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The singing talents of his parents enabled MacColl (born James Miller) to learn many of their songs while he was still young. He subsequently wrote many classic and regularly covered songs of his own, including 'Dirty Old Town', which was inspired by his home town of Salford. The song was later made popular by The Pogues and The Dubliners, among others. Having left school at the age of 14, MacColl joined the Salford Clarion Players, and by the age of 16 he was already actively involved in street theatre. His lifelong allegiance to the Communist Party was influenced by his first-hand experiences during the Depression years, and by seeing the effects of the era on his own father and others around him. As a result of his early involvement in political theatre, MacColl, as playwright, actor, director and singer, co-founded the Theatre Workshop at Stratford, London, with Joan Littlewood, who became his first wife. A meeting with folklorist and collector Alan Lomax in the 50s persuaded MacColl to become involved in the revival of British folk songs, which at the time took a back seat to the wealth of American folk material that had arrived via the skiffle boom.

The Critics Group was formed by MacColl in 1964, in an effort to analyze folk song and folk-singing technique. This had its critics, who felt that MacColl and the group were setting themselves up as an elitist authority on folk music. It was in the Critics Group that he met Jean Newlove, who became his second wife. They had two children, Hamish and Kirsty MacColl. In 1965, a series of programmes called The Song Carriers was broadcast on Midlands Radio. Later, the innovative Radio Ballads was formulated, combining the voice of the ordinary working man with songs and music relevant to their work. The first series, The Ballad Of John Axon, was broadcast in 1958. This brought together Peggy Seeger and radio producer Charles Parker. Despite the success of these programmes, no more were commissioned by the BBC on the grounds of expense. It is more likely, however, that the views and opinions expressed in the series did not conform to prevailing ideas on what was suitable for broadcast. Unlike many, MacColl believed that it was not sufficient to perform only old songs, but that new material should be aired, and 'The Travelling People' emerged from these ideas. Both Seeger and MacColl continued to perform professionally throughout the 70s and 80s, having married following the break-up of MacColl's second marriage. Together they set up Blackthorne Records. They were particularly noticeable during the UK miners' strike of 1984, recording and appearing at benefits.

Outside folk music circles, MacColl is probably best remembered for the beautiful 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', which he wrote in 1957 for Seeger. Roberta Flack reached the top of the US charts with the song in 1972, as well as the UK Top 20. MacColl received an Ivor Novello Award for the song in 1973. He died in October 1989, having only recently completed an autobiography. In addition to the three children born to him and Seeger, songs such as 'My Old Man' and 'The Joy Of Living', and a pride in British traditional song, are just part of the considerable legacy he left behind.

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