The radio ballads

Charles Parker is most famous for the Radio Ballads, eight radio programmes he made with the folk singers and activists Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, which were broadcast on the BBC between 1958 and 1964 and are considered to be classics of radio production. The Radio Ballads combined four elements: the recorded voices of people speaking in their own words, which Parker called ‘actuality’; songs based on the actuality and on folk songs, often written by Ewan MacColl; instrumental music, arranged by Peggy Seeger; and sound effects. The Radio Ballads received extensive press coverage, which praised them for their innovative approach Singing the Fishing, the third Radio Ballad, won the Italia Prize for radio documentary in 1960.

The Radio Ballads express Parker’s belief in the value of the testimony of working people and of the creative importance of the oral tradition and its relation to folk music. This became the key to his work in radio, theatre, and in his extensive teaching activities. Parker's work was made possible by the newly-developed portable tape recorder, the EMI Midget, which became available in the early 1950s. Instead of recording in the artificial environment of the studio, it was now possible for producers to go out into the field and record people speaking in their own voices in their homes and workplaces. Parker hoped that this power to record and manipulate the human voice would lead to new forms of art, which would be closer to the experiences of 'the common people'.

Charles Parker joined the BBC in 1949 and became a Senior Features Producer in the Midland Region in Birmingham in 1954. His early work was in the tradition of BBC documentary, in which the voices of ordinary people were spoken by actors. During the research for the first Radio Ballad, The Ballad of John Axon he heard people speaking in a way that transformed his approach to radio documentary making and to recording actuality. The power, immediacy, and local colour of a railwayman saying ‘railways go through your spine like Blackpool goes through rock’, made him realise that he 'didn’t need to go to actors or dramatists to find material for drama; he could go straight to the common people instead' (see Tracks 3-4, MS 4000/6/1/26/35/C). Ewan MacColl, writing much later about the actuality recorded for John Axon says, ‘their impact was enormous and it was immediately apparent that we had recorded a unique picture of a way of life told in language charged with the special vitality which derives from involvement with a work-process. The problem was how to use it. Could one re-write it without reducing or falsifying it? The more I listened the more convinced I became that neither the standard format of the feature programme nor the elegiac of ‘Lonesome Train’ [an American musical documentary about the life of Abraham Lincoln] could accommodate the wild stuff we had recorded’. The traditional ballad gave the answer: ‘A traditional ballad was to be the model for a narrative programme without narrators, caption voices, or actors – a programme in which actuality, recordings and music written in the folk idiom would be interwoven (quotations from The Radio Ballads by Ewan MacColl).

The eight Radio Ballads

The Ballad of John Axon (1958) about railwaymen

Song of a Road (1959) about building the M1 motorway

Singing the Fishing (1960) about the herring fishing fleet

The Big Hewer (1961) about miners

The Body Blow (1962) about polio

On the Edge (1963), about teenagers

The Fight Game (1963) about boxers

The Travelling People (1964) about the nomadic peoples of Britain

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