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Scotland in music

Review by Edward Scott Pearlman

January 25 is well known as the birthday of Scotland's 18th-century poet and songwriter Robert Burns (1759-1796). Not so well known is that it is also the birthday of Britain's 20th-century singer and songwriter Ewan MacColl (1915-1989). Like Burns, MacColl was driven by passion and optimism. Both envisioned a future in which people could be respected for who they are, as most famously expressed in "A Man's A Man," the final track of MacColl's 1959 recording of the Songs of Robert Burns.

In honor of MacColl's centennial, three of his children selected their favorite songs and invited great contemporary singers to arrange and sing them. Released as a double CD last fall, it was produced by Neill and Calum MacColl, and designed by Kitty MacColl. Their mother, American singer and multi-instrumentalist Peggy Seeger, was Ewan's third wife. For 30 years, she performed and recorded with him and, at age 80, is still going strong.

The new release, Joy of Living, features 21 songs, with a different singer on each track. Their unique voices and original arrangements create an enjoyable variety of styles, ranging from the bright and warm opener sung by Damien Dempsey, through the eerie "Cannily Cannily" by the Unthanks, to the theatrical, half-spoken version by Jarvis Cocker of "The Battle Is Done With." Norma Waterson sings of the callous treatment of gypsies, while Chaim Tannenbaum performs a gentle "My Old Man" about a father, presumably MacColl's, being left high and dry by the factory bosses.

Many of the songs celebrate workers: miners, truckers, fishermen, road builders and steelworkers. Others are about gypsies, probably inspired by Ewan and Peggy's adventures collecting songs from the traveling folk of Scotland and England in the 1960s and 70s.

The full text of this column is available in the Spring 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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