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Last updated:28 April 2015

New City Songster

Some covers, some comments and two songs

written by Ewan MacColl

New City Songster was almost entirely the work of Peggy Seeger (who chose, edited and notated the songs) and David Scott (the artist for all but one of the issues). It featured songs by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl and songwriters from all over the English-speaking world. It ran for 21 volumes, 1968-1985.

From NCS no. 1, second edition: THIS IS A 1974 RE-DESIGNED REPRINT of the very first New City Songster, which appeared late in 1968. The songs in that original Volume One are still applicable today and, as the time drew near for the fourth re-issuing of the booklet, we decided to bring its format into line with the subsequent volumes. The introduction to the 1968 volume ran thus:

This is volume 1 of a continuing series. It is not a folk magazine as such, with articles, reviews and traditional songs, but it strictly devoted to circulating new songs: songs for tomorrow, today and possibly yesterday, but no further back. While realising the value of placing new songs in a cultural context, i.e. publishing them side by side with their traditional predecessors, it it undoubtedly a fact that many new songs have immediate topical relavance and are often out of of date before they are published: others may deal with burning issues, too burning perhaps for most 'folk' magazines to handle. As a result, people do not see them, often till too late - and they do not get sung.

It a perhaps lamentable that songs written to deal with 1968 situations are still topical in 1974 . . . just another reminder that we still have with us student struggles, the role of the United States as world watchdog (Alsatian?), apartheid, the loneliness of old age and the necessity to take sides in a conflict that it sharpening every day.


From NCS no. 19:

NCS began in 1967, when there were nearly 2000 folk clubs in Britain. The reason for its formation was to circulate new songs before they became historical pieces, for communications between clubs in different regions was and still is fairly undeveloped. So truly speaking, NCS is a product of the folk revival, that invigorating resurgence of interest in our native music and song.

This revival burst on the scene in the early 1950s and was at its peak fifteen years later. It in now on the wane, and yet its effects are to be seen in many aspects of life in Britain. Folk music in found in television programs, the cinema, plays - it often influences pop songs; indeed, no small number of pop singers used it as a stepping stone.

Folk festivals abound - although many would question how 'folk' (or even how 'festive') these events are. There are several hundred folk clubs still thriving despite the flagging interest shown by the younger generation, whose presence at the beginning of the revival gave it its freshness, its energy, its forward-looking optimism.

By the early 1960s, nearly everyone over 20 years of age had been to, or had at least heard of, a folk club. But there were hardly any new songs in the folk idiom in the clubs then - audiences would eagerly await a new traditional song or ballad version, a different performer or musician, but the new songs were usually one-offs, or new-words-to-an-old-tune. This latter is now considered an easy get-out unless the song is a parody or unless associations we have with the familiar tune are part of the organic whole of the new song. A new song now must be totally new.

Many of the songs coming out of the British revival are being written by singers who have been on the scene long enougb to feel really comfortable with the folk idiom. They have assimilated techniques of folk creation and applied them to situations which would be difficult to deal with in strict traditional terms. But the songs are just not coming out in sufficient numbers and there are very few young people involved in their writing.

The bulk of the songs in this issue are not from Britain, but from Australia and America, where the songs seem fresher and are certainly turned out in greater numbers by a wider variety of writers. The American revival is entering a new stage now. No longer quite so star-studded, it is breeding a host of good singers and instrumentalists all over the country and the new songs are pouring out. The profusion of small disc companies and FM stations nurture these singers in a way British singers might envy. It is now accepted in the USA that folk is skilful, that a new song in the folk idiom can be important as contemporary commentary. We here in Britain need to strive towards a rejuvenated revival and news songs are the keystone in this: our revival still has its firm foundation, the club. But it needs more songs of more varying types. Could we ask for a bumper crop next year?

From NCS no.17:

What the poet called her

The poet called her Juliet, wrote sonnets to her hair,
She was busy scrubbing at his dirty underwear.
Juliet made a bet that lover-boy would go
As soon as she said, "Clean the bath, or help me scrub the floor."

The poet called her Eloise, praised her raven locks,
In return she ironed his shirts and darned his woollen socks.
Eloise wasn't pleased when he said, "It's late,
Sorry about the washing up... the apple pie was great."

The poet called her Beatrice, sang paeons to her tresses,
Beatrice only sighed and went on cleaning up his messes,
Beatrice, a mere miss, said, "Lend a helping hand."
He'd more important things to do. He knew she'd understand.

The poet called her Helen, said he'd always made her happy,
She just smiled and then continued changing baby's nappy.
Helen well and truly lost her boy
By asking him to make the bed. He up and left for Troy.

The poet called her Guinevere, his pet, his little mouse,
Until she asked him for some help in cleaning up the house.
Guinevere said, "My dear, a baby's on the way."
Launcelot wished her all the best and left, on Mother's Day.

So if you're looking for a mate and want to pick a winner
Get one who can wash and clean and maybe help with dinner.
One who'll share and share alike, a truly loving aid,
If he can write a poem as well you've really got it made.

[recorded on BR 1063, KILROY WAS HERE]

After the General Strike in 1926, Ewan MacColl's father William Miller found it more and more difficult to find work. It was down to his mother Betsy Miller to bring in the necessary wages. So she cleaned, and washed, and many years later Ewan wrote this song for her.

Betty Miller

Betsy Miller

Nobody knew she was there

She walks in the cold, dark hour before the morning,
The hour when wounded night begins to bleed,
Stands at the back of the patient few
In the silent, almost-sleeping queue,
Seeing no-one and not being seen.

Working shoes are wrapped in working apron,
Rolled in an oilcloth bag across her knees,
The swaying tram assaults the morning,
Blue-grey steely day is dawning,
Draining the last few dregs of sleep away.

Over the bridge and the writhing, foul black water,
Down through empty corridors of stone,
Each of the blind glass walls she passes,
Shows her twin in sudden flashes,
Which is the mirror-image, which is real?

Crouching hooded gods of word and number
Accept her bent-backed homage as their due;
The bucket's steam like incense coils,
Across the endless floor she toils,
Cleaning the same wide sweep each day anew.

Glistening sheen of new-washed floors is fading,
There where office-clocks are marking time,
Night's black tide has drained away
By cliffs of glass awash with day
She hurries from her labours, still unseen.

He who lies beside her does not see her,
Nor does the child who once lay at her breast,
The shroud of self-denial covers
Eager girl and tender lover,
Only the faded servant now is left.

How could it be that no-one saw her drowning?
How did we come to be so unaware?
At what point did she cease to be her?
When did we cease to look and see her?
How was it no-one knew that she was there?

(recorded on KILROY WAS HERE)