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The radio ballads were the joint creation of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger.

A radio ballad is a sound-tapestry woven of four basic elements: songs, instrumental music, sound effects and the recorded voices of those with whose lives each program deals.

These programs were revolutionary for their time, using as they did the actual spoken words of the ‘informants'. Up until this time, this 'actuality' (as the trio dubbed it) was transcribed and then interpreted by trained radio speakers. The radio ballads lead you effortlessly from to song to music to sound effect to the spoken word and back again, revealing the effect of a way of life upon those who lead it. They are entertaining, informative, musical, poetic and educational.

There were eight radio-ballads, created, between 1957 and 1964.

After the relatively contained Ballad of John Axon, the scope of the second radio ballad widened considerably. The construction of Britain's first motor-highway, the M1 or, as it was then known, the London-Yorkshire motorway, then stood at 57 miles of muddy road and a workforce of 19,000 men. From the simple telling of a story, the team now had a much more ambitious subject with its shadowy chronology, complex background and multitudinous tradesmen, labourers, management and administrators.

For the best part of two months, Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and often Peggy Seeger patrolled the length of the road, recording in hostels, pubs, shelters and all manner of on-site locations. They found the experience even more moving than their previous project, perceiving a tragic desperation in the talk of the men that was harrowing to encounter. More than half the workforce was Irish, the rest being made up of Scots, Welsh, Indian, Pakistani, Greek, African, Turkish, Polish and English, and occupations ranged from engineers, scaffolders, bridge-builders and carpenters to archaeologists, planners, soil-chemists and designers. Initially shadowed by a Public Relations Officer, the team found themselves identified with management and therefore suspect, and the workers uncooperative. When the PRO finally left them to their own devices, the men were forthcoming.

Forty or so minutes of actuality was distilled from nearly ninety hours of recordings, during a two-month process of transcription, writing and arranging. Consensus of opinion amongst the team was that Song of a Road was far from perfect, an uneasy compromise between a typical feature program and a radio ballad, and not a particularly good example of either. Many lessons were learned, however, which fed into the production of later programs in the series, and The Observer described it as a "near-triumph by John Axon standards and an absolute marvel by any other".


released November 5, 1959

Script – Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker
Song lyrics and music - Ewan MacColl
Orchestration and music direction - Peggy Seeger
Production - Charles Parker
Actuality recording - Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker
“℗ 1958 BBC [(BBC Worldwide Ltd)]; this recording ℗ and © 2019 Ewan MacColl Limited”

Isla Cameron, John Clarence, Seamus Ennis, Lou Killen, A.L.Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Jimmy Macgregor, Francis McPeake, Isabel Sutherland, Cyril tawney, William V. Thomas

John Armitage – drums
Jim Bray - double bass
Fitzroy Coleman - gultar
Alf Edwards - English concertina, ocarina
Francis McPeake – uileann pipes
Bobby Mickleburgh – trombone
Peggy Seeger – autoharp, 5 string banjo
Bruce Turner - clarinet


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Ewan MacColl London, UK

This site is maintained by the MacColl family, aiming to make Ewan's catalogue available to download.
Ewan MacColl is known to most as a songwriter and singer, but he was also of significant influence in the worlds of theatre and radio broadcasting. His art reached huge numbers through the folk clubs, greater numbers through his recordings and untold millions through the radio. ... more

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