A vast number of popular singers have by now recorded Ewan McColl’s song “Dirty Old Town.” Luke Kelly, Liam Clancy, Esther Offarim, The Pogues, Rod Stewart (in Las Vegas!), Paddy Reilly, Van Morrison, Roger Whittaker, Julie Felix, and many others.
It is sung by Manchester United supporters at football matches. (Salford is part of Manchester).
It is a good song, I think. It was made in 1949 for performance at London’s Unity Theatre, an ancillary organisation of the British Communist Party (CP).
I met my love,
By the gas works wall.
Dreamed a dream,
By the old canal…
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,
What is it about? It doesn’t name MacColl’s native city, Manchester-Salford, but it is generally taken to represent that dirty mid-20th century old industrial town. Is it a romantic evocation of love, of the struggles of the young in that sexually repressive age? Is it ecological protest: we need to clean up after the industrial revolution?
In fact, when it first appeared the song was, and was heard and understood as, a fierce denunciation of capitalism. The dirty old town and working class life in it are a metaphor for capitalism, as the Communist Party at that time saw it – decrepit, having outstayed its proper span of historical time.
The lovers are what they are, but they are and also represent all workers living in this world. And what does the song say is to be done about it?
The answer is vivid yet not explicit:
I’m going to make,
Me a good sharp axe;
Tempered in the fire.
We’ll chop you down,
Like an old dead tree.
Dirty old town,
Dirty old town.
Axe is metaphor. For what? To that 1949 audience, the axe of “shining steel tempered in the fire”, was the Communist Party of Great Britain, a “Party of a New Type”, as their jargon had it. “A column of steel”.
The good sharp axe, the Party, was forged of steely humans, tempered in the fires of working class action and in steel-like discipline, training, hardness of mind and obdurate conviction. With the 1949 CPers these were words and images in everyday use as feeling, thought, speech and writings: their jargon of political self-hood. What they felt for themselves and their comrades and what they thought they were doing in politics. What they intended to do to dirty, decrepit, life-stifling old capitalism.
In 1949, the song was a celebration of Communist Parties, and specifically of the British party, and an appeal to listeners to join, to make themselves part of what the Communist Party members and sympathisers in that audience believed what they were forging to be: the weapon of weapons against capitalism. The living axe. Shining steel. Steely people and shining steely ideals. And the party of the leader whose chosen name, Stalin, meant Man of Steel: McColl also wrote a hymn in praise of Stalin.
The song was common and easily understood in the folk clubs of the 50s and 60s, most of which were quasi-political. The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly popularized it to a wider audience. Luke Kelly was a member of the 26 County Irish Workers League, and after the reunification of the two Irish Stalinist organisations in 1970, of the Communist Party of Ireland, When he sang it, he sang McColl’s meaning in it.
That political meaning fell away. The metaphors have migrated back to more literal meanings. Having football crowds sing it would to McColl in 1949 have seemed a great triumph. Except that it no longer has his meaning. That is mostly forgotten now, or never known.
A song of course has as many meanings as listeners choose to see in it, and meanings change from audience to audience, singer to singer, time to time. When Dirty Old Town is sung by Manchester United fans at football matches, it is about Manchester/Salford.
It is idle to dispute about what it “really” means. All we can do is place it in its initial context, its authors meaning, and what the early audiences made of it.
And so also with Casablanca. Casablanca, once full of living and recognisable references to political events, realities and parallels, is now shot through with dead political references,clear and oblique, to things forgotten or half forgotten, no longer easily intelligible.