Nostalgia looks back on the remarkable life of Salford song-writer Ewan MacColl and the music of Manchester in the 1950s

Who would have thought that one of the greatest love songs of all time would be shaped in the grimy streets of Salford during the Great Depression?

The song was the hauntingly beautiful The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, immortalized by American singer Roberta Flack in 1972.

Its writer was the poet, playwright and political activist Ewan MacColl, who spent the early years of his life scraping a few pennies together as a street-singer in Manchester.

Ewan MacColl’s play Uranium 235 staged by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, May 1952

Ewan MacColl’s play Uranium 235 staged by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, May 1952

MacColl was born in Andrew Street, Broughton, in January 1915. He was the youngest son and only surviving child of iron-moulder William Miller and his charwoman wife Betsy.

Ardent trade-unionist William Miller had been blacklisted in every foundry in Scotland and moved south of the border to find work.

The young MacColl was raised in a climate of fierce politics and protests as well as being inspired by the stories and songs from his family’s native land.

He attended the Grecian Street School in Broughton but left in 1930 at the time of the Great Depression.

Unemployed like so many of his generation, he kept warm in Manchester Central Library – and couldn’t help reading the books around him while he sheltered from the cold.

This, in turn, ignited a passion for self-learning which lasted the whole of the writer’s life.

MacColl started writing and acting when he joined the socialist amateur theatre group the Clarion Players. His first wife was pioneering theatre director Joan Littlewood.

His interest in folk music steadily grew as he collected and performed traditional ballads. He released his first single The Asphalter’s Song on Topic Records in 1950.

MacColl left Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop when it moved to London in 1953 and focused full time on singing and composing.

He wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in 1957 for the American folk singer Peggy Seeger. She needed it for a play she was appearing in.

It came at a controversial time for MacColl. He caused a scandal when he fell in love with the 21-year-old Seeger after she came to London to work on an anthology of folk songs. She was 20 years his junior.

He was still married to his second wife, dancer Jean Newlove – the mother of his two children Hamish and future singer Kirsty.

As he was banned from visiting the United States due to his Communist associations, MacColl had to teach Seeger the song over the telephone!

Many more records followed as MacColl influenced many of the artists who worked in Manchester or visited the city.

One of his most memorable songs was the classic Dirty Old Town, written about Salford in 1949 but made popular by The Dubliners in 1968.

At the same time as MacColl was blazing a trail in Manchester, other local singers were quickly following in his wake.

In 1959, a young Rhythm and Blues singer from Leigh called Georgie Fame signed his first contract with Larry Parnes at the age of 16.

Leigh singer-songwriter Georgie Fame, January 1965

Leigh singer-songwriter Georgie Fame, January 1965

He went on to become the only British pop star to achieve three number ones with his only Top 10 chart entries. The hits were Yeh Yeh in 1964, Get Away in 1966 and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.

Skiffle groups were springing up around the city in the 1950s, inspired by visiting artists like Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele.

Gorton Skiffle Group go through their numbers in Manchester, November 1957

Gorton Skiffle Group go through their numbers in Manchester, November 1957

Tommy Steele rehearses for his show in Manchester, January 1956

Tommy Steele rehearses for his show in Manchester, January 1956

Traditional jazz still had its place as Louis Armstrong and his six-piece band The All-Stars packed the King’s Hall at Belle Vue in March 1959.

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong brought his six-piece band to Belle Vue in March 1959

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong brought his six-piece band to Belle Vue in March 1959

American R&B singer Johnnie Rae played Belle Vue in November 1956 and home-grown idol Marty Wilde topped the bill at Manchester Free Trade Hall in July 1959.

Johnnie Rae fans at Belle Vue, January 1950

Johnnie Rae fans at Belle Vue, January 1950

Marty Wilde appeared at the Free Trade Hall in July 1959

Marty Wilde appeared at the Free Trade Hall in July 1959

Bill Haley and The Comets arrived in the city in February 1957 to belt out classics like Rock Around the Clock and See You Later Alligator at the Manchester Odeon.

Bill Haley and the Comets played Manchester Odeon in February 1957

Bill Haley and the Comets played Manchester Odeon in February 1957

Rock and roll fans compete in the Bill Haley dance contest at Belle Vue, February 1957

Rock and roll fans compete in the Bill Haley dance contest at Belle Vue, February 1957

Just days earlier, rock and roll fans had flocked to Belle Vue to compete in the nationwide Bill Haley dance contest. The floor was packed as youngsters spun, jigged and jived the night away.

A new era in popular music had well and truly dawned.

Many more memorable pictures of the past can be found in Clive Hardy’s brilliant book Around Manchester in the 1970s – now on sale at a reduced price for M.E.N. readers.

Clive’s two companion books, Around Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s, are on offer at a reduced price too!