Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – The Ballad Of Jimmy Wilson (two weeks with Ewan MacColl, day eight)

• “The Ballad Of Jimmy Wilson” set to a picture of the housing album cover. Thanks to Ewan MacColl – Topic.

8.6 “Excellent Folk from England”

From their LP “The New Briton Gazette Volume 2” (Folkways Records FW-8734) released in 1963.

From my album review:

Another album of mainly topical lyrics, written in the last 2 or 3 years by both of the artists, often set to traditional folk tunes. “The Banks They Are Rosey” makes for a great opener, and is inspired by the Berlin crisis of ’61, which resulted in the wall that would divide the East and West of the city until 1989. A prominent American politician branded “Johnny” is used mockingly for his attempt to resolve the crisis by distributing thousands of ball pens to the citizens of West Berlin! “The Ballad Of Jimmy Wilson” closes side 1 in dramatic fashion, with a scathing attack on the lawmakers of Alabama who sentenced a black Negro janitor to death for the theft of $1.75. Ewan and Peggy’s song offers sarcastic praise to the same lawmakers who graciously reduced the man’s sentence to life imprisonment: “and so, throughout the ages, we have seen how progress marches ever on its way, no rack, no wheel, no Spanish boot for Alabama’s prisoners today”. Side two also has a strong opener in “The Big Hewer”, a song which was first written and performed for their Radio documentary production of the same name in 1961, and essentially celebrates the British coal miner who knows all about hard graft in tough conditions, up to his chin in stinking water, where even the rats are born bow-legged: “cut my teeth on a 5 foot timber, held up the roof with my little finger”. The cry for social justice is obvious throughout, sincerity and no little humour marking “The New Briton Gazette Volume 2” as a surefire winner.

In Alabama, nineteen-fifty-eight,
The cost of human life is very low,
A man that’s black is trampled down,
Just like men were a thousand years ago.

But these are more enlightened days,
Cruel men and savage ways,
We left long ago,
Now every man may walk his road in peace,
For all are free.

Five-thousand years ago, a million men,
Were gathered into royal Egypt’s hands,
Were bound together, forced to build,
Pyramids of stone in desert sands.

(repeat chorus)

Mary’s son walked through a land of woe
Dreaming of the world as it could be,
The good and lawful men of Rome,
Nailed him like a robber to the tree.

(repeat chorus)

In Britain just a hundred years ago,
The jails were full of poor and hungry men,
Diggers, chartists, many more,
Fought and died and rose to fight again.

(repeat chorus)

Last year a Negro stole a dollar bill,
The Judge he says, “We mustn’t be severe,
Instead of death, we’ll give him life,
Imprisonment to show there’s justice here.”

(repeat chorus)

And so, throughout the ages, we have seen,
How progress marches ever on its way,
No rack, no wheel, no Spanish boot,
For Alabama’s prisoners today.

(repeat chorus)

The plague still runs throughout the world today,
Johannesburg to Notting Hill and back,
A plague of ignorance and hate
Men walk in fear because their skin is black.

So in these more enlightened days,
No room for all these savage ways,
Leave them, let them go!
Now every man should walk his road in peace,

Featured in my Album Chart of 1963.


Ewan MacColl is known to most people as a songwriter and singer, but he was also of significant influence in the worlds of theatre and radio broadcasting. He was a committed socialist all his life and his political sensibilities underpinned all his creative activities. His art reached huge numbers through the folk clubs, greater numbers through his recordings and untold millions through the radio. Although The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town remain his biggest ‘hits’, MacColl wrote songs for many different contexts: incidental songs for theatrical productions, commissioned pieces for labour unions or political causes, songs stitched together from vernacular speech recorded for the radio documentary series The Radio Ballads, songs for rallying, striking, marching… and, of course, songs for singing in folk clubs.

For sixty years he was at the cultural forefront of numerous political struggles, producing plays, songs and scripts on the subjects of apartheid, fascism, industrial strife and human rights. It has been said that he was an enormous fish in a small pond – but the ocean of traditional song and speech upon which he navigated and hunted owes him a great debt for the treasures that he returned to it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s