Industrial Balladry, Mass Culture, and the Politics of Realism in Cold War Britain

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Focusing on a series of pioneering radio ballads produced for the BBC between 1958 and 1961 by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, and Peggy Seeger, this article explores representations of industrial working-class culture in folksongs of the radical Left. Situating such work in relation to A. L. Lloyd, mass culture, the nascent New Left, gender, and the aesthetics of social realism (distinct from the project of Soviet socialist realism), I argue that early radio ballads were nostalgic panegyrics for the integrity of working-class identity in the face of unprecedented socio-economic change. At the very moment when distinctively masculine working-class traditions seemed to be at risk of disappearing under the rising tide of affluence, Conservative Party rhetoric, female emancipation, and the emergence of a classless commodity utopia, these programs generated a portrait of an unwavering British subculture damaged and defined by capitalist exploitation yet resistant to the unwelcome advance of globalized modernity. Ultimately, such work revealed far more about MacColl’s own political convictions than about the intricacies of working-class life in Britain.

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The Journal of Musicology
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University of California Press
AHRC (1077009)
Funding for this project was provided by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (1077009)