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Ruth Ewan, ‘Did you kiss the foot that kicked you?, performance (Fang busking outside Kings Cross station), 2007

Did you stand there in the traces and let them feed you lies?
Did you trail along behind them wearing blinkers on your eyes?
Did you kiss the foot that kicked you?
Did you thank them for their scorn?
Did you ask for their forgiveness for the act of being born?

Ewan MacColl’s ‘Ballad of Accounting’ is a rallying cry against submission. While critically referencing those who ‘skim the cream’, it is equally a challenge to the masses who ‘accept the shoddy’. Written for BBC’s landmark series Radio Ballads in 1964, it attacks low expectations, but also inherently a society that abuses its people into passivity.

Ruth Ewan, a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, now based in London, has taken the song as the core of her biggest and most ambitious work to date, ‘Did you kiss the foot that kicked you?’ Maybe you heard it? Were you in London Monday 8—Friday 12 October this year, travelling between 8 and 10am or 5 and 7pm? If so, you might just have caught a rendition by one of the 100 buskers in underground and overground stations who slipped this tune into their normal repertoire during these hours: viral intervention for the ears.

Ewan MacColl was born ‘Jimmie Miller’ in Salford to Scottish parents, changing his name to reflect his Celtic roots at the age of 30. He considered pop music the new opium of the people, and believed that folk music, theatre and direct action could change the world. He sang with a Scottish accent, and, perhaps ironically, hated Bob Dylan for being ‘phoney’ (Dylan admired him) and regarded Joan Baez with equal distaste. His most famous songs remain ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’. By the time he was 17, in 1932, MacColl had an MI5 file on him, noting ‘his exceptional ability as a music organiser’. It was kept open all his life.

‘They first picked him out at the mass trespass at Kinder Scout’, says Ruth Ewan. ‘It was a protest against the privatisation of land—he wrote a song for the occasion, “The Manchester Rambler’’’. In March, 2006, Ewan read that the MI5 files on MacColl up to 1955 had been released through the National Archive. She’d had early exposure to his music through her parents’ tastes, and had picked him out for an ongoing piece of work, ‘a jukebox of people that tried to change the world’. Ben Harker, a professor at Salford University, was responsible for the files’ release, and Ewan was put in touch with him through contacts at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library. She began to dig deeper into the man that Harker describes as ‘an elusive quarry’.

Ewan went on to win backing from Artangel (the foundation behind Jeremy Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ and Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’), the Jerwood Foundation and Channel 4 to implement her subversive musical plan. ‘The song will be dropped into the city for two hours in the morning, and two in the evening’, Ewan explains in the week prior to her busker action. ‘We recruited buskers by advertising and also, fortunately, there was an event on the Southbank [led by Billy Bragg] called ‘Billy’s Big Busk’ where we went and handed out flyers. We had three audition dates.’ Peggy Seeger, MacColl’s third wife, widow and long-term collaborator, gave them permission to use the song on the understanding that they did it justice.

The 100 selected buskers, whose instruments range from the guitar to the Jew’s harp, were rehearsed by The Pogues’ David Coulter, for whom the links go deep; The Pogues did a definitive cover of ‘Dirty Old Town’ in 1985, and MacColl’s daughter, the late Kirsty MacColl, dueted with Shane McGowan on their hit ‘Fairytale of New York’ in 1987. ‘His enthusiasm really motivated everyone’, Ewan says.

Eschewing tourist spots, Ewan has focused the buskers along commuter routes in the city—Liverpool Street, Bank, and Canary Wharf.

It’s quite an aggressive song that asks lots of questions.’ she says. ‘It could be quite disturbing if you hear it through your journey, or it could be a lovely thing.’

Did the place where you were living
Enrich your life and then
Did you reach some understanding
of all your fellow men,
all your fellow men,
all your fellow men?

Ruth Hedges is a freelance writer based in London