“i prefer muck shifting better than anything”, was a comment made by one of the men in Ewan MacColl’s radio ballad, Song of the Road.
“We built canals, we laid the tracks
of railways here to hell and back,
And now we’re going to have a crack
At the London-Yorkshire Highway.”
When I made my introduction to socialism it was through the first hand accounts of my father’s own childhood in the mills, the waste of war—he was gassed four times before he was scarcely of voting age—the hard times of unemployment and the bitterness of being put off so that other, poorer men brought from Ireland could be put in his place at less wages. Before I even knew what economics or politics was about, I decided to go into the world and fight for a new Jerusalem, one of science, one of machines that would put away for good the hardness of work without meaning. I wanted to get rid of everything that was old, and make a clean sweep. In many ways this clean sweep has been taking place, but in the meantime I have found that my early naiveté made me blind to many things, one of them being the romance of creating, even though it be by using a pick and shovel. In fact it is the men with the pick and shovel, who do not mind shifting a load of muck, who form the main defence against the encroachment of the machine into the art of labour.
I am at one with William Morris when he said, “The thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour.” Here we have the roots of our native culture. The many work-songs that have been handed down to us, the basic songs of work in early jazz, are in themselves the firm threads that make up the weave of a people’s culture. Ewan MacColl is making a great contribution in the fight against the mass pop-culture, which is in itself a degenerating art. As well as keeping alive the songs of yesterday, the songs of the great strikes before the trade unions were formed, and songs of the people who built up the foundations of Victoria’s Golden Rule, he has brought alive the personal drama of our own day and age. When every channel of our senses are flooded with sickly sentiment wrapped up in a commercialised sex packet, it is rare to find any expression of truth and reality getting through. Yet it does. More so during the short lived period of skiffle. (Oh, I do wish those Denmark Street hounds had left the kids alone.)
Although I had got to know of the song Twenty-One Years about the great truck roads and the life of the drivers, and the hard hitting song of Charlie Mayo, the Kings’ Cross locomotive fireman, called, The Colour Bar Strike, from the L.P. record Second Shift (Topic 10 T 25) it was not until I heard the Ballad of John Axon, broadcast by the B.B.C. Home Service in April, 1958, that I felt the great excitement and thrill of hearing a rendering of a contemporary event breaking through the thick mud of mass pop culture on the mass media itself.
“John Axon was a railwayman
To steam trains born and bred.
He was an engine driver
At Edgeley loco shed.
He was a man of courage
And served the iron way.
He gave his life upon the track
One February day.”
I use Charles Parker’s words instead of my own. They are so much more forceful. Whenever I pass through Stockport Station, and read the sign Edgeley Signal Box, I think of that man John Axon, of his life, his love, and his death in the poetry and melody of the Ballad written by Parker and finely sung by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. John Axon was a great ballad, for it dealt with a man in detail. His life and its associations of locomotive movement, the great pantings of a steam engine, and thundering of steel wheels on steel rails, coloured the swing and tone of the songs. The interweaving of the voices of his friends and his wife talking about the man’s love for dancing, and the great delight of watching the great mystery of the night sky as he steered his great steam engine through the Cheshire countryside into the early daylight at Crewe, are the very basis upon which a nation’s rich culture is built. That only one song from John Axon has yet been recorded, and that the complete ballad is not on record is but a reflection of the poor quality of the people in charge of our cultural establishment—the Records Kings of E.M.I., Decca, and Pye. One of the songs, patterned on the gentle motion of a railway carriage wheels in motion, has become—with new words—a lullaby for my daughter.