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‘Dreamed a Dream by the Old Canal . . . ‘: The Coming Centenary of Ewan MacColl’s Birth

Next year marks 100 years since the birth of Ewan MacColl.  Born James Henry Miller in Salford on 25th January 1915, he adopted the stage name of Ewan MacColl to acknowledge his proud Scottish heritage.

MacColl became a great influence on the folk music scene of the 50s and 60s, best known for songs about working class identities.  One of his compositions has gone on to become a much loved staple of ballad singers across Britain and afar.

‘Dirty Old Town’ was written by Ewan MacColl in 1949.  The song offers a snapshot of life in the industrialised town of Salford in Manchester, where MacColl was born and reared.

The song was composed by MacColl for a play he wrote called Landscape with Chimneys.  ‘Dirty Old Town’ served as a three minute musical interlude during a difficult scene change in the play.  Like the song the play was set in Salford, but the song outgrew the play and took on a life of its own when the folk ballad scene became popular.

MacColl intended to sing the song with no instrumental backing, but by the mid 1950s he had recorded it with Peggy Seeger and the Ramblers, with the help of renowned folk music collector Alan Lomax.  Since then several artists have covered the song, including Donovan in 1964, Rod Stewart in 1969 and the Pogues in 1985 among many others.

‘Dirty Old Town’ plays out as a love song against the backdrop of gritty industrialisation.  The singer takes his girl for a stroll down by the canal towpath as it is the only place which isn’t touched by the grime of factories and the dirty smoke of chimney stacks.

The gasworks croft, which is mentioned in the first verse, was a patch of wasteland next to the gasworks, while the old canal is the old Manchester Bolton and Bury canal.  The sirens mentioned in the song reverberated from it and other canals.  At the time the song was written, Manchester played host to heavy canal traffic and Salford in particular was very busy, so much so that ships often sounded their sirens.

MacColl’s song concerns life in Salford but it could be about any working class neighbourhood in any country.  When Luke Kelly brought it to the fore with the Dubliners in the 1960s, there then came a common misconception that the song was about Dublin!  It’s easy to make that mistake because ‘Dirty Old Town’ is a simple yet powerful song which resonates with many across Britain, Ireland and further afield with its tale of a working class life.

It’s a song packed with the smell and sounds of a working class town, but there lies within the song a rebellious streak.  While MacColl wrote so poetically about how the smoke from the steam set the night on fire and how he could smell the spring on the smoky wind, he reserved the last verse for a tint of regret for living in such a town — he wants to cut it down like an old dead tree.  The singer repeats the words of the title — ‘dirty old town’ — twice at the end of each verse too, to signal the state of mind he is in when describing the place he calls home.  The song reflects his love-hate attitude toward the working class realities of Salford.  MacColl’s conscious leanings were on the far left of the political spectrum, though, and remembering that brings out a socialist accent from the narrator’s voice sounding for the destruction of the town and the rebuilding of a new one.

Some controversy arose from the song.  ‘Smelled the smoke on the Salford wind’ was an original line in ‘Dirty Old Town’, but members of Salford council were displeased and even asked MacColl to change the lyrics.  The line was subsequently changed, with complex irony, to ‘smelled the spring on the smoky wind’, though many who later recorded the song stayed true to the original lyrics.

The song is a sharp snapshot of life in a town built on industry but the Salford of today is a far cry from the one Ewan MacColl wrote about in 1949.  The gasworks have since been demolished and the factory walls where the singer courts his girl are now sites full of expensive apartments while the steam trains that set the night on fire are now electric trams.

In recent years urban renewal in Salford has brushed away some of that grit that drenches through ‘Dirty Old Town’, but as long as capitalism lives on so too will the song’s strong working class voice.

I met my love by the gas works croft,
Dreamed a dream by the old canal,
I kissed my girl by the factory wall,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.

Clouds are drifting across the moon,
Cats are prowling on their beat,
Springs a girl from the streets at night,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.

I heard a siren from the docks,
Saw a train set the night on fire,
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.

I’m going to make me a good sharp axe,
Shining steel tempered in the fire,
Ill chop you down like an old dead tree,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.

I met my love by the gas works croft,
Dreamed a dream by the old canal,
I kissed my girl by the factory wall,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.


Lily Murphy may be contacted at <lilymurphycork@gmail.com>.




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