His diverse folk songs range from stirring political commentaries to classic singalongs.
In all its multifarious forms, folk song has many functions. What the folk tradition offers is a window to the world, an insight into the lives, attitudes, spirit, and hardships of those who’ve lived it.
And, at its best, contemporary folk song can do the same thing, shining a light on the events, the characters, and the attitudes that shape our world so that, in time, the best of these songs will be absorbed into the tradition.
The bottom line is that, however you dress it up in fancy arrangements and intricate instrumentation, the archetypal folk song is all about stories. Stories and people.
This is something that the personable Scots singer and guitarist Ewan McLennan understands and taps into only too well. About to release his fifth album, Borrowed Songs, McLennan continues to maintain an even balance between the traditional songs he believes hold enduring relevance, beauty, and depth and his own compositions, which do effectively the same thing. All mixed in with a smattering of well-judged covers of other people’s work.
For Ewan, they all serve roughly the same purpose. In the past, he’s written songs like Whistling The Esperanza (from The Last Bird To Sing), which heartwarmingly documents the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010 when a mine collapsed in the Atacama Desert. Another one, Joe Glenton, from the same album, relates the true story of a British soldier who fought in Afghanistan but ended up in prison after refusing to continue when he realized the folly of war.
Modern stories recounting real events that carry a direct lineage to the folk songs of old… and it’s a pattern he continues to great effect on his excellent new record Borrowed Songs.
One of the most compelling tracks here is the a cappella ballad Windrush, which tackles the scandal of the immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1950s, mainly from the West Indies, at the behest of the British government to help rebuild the country after the war…only to face racism, rejection, hardship, and, decades later, expulsion as illegal immigrants. As, with all his narratives of this sort, McLennan exhaustively researched the subject.
“I got the idea from listening to the various first-hand testimonies of the victims and from there looked through the ship records and passenger lists of HMS Windrush at National Archives, and the information they have is things like occupation and reason of travel, age, and country of origin. Basic stuff, but enough for me to conjure up the idea of the song based on one of the semi-anonymous characters on that list. Some of their testimony was so powerful I thought it would make good material for a song. These people had been living in Britain for a hell of a long time and considered themselves to be British; but suddenly they were confronted with orders to be deported and were detained and put in immigration centres while they were being processed. Some cases were resolved before they were deported but others weren’t so lucky and were sent to a country they didn’t consider home, where they knew nobody and had no ties and had no way of working.”
Another of his new songs—One Of The Last Of Its Kind—was triggered by the whole issue of climate change and the environmental protests associated with events like Extinction Rebellion demonstrations and Youth Climate strikes taking place around the world. Strongly influenced by the form of traditional, it wields a harrowing message, set in a future time at a point whales become extinct.
On Blacken The Engines, he has unearthed a fascinating snippet of modern history from 1973 when Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader Salvador Allende’ Popular Unity government was overthrown in a bloody coup led by army general Augusto Pinochet, with forces backed by U.S. President Richard Nixon. That unsavoury episode has been well documented—particularly as among those executed by Pinochet’s army at Santiago National Stadium was the heroic Chilean folksinger Victor Jara—but McLennan stumbled on a compelling new angle which relates directly to his own Scottish roots.
“The planes that flew over the presidential palace controlled by the military junta that dropped the bombs which brought democracy to an end in Chile were British fighter jets with Rolls Royce engines made in a factory in East Kilbride in Scotland. There’s a wonderful story that connects East Kilbride with Santiago in an unlikely but inspiring way. When the engines were returned to East Kilbride by the junta later that year, the workers in the factory decided to do what was known as ‘blacken the engines’ and they refused to work on the engines out of principle. They locked them away so they couldn’t be returned to Chile and this became a big issue.
“For five years, immense pressure was put on them by the British government, which was very friendly to the Chilean regime, and by their employers at Rolls Royce. The workers didn’t relent but finally in 1978 the engines were taken back by force and returned to Santiago by the British government. But there’s a humorous yet poignant twist to this story. The regime assembled lots of press and TV to mark this great triumph for Chile over East Kilbride at the return but, as the crates are opened and the engines are unveiled, it becomes apparent that the workers had poured corrosive fluid all over these engines before they are taken back and are unusable. So this great triumph for Chile had been scuppered. When the news got back to the people, there were songs and dancing from the dissidents in the jails of Santiago. When I discovered that story I knew I had to write the song.”
Reading all this, you might imagine McLennan to be an angry young man with smoke coming out of his ears, dealing only in political song. Far from it; he writes love songs, too, and delivers a rounded performance of wide-ranging folk music that encompasses some unexpectedly populist material.
His last album included We Shall Overcome and the new one includes the daddy of all traditional chorus songs, Wild Mountain Thyme. He is also now the proud father of a one-year-old son, Robbie (named after Robbie Burns), who has had a profound impact on his approach to life and music.
“I don’t think I’d have written a song like One Of The Last Of Its Kind before he came along,” he says. “Being a father has made me think more about the world that we’re handing on. It’s made me more determined.”
His thematic last album, Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness, was something of a departure, marking a collaboration with U.K. environmental writer and campaigner George Monbiot in an involving and affecting cycle of songs dealing with different forms of loneliness. It was an unlikely partnership forged from mutual admiration of each other’s work, with Monbiot sending words, suggestions, and ideas for Ewan to formulate into song.
“I’d never really worked to a brief in that way before, and at times it was tough, but it was great, too, and writing about these topics felt very powerful.”
It resulted, too, in a series of shows interspersing music with Mobiot’s dialogue, which clearly had a big impact on audiences, who’d often come up afterwards and share their own stories.
“That was the great thing about it all—we met so many inspiring people telling us about the organizations they were involved in, and we’d often go to the pub afterwards to talk about it.”
You’d imagine that in these fraught times and the crazy political situations on both sides of the Atlantic that a politically motivated artist such as McLennan would be tearing his hair out in frustration and fear of the future. Not so.
“Politics has become more polarizing and society has got more and more unequal and has failed to address things like the environment crisis but no, I don’t despair…I’m an optimist.”