A Unique Project in the History of both British Folk Music and British Radio
devised by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger
“…the work of a team of singers, songwriters, technicians, instrumentalists and others who were consciously attempting to apply the techniques of folk creation to one part of the mass media radio.”
Devised by Ewan MacColl, radio producer Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger, the Radio-Ballads set out to crystallise in words and music the experience of different ways of life – the words being supplied not by actors but by the real occupants of those lives and jobs, whether miners, fishermen, boxers or teenagers. The eight programmes were first broadcast by the BBC between 1958 and 1964. Six of them were subsequently issued on LP but have been unavailable since the early ’80s. Song of a Road and The Body Blow have never hitherto been issued in any format. ‘The radio-ballads,’ wrote a reviewer at the time, ‘are about the way we live now, attempting to give this life the quality of epic – “to make”, as the documentary film-maker John Grierson once said, “the everyday significant.”‘ The social historian Eric Hobsbawm, writing as Francis Newton in the New Statesman, called them ‘The most valuable products of the British folk-music movement‘.
Ewan MacColl scripts, song lyrics & music
Peggy Seeger orchestration & music direction
Charles Parker production
For a generation of musicians, broadcasters and media writers, the term radio-ballad is an icon, a benchmark, a milestone. When they were first broadcast, our daily lives revolved much more around the wireless than nowadays, even though network television was by then already well established, and for many listeners the cultural impact was profound and enduring.
For today’s listening public, the term radio-ballad may no longer carry that weight of meaning, but these programmes are as entertaining and stimulating as when they were first created. Perhaps this series of CD re-issues will help to put into context so much that followed in both radio and television and will find new resonance among older and younger listeners alike.
The series was originally transmitted on the BBC Home Service as follows:
The Ballad of John Axon 2 July 1958
Song of a Road 5 November 1959
Singing the Fishing 16 August 1960
The Big Hewer 18 August 1961
The Body Blow 27 March 1962
On the Edge 13 February 1963
The Fight Game 3 July 1963
The Travelling People 17 April 1964
Parker had recognised almost immediately that there was a ready-made audience for LP versions. Even before John Axon was broadcast, he was conducting a memo-writing campaign aimed at the BBC mandarins responsible for what were then called ‘transcription rights’, insisting that, with the co-operation of MacColl and Seeger, the necessary contractual formula could be found to make commercial release possible.Immediately after The Ballad of John Axon was first broadcast, letters started arriving at the BBC requesting that the programme be repeated, which it was, on 5 August l958. Several of the programmes were repeated one or more times on the Home Service after their first broadcast, during the period up to l964. Singing the Fishing, which won the Prix d’Italia in October 1960, was also re-broadcast on the BBC Home Service and later on Radio 4 a number of times. More significantly, there were quite a lot of people – particularly teachers – who wrote to Charles Parker singing the praises of the radio- ballad format as a learning resource and enquiring whether copies could be made for educational use. Parker was particularly inundated with requests for LP or tape copies of On the Edge, soon after its first transmission. Letters were also received from listeners who found the texture of some of the programmes sometimes so rich that they missed much of them in a single hearing, and felt frustrated.