Dirty Old Town is arguably the most popular song written by Ewan MacColl.
One of its most startling features when it first appeared was the way it set a love story against a stark urban landscape. Most folk songs featured young lovers in an attractive countryside setting; and most popular music tended to present a romanticised view of young love.
Dirty Old Town ignores all that and instead presents us with a grimy, industrial setting.
The young man meets his girl by the gasworks croft, he kisses her by the factory wall and he dreams his dreams by the old canal. A croft is a piece of waste ground, often used as a dumping area for such things as old car tyres and bed frames.
The soundtrack to the love affair isn’t birdsong or beautiful music; it’s the call of a siren from the docks. Nor is there a glorious sunset to create the loving mood, only a passing steam train to “set the night on fire”.
The song’s refrain then drives home the message that this is a “dirty old town”. The song ends with the singer talking about taking an axe and chopping it down.
Dirty Old Town was written specifically about Salford in the north-west of England and references real places like the gasworks croft and the canal. In spite of this, it has a universal appeal. People from all over the world relate to it; so much so that many believe it was written about their home town.
One factor in the song’s popularity is that most people are brought up in towns and cities. They find that the places described in Dirty Old Town reflect their experiences more accurately than the idyllic countryside and romantic views of more conventional songs.
Many people even experience a feeling of nostalgia when they hear the references to the industrial landscape because they are reminded of their home town and their youth.
Dirty Old Town seems real and refreshingly honest. In the way that Fairytale of New York presents a gritty alternative to traditional Christmas songs, Dirty Old Town presents true version of most people’s upbringing in urban settings.