Poems From Places: Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town"

I found my love where the gaslight falls
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town

Clouds are drifting across the moon
Cats are prowling on their beat
Springs a girl in the streets at night
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I heard her sigh from the decks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I'm going to take a good sharp ax
Shining steel tempered in the fire
We'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town


Here comes episode two of Poems From Places, barreling down the tracks like a rickety old mill-town train. In this video, I cover Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" and then hack it down with a good, sharp axe by detailing its complex history and conducting a simple analysis. If you'd like to learn more about "Dirty Old Town," you can find plenty of backstory in the video above!  

We decided to film this video in Huntington Beach down by the steam generated power plants that sit on the coast, and atop a brown hill at the Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park. Ideally, we'd have boarded a flight to Salford, England to discuss this song. But sadly, just like the ambivalent narrator in "Dirty Old Town," we are doomed to stay in our own hometown and make the most of it. 

The Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park was a fantastic place to deconstruct this song. The park itself is surrounded by oil rigs, rusted fencing, broken concrete, and stray mechanics. Yet, despite the human-inflicted industrial ruins, this park is absolutely stunning. The oil rigs reflect stray beams of light as the sun sets over the Pacific ocean, and the rusted fences border little hubs of life where wild bunnies, ground squirrels, and lizards pass the time in solitude. Just like the ambivalent tone heard throughout "Dirty Old Town"--a folk song that describes the dark, gloomy mechanized city in contrast to the bright, natural aspects of everyday life--this park combines grim symbols with hopeful ones. 

Soon after, we jaunted over to the power plants to capture some smog-making in action. Those power plants aren't always running, but, as if it was meant to be, they were blowing steam into the atmosphere all evening. It's surely saddening that so many big industry rigs still pollute our environment, just like they did in Salford in the mid 20th century, but sometimes the best we can do is make art like MacColl did, to charter and remember the ever-changing landscapes of our world. And thankfully, the steam plants we visited are known for being more friendly to the environment than others. 

In this video, I sing the version of this song that was covered by the Mountain Goats. There are a few minor changes in the lyrics, but overall the tone and set-up are entirely the same. I, for one, just genuinely love the Mountain Goats' revision and originally learned to play it with those lyrics, so don't be alarmed if a few lines or phrases are different. After all, it's practically tradition that this song's lyrics are altered by cover artists. Oops! 

Thank you so much for reading and watching, and if you have any input, fun facts, or corrections, feel free to let us know in the comments below!