(1965) Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger – The Ballad of John Axon (BBC Radio Ballad No 1)
Ewan MacColl, Bert Lloyd, Isla Cameron, Fitzroy Coleman, Stan Kelly, Dick Loveless, Charles Mayo, Colin Dunn, Dominic Behan, Joseph Leckie School (Walsall), Harborne Parish Choir
Peggy Seeger (banjo), Bruce Turner (clarinet), Brian Daley (guitar), Fitzroy Coleman (guitar), Terry Brown (trumpet), Bobby Mickleburgh (trumpet), Billy Loch (drums), Jim Bray (double bass), John Cole (harmonica), Bob lark (fiddle), Alf Edwards (concertina).
Gladys Axon, Ron Scanlon, Jack Pickford, Alec Watts, Jim Howarth, Kenneth Pearson, Alfred Ball
See the full transcript of the Ballad on the Set Into Song website.
1 John Axon was a railway man
2 It was 4.00 a.m. that Saturday
3 The iron road is a hard road
4 It doesn’t matter where you come from
5 The rain was gently falling
6 Come all you British loco men
7 The repair was done
8 I may be a wage slave on Monday
9 Come all you young maidens
10 Steam train, steam train
11 Under the large injector steam-valve
12 The engine had reached the distant signal
13 On the 3rd of May 1957
If you don’t know about the Radio Ballads series (and the John Axon ballad that kicked them off), let Bob Fox & Stu Luckley explain. If you’d rather read it, a good place to start is a review by Dan Quinn on the Musical Traditions website when the CD re-release came out in 1999.
For Ewan MacColl’s account of how the Radio Ballads were made, see Peggy Seeger’s website.
BBC Radio 2, who commissioned a series of new radio ballads broadcast in 2006, has a website dedicated to the original and later series. The Listen Again facility no longer works for the original series unfortunately.
For a take on the social and political context in which the original ballads were made, see Andy Green’s article on the Connecting Histories website.
According to the Topic records website, Charles Parker always believed that there was a ready-made audience for LP versions of the Radio Ballads – even before they were broadcast.
It was only after protracted negotiations, though, that Argo acquired commercial LP rights from what was then BBC Enterprises, ahead of competition from various record labels like Topic and Folkways. So this first LP of the series finally came out seven years after the initial broadcast.
Although you’d imagine that Topic would have been MacColl’s first choice for the LP version (he had been deeply involved with the label since 1950), Argo already had a successful track record of publishing quality recordings of BBC programmes on LP (most notably Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood starring Richard Burton in 1954) and had the muscle of Decca behind it.
The release was the first of many on the Argo label by MacColl and Seeger. In the mid to late 1960s they, and the Critics Group, dominated the label’s folk output. They would eventually leave in the 1970s to set up their own label, Blackthorne.
In his excellent criticism of John Axon, Dan Quinn complains that the majority of songs are influenced by the American tradition rather than the English.
“It would not, I suppose, have sounded strange then, but it jars a little now that a documentary set in England, with English voices and descriptions of English pastimes and English values should have American influenced songs,” he says.
He’s right. It wouldn’t have sounded strange then. That’s what there was in 1957. British folk musical accompaniment was pretty transatlantic, and no-one seemed too bothered about crossing over between folk, jazz, skiffle, blues, ‘negro songs’ and calypso.
Four were Soho jazz men from the Bruce Turner Jump Band – Terry Brown, Bobby Mickleburgh, Jim Bray and Bruce Turner. Bray (double bass) and Turner (clarinet) played in Alan Lomax’s Ramblers skiffle group with Ewan MaColl, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins. Bray played too with Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen between 1953-54.
Trinidadian guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, who contributes the “going to serve the steam locomotive” calypso, is best known as a jazz man, but he also worked with Lord Kitchener, recorded with Josh White and was a regular on the folk scene too – in particular at the Ballads and Blues club in High Holborn.
Alf Edwards, John Cole and Brian Daly were three-fifths of the Topic label’s ‘house band’ of the mid to late fifties. Daly and Cole were in Lomax’s Ramblers too.
It wasn’t the first time Alf Edwards, Fitzroy Coleman and A.L. Lloyd had worked together on a documentary. Edwards and Coleman provided the music – and Lloyd the songs – for a documentary short made for the National Coal Board in 1952 by budding young director Lindsay Anderson.
Shortly after the sessions for this album trumpeter Terry Brown left Bruce Turner’s Jump Band and stopped full-time playing to become a record producer for, amongst others, Pye and Phillips. And what did he produce? Jazz (of course), Alexis Korner, but also many of Fontana’s finest folk albums, including Martin Carthy’s Shearwater, Byker Hill and Landfall and the Carthy/Swarbrick collaboration No Songs.
(Thanks to his grandaughter Yazz Ahmed, a fantastic trumpeter in her own right, for information and the pic of her grandad with Tubby Hayes on the left and Jimmy Skidmore on the right)
Ballads and Blues
And here they all are (well, nearly all of them), together on the bill of a Ballads and Blues concert at the Festival Hall, London in what I guess is the mid-‘fifties – Lloyd singing a calypso and doing St James Infirmary with Ewan Maccoll and the Ken Colyer Jazzmen.
For a discussion of the alliance between folk revivalists and jazzers in 1950s London (and a whole lot more), see the essay Realities of the revival by Karl Dallas on the Works in progress pages of his website.
Special Merit folk pick
In its review of the LP, the Gramophone magazine couldn’t decide whether John Axon was a folk opera or a musical documentary, but said it was an extremely rewarding LP.
“The real art it displays lies in the intermingling of spoken word with songs and sound-effects, a rich mosaic that is always fascinating and frequently very, very moving. The music is often eclectic, drawing upon Negro work songs, jazz and West Indian calypsos as well as the come-hear-ye conventions of nineteenth-century balladry.”
Choosing the record as its “Special Merit” folk pick in June 1966, the US music magazine Billboard said “MacColl…and Parker apparently have a strong feel for the railways, for they’ve come up with a stirring story. Peggy Seeger’s musical direction and the soloists are to be commended for bringing it to life.”
When Argo released the album in 1965, the sleeve included a photo of the train wreck in which John Axon died. Here’s what Andy Green makes of it on the Connecting Histories website:
“The shocking image was a testimony to the bravery of Axon in staying on his train until the very end (and the starting point for the Radio Ballad story). However, the twisted metal of the train suggested a wider message. The artists…perceived a society on a destructive collision course. These ‘people’s performers’ wanted to re-establish a sense of social cohesion by listening to people’s everyday experiences and to celebrate hidden traditions connected to music, industry and culture being threatened in the new age of the motorway, the Colour Bar and the H-bomb.”