This song was written about Salford, an industrial center in the heart of Lancashire, England that predates the Industrial Revolution. Today it is a metropolitan borough within Greater Manchester.
Songwriter Ewan MacColl was born in Salford and wrote this song about his impressions of the city while growing up. Industrial cities are by and large very dirty places, with factories spewing smoke into the skies and production waste into the rivers. They also invite trains and other modes of transportation to ship goods around the world, each bringing its own brands of pollution into an already choking place.
Writer of countless songs recorded by multitudes of artists, Ewan MacColl's talents were rewarded with only one Top 10 hit, "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack, which reached #5 in 1972.
Some MacColl trivia: he founded England's first folk club, The Ballads and Blues Club.
More trivia: Peggy Seeger, half-sister to celebrated folk artist Pete Seeger, was MacColl's wife and singing/songwriting partner.
This song has been covered so many times it's practically been smothered. Originally released on an Alan Lomax and the Ramblers album in 1956, it has since been on albums by the Dubliners, Rod Stewart, Roger Whittaker, and the Pogues, to name just a few.
The Pogues version was released as the third single from their Rum Sodomy & the Lash album, peaking at #62 on the UK singles chart. Ewan MacColl's late daughter Kirsty would later swap insults with Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan on their Christmas anthem "Fairytale Of New York."
The original lyric written by MacColl contained the line, "smelled the smoke on the Salford Wind." This displeased the Salford council to the point where they pressured MacColl to change it to "smelled the spring on the smoky wind." In subsequent recordings of the song, however, artists chose to remain faithful to the original words, in part because many of them were familiar with Salford and knew the song to be a realistic portrait of the town.
Simple Minds released a live version recorded at their show in Manchester, England on May 23, 2017, the day after the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in the city. "The concert was allowed to go on and we wanted to play because that's our response to everything," lead singer Jim Kerr told Songfacts. "'Dirty Old Town' was written by Ewan MacColl back in the 1950s about Manchester. But even within that, he's loving the city. He's loving the town, despite the grime, the dirt and the industrial landscape. We did it and we recorded it at the soundcheck. Played it at the gig and caught the moment. We just felt it would be good to let the world hear it, especially with the vocal Sarah Brown did on the track."