Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ewan MacColl's 'The Joy of Living': The ultimate farewell song

And so Harold’s service closed with the officiator reading Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Joy of Living’. I had no idea that this classic farewell anthem was on the agenda but it came as no surprise. I had chosen it myself as the closing piece of music for my father’s funeral way back in 1997. At the time I thought it was a unique choice. I’d heard it on a Ewan MacColl anthology and thought it was truly a perfect piece of music to end a funeral, the song’s romantic theme dealing as it does, with the mountain lover saying goodbye to those people and places which had been so dear to them. My old man though wasn’t an outdoor person, although as merchant seaman who had gone through some hair raising adventures and catastrophes at sea, his survival from several death defying incidents around the world puts into perspective the true meaning of risk. Two weeks in an open boat in the north Atlantic in winter after your ship has been sunk by a U boat rather trumps leading a VS up Cloggy’s Great Slab!

But to get back to Ewan MacColl’s anthem. In recent times it appears that the Joy of Living has replaced 'Wild Mountain Thyme' and Fairport's 'Meet me on the ledge' as the outdoor lovers funeral song of choice. I’ve seen several references to it on outdoor and climbing forums and it seems like it’s momentum has been driven by word of mouth rather than through airplay. Indeed ‘Airplay’ and ‘Ewan McColl’ are not generally words you see together!

MacColl’s music was always shaped by his experiences growing up in pre and post war Salford. His Scottish parents had moved to Manchester to find work and their experiences growing up in the north during a time of depression and deprivation shaped his politics and music. A lifelong communist and trade unionist, he is often seen as a dour political troubadour. Composing angry songs directed at strike-breakers or evil bosses. Railing against ‘the system’ and advocating militant solutions to economic problems. Of course there are more than a few of these angry songs in the MacColl songwriting oeuvre, and though it’s true, he never lost his faith in ‘socialist revolution’ and retained a hatred of the political establishment, there is nevertheless, a great romanticism at the heart of his work.

Most people are familiar with his Salfordian anthem ‘Dirty Old Town’- I recently had the eponymous ‘gas works wall’ pointed out to me by the caretaker of the Salford Lads Club of Smiths fame-and the bright and breezy ‘Manchester Rambler’ strikes a optimistic note. However, with The Joy of Living’ MacColl enters the romantic stratosphere complimented by his equally beautiful ballad ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Surreally covered and turned into a multi million selling world wide smash by US soul singer, Roberta Flack.Let's hope that Ewan MacColl's genius becomes more appreciated and the growing popularity of The Joy Of Living' leads to a wider interest in his music.

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye
Moorlands and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye
Glyder Fach farewell, cold big Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven
Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you're drunk on the joy of living.

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion
Years pass by and they're gone with the speed of birds in flight
Our lives like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine
And we'll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living

Farewell to you, my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong may your days be long safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind
So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I'll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living

The Joy Of Living lyrics © THE BICYCLE MUSIC COMPANY

The Dorymates perform The joy of living 

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