Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – Kilroy Was Here (two weeks with Ewan MacColl, day thirteen)

• “Kilroy Was Here” set to a drawing of “Kilroy” beside the housing album cover.

9.1 “Classic Folk from England”

From their LP “Kilroy Was Here” (Blackthorne Records BR-1063) released in 1980.

So who was this funny little man with wide-open eyes and a huge U-shaped nose peering over a wall? There’s no definitive account of his origin, but it’s clear that he rose to worldwide prominence in the late 1930s, gaining infamy during World War II. The Australians claim that he emerged in the first World War; they called him Foo. In Britain he was called Chad. He appeared on walls of buildings, on shop windows, and in newspaper cartoons. Below him were the words: “Wot no sugar?” / “Wot no tea?” / “Wot no cigarettes?” or whatever else was in short supply due to rationing. It was the Americans who called him Kilroy. Touring GIs would make their presence felt by drawing him with the slogan “Kilroy was here” or, if they were artistically minded, would simply let the character represent with no words necessary. The artistically challenged would simply scrawl the phrase itself. In the spirit of the Grand Alliance, British soldiers soon adopted Kilroy’s name over Chad. The ubiquitous graffiti would give a boost to those who would follow in the footsteps, a symbolic universal soldier as it were.

“Kilroy Was Here” – the album – delivers another fine set of contemporary songs mostly written and sung by Peggy and Ewan with accompaniments by their sons Calum & Neill MacColl, Ian Trimmer, Jim Bray, and supporting vocals from Susan Davis and daughter Kitty MacColl. It’s to be hoped that the offspring were suitably rewarded with pocket money raises commensurate with a job well done.

All throughout the set, Ewan and Peggy appropriate the image of Kilroy – the anonymous WWII soldier – as the everyman who does all the hard graft, the menial work, does all the fighting, does all the dying. In short, Kilroy represents your dispensable working class Joe, he always has done, and he always will do.

In 1980, “Thatcherism” was coming for Kilroy, and a horrified MacColl could see it all before him; tax cuts for the rich, Britannic jingoism, privatisation, the marginalisation of the trade unions, removing the power from local authorities. With rising unemployment came civil unease and the monster was growing steadily.

In his extremely serious, but very funny, liner notes, Ewan calls out the propaganda machine which was in overdrive all around us in our daily lives at the time:

The windy rhetoric of politicians, the eructations of flatulent pundits of both sexes, the gobbledygook that issues nightly from the talking heads which occupy ten million illuminated screens throughout this island… those pink smooth faces, cosmetised and barbered, each wearing it’s public mask of concern, enthusiasm, confidence, impartiality, honesty, love of truth, public spiritedness…

[We interrupt Ewan’s broadcast for some party political bobbins…]

With the chip on the one hand and nuclear energy on the other, the future is certain. We are about to witness technological changes the like of which the world…

[Right, that’s quite enough of that, thank you very much. Carry on Ewan…]

And the words roll on, the magic phrases, the gilded cliches, the diamond-dusted patter, the con-talk, the endless rhapsodising about a world of a chip with everything. The chip and nuclear energy! And if the one don’t get you, then the other will, says the Widow Twankey as she pats her perm and prepares to lecture us kiddies on the benefits of mass unemployment, war and a larger police force. And Kilroy, who has heard it all before and who is accustomed to getting the shitty end of the stick begins to wonder whether the world wouldn’t be a safer place without all those talking heads and this shrill pantomine dame whose verbal diarrhoea threatens his world with imminent inundation.

[The Widow Twankey! The shrill pantomine dame! LOL, I’m literally hanging off my chair here; they’re right up there with Attila the Hen! On ye go Ewan…]

Almost all the bands on this disc are about this or that aspect of Kilroy’s condition: Kilroy old, Kilroy young, Kilroy male, Kilroy female, Kilroy hoping, Kilroy despairing. Above all it is about the terrifying dangers that confront Kilroy now. NOW!

NOW he says – feel the urgency! Sadly, not everyone had his foresight and Britain would stumble from one crisis to another for years to come, the working classes bearing the brunt of the hardship as usual. The title-track closes side one and is the killer highlight of the set, featuring some excellent prose from Ewan and some mean banjo from Peggy, who made the arrangements and sang backing vocals. Kilroy’s being bled dry but it’s going un-noticed and very few care. It’s songs like this which cement legacies.

Who was here when they handed out the heavy jobs?
Jobs with the hammer, the pick and shovel,
Who choked in the foundry, froze at the fish docks?
Eight days to the week.

Who was here with a mile of rock above him?
Three-foot seam in the darkness crouching,
Stinging sweat in his eyes, powdered rock in his spittle,
A hundred minutes to the hour.

Who was here in the furrowed fields stooped over?
Pain shapes the question in bone and muscle,
Roots and hands competing, fumbling, groping,
Twenty-eight hours to the day.

Who was here in the world of steel and clamour?
Feeding Leviathan in his cavern,
Breathing the hot sharp stink of metal,
Five weeks to the month.

Hey you, dog’s body, what do they call you?
Who clears up the mess when the fight is over?
Who carries the broom, the mop and the bucket?
Thirty-six months to the year.

Smooth-faced old boy-men instructed him,
Geldings programmed his energy,
Coached in running by men whose arches had fallen,
Dead men told him how to live.

Kilroy, Kilroy, where has Kilroy gone?
Kilroy was here, see there’s his mark,
He came this way, he was wearing his number,
Did nobody see him pass?

You can read my album review here.


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.