Album Of The Week

The Joy of a loving tribute

British folk stalwarts pay homage to the late Ewan MacColl (above), who was a poet, playwright, actor, record producer and labour activist.
British folk stalwarts pay homage to the late Ewan MacColl (above), who was a poet, playwright, actor, record producer and labour activist.PHOTO: COOKING VINYL

Collection is a well-curated celebration of the late singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, a pioneer of the British folk revival

Music question 101: Who sang the Grammy-winning Record and Song of the Year, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face? Most people would say Roberta Flack.

But few know she wasn't the original singer and that it was actually first sung in 1957 by fellow American Peggy Seeger and written by her then-lover and later- husband, iconic British singer- songwriter Ewan MacColl, who was married to someone else at that time.

Accordingly, he had famously said he hated all the cover versions.

Such is the back story to the colourful, complicated MacColl, who was born a century ago.

  • FOLK

  • JOY OF LIVING: A TRIBUTE TO EWAN MACCOLL

    Various Artists

    Cooking Vinyl

    4/5 stars

A poet, playwright, actor, record producer and a labour activist, he was regarded as a pioneer of the British folk revival and deemed a persona non grata in the United States due to his past communist views.

This double-disc, 21-track tribute is his children's 100th birthday gift to him and a lovingly curated one.

The sensitivity can be seen in the astute choice of the singer to take on the abovementioned song: Paul Buchanan, frontman of the Scottish lush-pop collective The Blue Nile.

Buchanan, a singer's singer, imbues the song with delicate, midnight blues.

With sparse piano and dolorous bass, his distinctive croon caresses lines such as "And it will last till the end of time, my love" as if it were the last thing it would utter.

British folk stalwarts are out in full force too, including members of the illustrious Carthy/Waterson clan: Eliza Carthy, Marry Waterson, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.

Norma, in particular, delivers a stunning version of Moving On Song, a tale of the peripatetic tribe who are forced to uproot themselves.

"Go, move, shift," the matron sings, as the guitar and piano shadow her. She is matched by Karine Polwart's The Terror Time, an eviscerating protest song on the gypsy condition.

Elsewhere, Paul Brady celebrates Freeborn Man with grizzled folk- siness; Billy Bragg strums a banjo and spits out Kilroy Was Here; and the Irish legend Christy Moore gently waltzes along on a spirited social commentary piece The Companeros.

The next generation is well represented too. Seth Lakeman keens on The Shoals Of Herring; The Unthanks harmonise beautifully on an intimate Cannily, Cannily; and grandson Jamie MacColl and Jack Steadman are equally quietly devastating on The Young Birds.

They are joined by some of today's better-known pop and rock minstrels, Kathryn Williams, Jarvis Cocker and Damien Dempsey who keep to deferential versions.

The same goes for the usually florid Wainwright brother-and- sister duo of Rufus and Martha who complement each other with an enchanting Sweet Thames Flow Softly.

The most surprising take happens at the end with David Gray's rendition of the title track. His raspy voice crackles in The Joy Of Living, never taking each syllable, or life, for granted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'The Joy of a loving tribute'. Print Edition | Subscribe