Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl

Eighteenth Century Protest Songs

Most “protest folk songs” have a rather precious quality about them, but these eighteenth century examples are a different breed entirely. The singer on the first one is Ewan MacColl, a big name in the world of folk music if sometimes intolerant in his views. (MacColl believed that a folk singer should only sing songs “native”to the tradition of his own area, and was known for trying to impose this view on others.)


The narrator of the first song is supposed to be a weaver. Weavers were at the forefront of radical resistance to the Industrial Revolution. They were largely responsible for Scotland's Radical War of 1820, for example.


The mark of a truly authentic protest song, like that of any other folk song,is in the depth of passion implicit in the words, the music and the delivery. Traditional songs are not about note-perfect presentation. They're not about slick production or virtuoso instrumentation or the attractiveness of the singer. What are they about, then? Human emotion, presented as plainly and simply as possible so that the stark reality of the song is as uncompromised and powerful as it can be.

That's not the only way to effectively present a “folk” song, but it's the traditional way. Most folk-music is not presented in a folk context, and that's fine. But when a song like this is presented as close as it can be to the traditional way, it is sometimes more powerful by far for the lack of superfluous ornamentation.