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The Ballad Of John Axon

by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker & Peggy Seeger

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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.

The first of the Radio Ballads, The Ballad of John Axon concerns a steam-locomotive driver from Stockport, posthumously awarded the George Cross for an act of heroism in 1957 when he refused to abandon his runaway train and saved lives at the expense of his own.

Axon's train was making the run from Buxton in the Derbyshire Peak District to his home depot at Edgeley, Stockport, when the steam brake pipe fractured. Despite exposure to scalding steam, he urged his fireman to jump to safety and hung on the outside of the cab as the train picked up speed up to 80mph down a long incline. His warning to the signalman at Doveholes enabled a diesel train at Chapel-en-le-Frith to be moved to safety but his own life was lost as his engine crashed into a freight train there.

When MacColl, Parker and Peggy Seeger travelled to Stockport to interview Axon's widow and workmates, it was apparent that the immediacy of their recall and richness of idiom, along with the sound effects of the locality, were far too compelling to use merely as a script for actors performing a formal musical as originally planned. A new form of radio was born to deal with this unique situation, telling the story of John Axon in song and 'actuality' - the field recordings of colleagues and family in their own environment. This marriage of the ballad form and tape recording technology was hailed in the national press as a remarkable innovation, and the response was described by Parker as "staggering".


released July 2, 1958

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
Technical direction – John Bower
“℗ 1957 BBC [(BBC Worldwide Ltd)]; this recording ℗ and © 2019 Ewan MacColl Limited”
Isla Cameron, Fitzroy Coleman, Colin Dunn, Stan Kelly, Dick Loveless, A.L.Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Charles Mayo

Jim Bray - double bass
Terry Brown – trumpet
Bob Clarke – fiddle
John Cole – harmonica
Fitzroy Coleman – guitar
Brian Daly - guitar
Alf Edwards - English concertina
Billy Loch - drums
Bobby Mickleburgh – trombone
Peggy Seeger – guitar, mandolin, 5 string banjo
Bruce Turner - clarinet


all rights reserved



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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