogues chose to sing the words that made Ewan recoil. No matter. The Pogues were spot on with their socially-conscious career; Ewan loved ’em. That’s very clear. And if you want to honor what’s dear to our collective hearts, I submit that you are going to have to hear Ewan’s call from the grave. The one I hear as I muse this morning.

Stand tall. Honor your word(s).

Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at aptosnews@gmail.com.



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