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Ewan MacColl

BBC producer Charles Parker described a radio ballad as "a form of narrative documentary in which the story is told entirely in the words of the actual participants themselves as recorded in real life; in sound effects which are also recorded on the spot, and in songs which are based upon these recordings, and which utilise traditional or 'folk-song' modes of expression."

Peggy Seeger"People were really moved to hear John Axon's wife talking"

In 1957 Parker commissioned folksinger and activist Ewan MacColl (pictured above) to write the script for a radio feature about the steam-locomotive driver John Axon, whose act of railway heroism earlier that year had cost him his life and earned him the posthumous award of the George Cross. Returning from the field with over forty hours of recorded material from Axon's widow and workmates about his life and death, MacColl saw the strength of the material and persuaded Parker to use the real voices rather than actors, an unheard-of practice at the time. Then - and this is what really sets the Ballads apart - MacColl wrote songs inspired by the stories, with music directed by Peggy Seeger and performed by orchestral and folk musicians. A new, hybrid format emerged, in which the original voices, carefully edited and interwoven with the music, could tell the story without the need for actors or additional script.

Jimmy Reid"At that time working class voices were virtually unheard at the BBC"

Given the basic reel-to-reel technology (with two tape machines playing at different speeds), splicing tapes with razor blades and intense studio sessions with musicians, singers and technicians, the Ballads really are a triumph of will and vision over rudimentary technology and logistics.


Originally, six of the radio ballads were issued on vinyl by Argo Records, and the whole series was issued on CD by Topic Records in 1999 but they are now out of licence.

Readers may be aware of two 'missing' ballads created by Charles Parker which did not involve MacColl and Seeger. Information from Ian Cambell, Parker's collaborator on these projects, can be found online at the Musical Traditions website.


The Ballad of John Axon - 2 July 1958
Song Of A Road - 5 November 1959
Singing The Fishing - 16 August 1960
The Big Hewer - 18 August 1961
The Body Blow - 27 March 1962
On The Edge - 13 February 1963
The Fight Game - 3 July 1963
The Travelling People - 17 April 1964

The Charles Parker Archive's exhibition on the original Radio Ballads will be on display at Birmingham Central Library from February 27th for the duration of the 2006 Radio Ballads series.


Classic songs, covers, songwriting and more.


An impeccable selection of the best in folk, roots and acoustic music.
Mike Harding

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