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Folk legend Peggy Seeger to debut abandoned verse of Dirty Old Town at We Invented the Weekend as part of BBC documentary

  • Seeger to be interviewed and give exclusive performance at the free festival on Sunday 16th June 11:30am Piazza Stage, reclaiming the song for the city it was about
  • Documentary will be launched on Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ on July 6th
  • Documentary includes full orchestral rendition of Dirty Old Town recorded for the first time with the BBC Philharmonic

Almost 75 years after it was written about Salford, Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ is now the subject of a new BBC Radio 4 documentary, with an abandoned verse being sung for the first time since 1951.

MacColl’s folk-legend widow Peggy Seeger, is bringing the abandoned verse to life in a one-time-only performance at this year’s We Invented the Weekend festival, reclaiming the song back for the city it was originally written about.

The documentary, a collaboration between BBC Archive on 4 and We Invented the Weekend, will also see Seeger and her and MacColl’s son, Neill MacColl, create a beautiful new orchestral version with the BBC Philharmonic in Salford for the first time.

The orchestral piece is arranged by Kate St John, who not only is an esteemed Musical Director with a resume that includes shows at The Barbican and The Festival Hall in London, but also MacColl’s daughter in law.

Proud Salfordian and broadcaster Mike Sweeney fronts the documentary, which follows Seeger as she remakes this masterpiece with the BBC Philharmonic. Sweeney will walk the streets of Salford where MacColl courted Seeger in the 1950s, exploring the dramatic regeneration that the place he called a ‘Dirty Old Town’ is going through – with We Invented the Weekend taking place at the heart of that change in MediaCity.

Sweeney explores the myths around the song, a favourite of football grounds and pubs up and down the country and will hear from Seeger on how MacColl’s rigorous approach to songwriting resulted in the abandoned verse being cut.

Born in 1915 in Broughton, a suburb of Salford, MacColl came from a family with socialist roots. He started life as a young communist-playwright and first released Dirty Old Town in 1952 – after originally using it as a melody and the abandoned verse in a play in 1951 – with the song quickly making waves in the UK’s burgeoning folk scene due to its emotive melodies and lyrics.

Sweeney will trace the relationships that led to cover versions by as early as 1956, to The Dubliners and The Pogues who took the song from 1960s folk clubs to audiences around the world, leading many to believe it to be an Irish song rather than about Salford.

Seeger, who has lived in Britain for more than 60 years and was married to MacColl until his death in 1989, says the performance with the BBC Philharmonic fulfils a life-long ambition by her late husband.

She said: “Dirty Old Town is more than just a song . It speaks to those who live anywhere in dirty old broken down industrial cities everywhere. Salford City FC fans bawl it out, thousands of them. It has been covered by hundreds of singers. Salford was in Ewan MacColl’s bones. He took me to his dirty old town within a week of our three decade partnership. It is a perfect song, a beautiful melody, four economical verses and has been covered by hundreds of singers each in their own way. Ewan and I sang it together for decades. It is a total honour to be singing it with the BBC Philharmonic.”

Seeger and her son, musician Calum MacColl, will take part in an ‘in conversation’ event with Mike Sweeney at the We Invented the Weekend festival, telling the story of the song in the city it was created in. This will be followed by an acoustic performance in front of a live audience with Seeger singing the abandoned verse which never made popular renditions.

This will be further elevated with the festival’s Dreamed a Dream parade; Inspired by the song the activity will include a large-scale display of dreams, written on placards by festival attendees to be paraded around the festival and the canal that MacColl once sang of.

Wayne Hemingway MBE, co-founder of We Invented the Weekend said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for people to witness musical royalty at a festival for free, and appreciate the incredible surroundings they’re stood in, which are so different from the Salford MacColl once described. It’s no longer a dirty old town – it’s a green, vibrant, bustling place full of creativity and innovation and I’m sure he’d be proud to see the tribute his family are playing to him and the city through this documentary and festival appearance.”

Hugh Levinson, Commissioning Editor, BBC Radio 4 said: “I’ve loved Dirty Old Town for as long as I can remember – both as a listener and musician and so it was an absolute joy to commission this programme. The song speaks directly to anyone who’s experienced that bitter-sweet taste of the grime and romance of a great city – which is why maybe it’s been adopted as an anthem in Ireland alongside its original roots in Salford. And beyond that, it’s a deeply affecting love song. I’m honoured that we’ll have the great Peggy Seeger, a literal living legend, reviving her husband’s wonderful song. We are not worthy.”

Archive On 4: Dirty Old Town is available on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds from 6th July.