‘England, England, and there’s nowhere like it at dawn’. These words come from a working class railway driver called Jack Pickford, who was interviewed for the first Radio Ballad called ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ (1957). Pioneered by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, it marked an exciting new documentary form. Charles Parker had joined the BBC in 1949 and become a Senior Features Producer in Birmingham in 1954. His early work was in the tradition of BBC documentary, in which the voices of ordinary people were spoken by actors. This approach changed during the research for ‘The Ballad of John Axon’. According to Charles Parker, when he heard John Axon’s neighbour say that ‘railways go through your spine like Blackpool goes through rock’, he realised that he 'didn’t need to go to actors or dramatists to find material for drama; he could go straight to the common people instead'. Direct presentations of the ‘oral history’ tradition now became central to the Radio Ballads attempt to represent a more authentic view of society.
In researching the Radio Ballads, Parker, MacColl and Seeger set about recording ‘oral histories’ from different people, cultures and unique ways of life, before they were ‘lost’ to the twentieth century. This involved talking to huge numbers of individuals and communities including travellers, immigrants and workers in docks, factories, warehouses, boats, lodging houses. The ‘Ballad of John Axon’ developed from the individual heroic story of John Axon into a wider documentary about the railway workers whole way of life. Parker’s belief in the power of human speech was set against his concern ‘we are moving under the dominance of the machine into a type of society where life is inhuman, where no one ever does anything that really expresses his personality’. Eight Radio Ballads were finally produced. To hear them, visit the BBC website shown on the link below, where there are extended extracts from all of the original ballads.
The subjects of the Radio Ballads included: ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ (1958) about railway men, ‘Song of a Road’ (1959) about building the M1 motorway; ‘The Big Hewer’ (1961) about miners; ‘The Body Blow’ (1962) about polio; ‘On the Edge’ (1963), about teenagers; ‘The Fight Game’ (1963) about boxers; and ‘The Travelling People’ (1964) about the nomadic peoples of Britain. Summed up by Trevor Fisher, what made the original ballads distinct was “firstly the use of speech of the actual participants through tape recording; secondly, the absence of narration and actors, letting the actuality tell the story; thirdly, the use of folk song and jazz; and fourthly, the attempt by MacColl to use the form and technique of the folk ballad as the model for the program.” (Trevor Fisher, “Charles Parker, Aspects of a Pioneer”).
The Makers of the Original Radio Ballads: Brief Biographies.
Charles Parker (1919-1980) was a documentary radio producer for BBC Birmingham from 1949-1972. He was a writer, singer, actor, and founder member of the socialist theatre company ‘Banner Theatre’ from 1973 until his death in 1980. Highly educated, Parker gained a science degree in 1939 and a Cambridge degree in English Literature in 1948. Parker took part in WWII in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, eventually serving as commander of a submarine and receiving a Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts. Parker was a controversial, socially committed and determinedly creative figure. His spirit of rebellious enquiry resisted narrow minded outlooks of institutions in favour of the knowledge that lay in working people and a deep interest in people’s songs, attitudes, manners of talking and alternative ways of life. Parker’s underlying attitudes were undoubtedly framed, sometimes uneasily, by his belief in Christianity and the influence of activists such as Ewan MacColl, engaged in more strident left wing protest art.
Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) was a folk singer and political activist. Prior to the Radio Ballads, MacColl had been involved in political work , street theatre and musical performance. He shared Parker’s belief that trying to capture a real sense of people’s lives and struggles never be achieved through existing ‘formal’ broadcasting techniques privileging ‘proper’ ways of talking. For MacColl, the Radio Ballads offered a way of re-evoking the rich social heritage of ‘protest songs’. Born ‘James Miller’ it was only later that the songwriter and activist changed his name to Ewan MacColl, transforming his identity to fit in with the traditional folk culture he so admired. MacColl’s life is captured in an autobiography called ‘Journeyman’.
Peggy Seeger (1935-) the radical folk singer, was born in America. Her family background was deeply embedded in musical traditions; and from an early age, she became an accomplished performer on the piano, guitar, banjo as well as a talented vocalist. She was widely travelled. In 1959, Seeger moved to Britain and became personally connected with MacColl. Seeger’s role in the Radio Ballads is perhaps less discussed than Parker and MacColl, yet her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and skills in arrangement were vital. She remains an important singer songwriter today, producing modern records in the folk tradition.
The Radio Ballad, the Folk Revival and the Tape Recorder
Music, literature and theatre for Parker, Seeger and MacColl were not exclusive property of ‘cultured’ elites, but belonged to everyone who had ever told a story. Indeed, the assumption behind the ballads was that the middle class and the elite should be taught by the experiences of the workers, and not the other way round. In the Radio Ballad’s fight for social progress, two weapons would become vital: ‘music’ and ‘tape recorders’. Folk music was not only a form of entertainment that could draw in listeners. For MacColl the history of folk songs showed that music has often told the stories not found in the pages of ‘official’ history books: traditional folk songs gave important social accounts of the conditions faced by workers, industrial landscapes and political protests. MacColl’s introduction to a songbook called ‘Shuttle and Cage’ gives a vivid flavour of MacColl’s attitude:
“There are no nightingales in these songs, no flowers- and the sun is rarely mentioned; the themes are work, poverty, hunger and exploitation. They should be sung to the accompaniment of pneumatic drills, and swinging hammers, they should be bawled above the hum of turbines and the clatter of looms for they songs of toil, anthems of the industrial age […] If you have spent your life striving desperately to make ends meet; if you have worked yourself to a standstill and still been unable to feed the kids properly, then you will know why these songs were made.” Calling on the socially engaged folk tradition, MacColl’s technique was to use interviews with workers as the basis for the songs in the Radio Ballads. However, this method was itself not without contradictions- for although his songs dramatically and emotively brought history ‘to life’, some might also argue that he himself capitalised on experiences of labour for the sake of his ‘art’. The question was, how could worker’s words be incorporated in song without falsifying the evidence?
If MacColl used music to address social inequality, for Parker it was also the new development of the portable ‘tape recorder’ that acted as a tool of liberation. For the first time, this invention allowed interviews to be easily conducted on the spot, in meeting halls and the workplace, rather than in the stifling formal setting of a BBC recoding studio. This technological revelation, combined with the resurgence of interest in the folk tradition, created dramatic effects and helps to explain how the ballads captured people speaking on their own terms and in their own environment, allowing the atmosphere of real life to seep into the recording.
Sound clips on this page feature Charles Parker himself discussing the making of the Radio Ballads in 1962. (MS 4000/6/1/26/35/c)
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Birmingham Archives (Image: MS 4000 CPA/2/90/21/)
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