An evergreen and compulsory choice in the repertoire of any Irish folk revival band, the song actually originates from northern England and recounts the love-hate relation with the grim industrial north.
Ewan MacColl, British playwright and songwriter of socialist orientation, wrote DIRTY OLD TOWN in 1949, to fill a scene change in Landscape with Chimneys, a play set in a non-identified industrial town of the North of England.
The song is supposedly about Salford, the author’s hometown. This is confirmed by the song notes, which accompany the lyrics in MacColl (Mac Coll 1998).
The song is dominated by a love/hate relation with the town: dirty and old in fact denote disgust and repulsion; nevertheless they also constitute the setting for the romance, which is taking place in it. In addition, the town inspires aesthetically pleasant and synaesthetic images of place, combining sounds (“sirens”), smells (“smoky wind”) and sights (“the train blazing through the night”). However, the last verse is reserved for some kind of act of rebellion towards the city, envisaging its destruction. In the last part of the verse, there is a change from an authorial “I” to “we”. It is not clear if this plural subject refers to the couple or to the collective of citizens or workers, who will chop down a “you”, that might be the town itself or one of its architectonical features (chopping down like a tree might refer to the tall chimneys of the industry). The song, via its lyrics and melody, imparts authenticity to the singer’s self-representation as “socialist working-class Northerner” and to its work as accomplished within and for the working class itself. This is also achieved through the use of regional words: “croft” is a small un-used piece of land. The ancient prefix a- + verb is typical of folk and blues music tradition, probably due to the meter. “Town” is used for middle-sized urban agglomerations, while “city” is used for big ones.
DIRTY OLD TOWN has a very simple structure of four verses, each followed by the refrain, where the singer repeats the words of the title twice. The theme of love and courtship is typical of popular songs since the troubadours. MacColl’s first recording of DIRTY OLD TOWN is composed of one vocal track only, with no accompanying instruments, and the author sings only the first two verses, each one followed by the chorus. This is probably most faithful to the version performed with the play. In 1956, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers recorded a second version, featuring MacColl and Peggy Seeger on vocals. This version includes the four canonized verses and has a jazz/blues feel, partly thanks to the clarinet insertions and to the guitar and bass walking lines. The clarinet also performs a solo in jazz style before the last verse. In both versions, the melody line has an ascending and descending movement, repeated three times, ending on the parallel tonic instead of the tonic.
The song has been covered widely. In particular, the version of the Irish folk revivalists The Dubliners (on their Drinkin’ and Courtin’ LP, 1968) and later by the Anglo-Irish folk-punk band The Pogues (on their Rum, Sodomy and the Lash LP, 1985) brought to the common opinion that the song is of Irish folk origin and about Dublin. The most striking element in the song, contributing enormously to its success, is the description of the grim reality of an industrial town, here accomplished through the references to gasworks, canals, railway tracks and factories. The link between a romantic liaison/romance and the grey industrial urban environment constituted at the time a new productive element in popular art, although anticipated by the Romantic fascination for ruins. Parallels to this can be found in drama (Delaney’s A Taste of Honey), literature (Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), cinema (the filmic versions of the two above-mentioned), photography (the French humanist school) and musicals (West Side Story).
Songwriting, Vocals: Ewan MacColl
Vocals: Ewan MacColl, Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger, Shirley Collins
Guitar: Alan Lomax, Bryan Daley
Banjo: Peggy Seeger
Clarinet: Sandy Brown
Harmonica: John Cole
Bass: Jim Bray
Washboard: Alan Sutton
Songwriting: Ewan MacColl
Recorded: August 2nd, 1956 in London
- Ewan MacColl. “Dirty Old Town”, Dirty Old Town & Sheffield Apprentice, 1952, T R C, TRC 56.
- Alan Lomax and the Ramblers. “Dirty Old Town”, N.N., 1956, Decca, F 10787, UK (7″/Single).
- Alan Lomax and the Ramblers with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. “Dirty Old Town”, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, 1956, Decca, DFE 6367, UK (7″/ EP).
- The Dubliners. “Dirty Old Town”, Drinkin’ & Courtin’, 1968, Major Minor, SMLP 14, UK (LP/Album).
- The Dubliners. “Dirty Old Town”, Dirty Old Town, 1968, Major Minor, MM 552, UK (7″/Single).
- The Pogues. “Dirty Old Town”, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, 1985, Stiff Records, STLP 1020, UK (LP/Album).
- The Pogues. “Dirty Old Town”, Dirty Old Town, 1985, Stiff Records, BUY 229, UK (7″/Single).
- MacColl, Ewan: The Essential Ewan MacColl Songbook. Sixty Years of Songmaking. Ed. by Peggy Seeger. New York: Oak Publications 1998.
- Artist homepage: http://www.ewan-maccoll.info/ [04.11.2011].
- Database: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Ewan+MacColl [04.11.2011].
- Download: http://ewan-maccoll.musicload.de/kuenstler/140652 [04.11.2011].
- Lyrics: http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/76789/ [04.11.2011].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Dirty Old Town (Ewan McColl)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/dirtyoldtown, 02/2012 [revised 10/2013].Print