Ewan MacColl
& Peggy Seeger,
Classic Scots Ballads
(Tradition, 1961;
Empire Musicwerks, 2005)

Looking at this CD -- reissued from Tradition's noble catalogue as part of an ongoing series by Empire Musicwerks -- I was surprised and impressed to realize it was here that I first heard a number of traditional songs to which I could have sworn I was introduced elsewhere. For example, I thought I'd never heard "Banks of the Nile" 'til Sandy Denny's immortal reading, and I would have thought that "Mormond Braes" came into my life via a Dubliners record.

In its original incarnation Classic Scots Ballads, released in 1961, was part of my vinyl collection, which I disposed of long ago for space and storage reasons. I recall that I'd liked the album, but not a whole lot else, evidently. It was there, however, when Anglo-Celtic records were only rarely encountered on this side of the water, years before the revival that has brought old English, Irish and Scots music in more ambitious, sophisticated arrangements than the simple guitar and/or banjo settings Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger employed.

That said, this is a wonderful album. Though there's no doubt it was recorded nearly five decades ago, it sounds miraculously undated. It also puts to mind the thought that all sorts of other people, including some destined for stardom in the 1960s folk revival, heard these songs here for the first time, too. I am certain, for example, the late Richard Farina picked up the melody to his civil-rights anthem "Birmingham Sunday" from MacColl and Seeger's reading of the exquisite "I Loved a Lass."

Ewan MacColl (d. 1989) was already a seminal figure in Britain's folk-music movement when he married Peggy Seeger (Mike's sister and Pete's half-sister). She was schooled mostly in the traditional music of the American South -- much of it rooted, as we know, in the British Isles. On Classic Scots Ballads her banjo-playing is classic Appalachia, but that's all right; it's not as if Scots and Southerners were rank strangers. Seeger's harmony singing is a pleasurable addition, though MacColl's vocals would have stood -- as they did on his many solo outings -- on their own.

Besides the familiar material -- the above-mentioned as well as subsequently often-covered songs such as "Hughie Grame," "The Monymusk Lads" and "The Trooper & the Maid" -- delights include the obscure Child ballad "The False Lover Won Back" and the hilariously ribald "The Maid Gaed to the Hill." "The Elfin Knight" is a cousin to "Scarborough Fair," ballads on the very medieval, supernatural theme of a lover who is challenged to impossible tasks.

If any of the above sounds appealing, go out and buy this CD. Beyond that, I'd encourage you to pick up any of the Tradition recordings (dating from the latter 1950s to the early 1960s) that Empire is making available again. Tradition artists included the likes of Jean Ritchie, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Ed McCurdy, Odetta, Paul Clayton and more. There probably wouldn't have been an American folk revival without them, and if there hadn't, you wouldn't be reading these words. Besides -- and, of course, most important -- this is, plainly and simply, great and enduring music.

by Jerome Clark
4 November 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.