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Salford, Greater Manchester, England

Dirty Old Town by Ewan MacColl

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Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall Read full Lyrics
Ordsall Hall, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Greater Manchester
"Dirty Old Town" is the iconic anthem of industrialized northern European discontent. The song, originally composed by the British folk singer and social activist Ewan MacColl, was later made popular by Irish bands such as The Pogues and The Dubliners, giving rise to a common misconception that the song was written about Dublin. "Dirty Old Town," however, was written about MacColl's hometown of Salford, then a part of Lancashire (now part of Greater Manchester), in Great Britain. Salford is and was an industrial center for the United Kingdom, with a thriving textile industry pre-dating even the Industrial Revolution, and a busy port that served as a trade hub for Western Europe. Canal building and the epoch of the steam engine furthered the city's industrial progression and factories great and small popped up along the River Irwell. The song is about growing up amid the brick and smoke of Salford.
Earliest known photograph of Salford
The song is, in essence, a psychological tour of a superficially productive world, deadened by industry, but colored with lines unabashedly hopeful. The narrator haunts factories and canals, watching trains move across horizons darkened by a cloudy sky while cats and sirens wail. Despite the gloom penetrating everything the narrator sees and hears - from misty beaches to women walking the street - there is redemption in this song. The singer "smell[s] a spring on Salford wind" and anticipates the movement of the dreary factory town to brighter months. This line has proven to be the most controversial element of the song, with local Salford government petitioning for the line to be changed to "smelled a spring on the smoky wind." The revision is now the most commonly sung version of the song. With the scent of spring on the shifting winds, the narrator finds his love, despite all his revulsion for the grime of Salford, there among it all, by a gas works croft.

This song is covered widely and resonates with listeners who can appreciate real work and the hardships that come with it – the kind of work done with "a good, sharp ax... tempered in the fire." In an era where the billionaires never get their hands dirty and rarely produce anything of value, this might be just what we need – a reminder that there's only so much a working man can take before he uses his tools for rebellion.
~ Maggie Grimason Dirty Old Town Songfacts
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Comments: 17

  • Richard Williams from Toronto CanadaI was born in Melbourne street Ordsall, Salford 5 1949. great people lots of friends great place to grow up. Who would have thought Lowry Salford a tourist attraction.
  • Ray Cookson from StretfordI have always loved this song. Working in Trafford Park from 1961 the bus went over the Irwell Bridge and passed the Proctor and Gamble soap factory. I always understood the spring on the Salford wind was the smell from the factory. Such a distinctive experience telling you that you were in Salford.
  • G from WakefieldEwan was sold the song for £50 by a man in Huddersfield and took claim to it , The guy who wrote it is still alive .
  • Ken BarnesLived on liverpool st opp the red wreck 1963/66 salford is the best city in the world great memories and people k
  • Gary Armstrong from ManchesterThis song was played and sang by Manchester United supporters.After winning the F.A. cup. For the twelfth time on 21-5-2016.An experience which I will treasure.
  • Jean & Henry Connor from South Australia.We were born in Salford in the 1930s. Love the Song. We are members of a ukulele group, some of our friends have harmonicas & play Dirty Old Town on their harmonicas sounds great. Brings back a lot of memories for both of us.
  • Dave Hughes from Salford 7 ( Cardiff Street)Great memories of Salford. I too was born in 1947, and went to St James primary and then North Salford Secondary Boys. Would like ve to hear from anyone who I may know.
  • Alistair Clark from ManchesterI used to be lead singer in a folk band and, after singing this on a pub ha had a real row with an Irishman who insisted it's an Irish song. He took a lot of convincing that it was written about Salford by a man from Salford, and is therefore about as Irish as Coddington's Bitter.
  • David Hoult from Salford/I to was born in salford 1947. went to regent road then ordsall secondary modern. lived next to gas works and railway. great memories dirty yes. but loved it. still think of it fondly.In fact trying to build a model of area. all music was great in salford pubs in 60,s. can go on forever
  • Paul from BlackpoolGreat to here your comments lads, If anyone is interested I went Ordsall Secondary Modern and I was born in 1947 sept30th
  • Paul from Blackpool, Lancashire, UkI was born In Rock Street, Ordsall, Salford 5,in 1947.Its great to hear this song it takes me back in time.I can relate to every lyric, memories eh'
  • Brian From Salford from SalfordIf youre a salfordian you will know where the gas works wall is, as its still there, the canal is now cleaned up and is a now a popular tourist attraction, to include midia city has been developed. proud to be a salfordian
  • Bob Marr from Melbourne AustraliaMy friends & me go to Pattaya Thailand a couple of times a year & we drink at a bar called Murphys Law.
    Eary hours of the morning this song can be heard everywhere. It really stirs the place up. We love it!!!
  • Robyn from InWhat a lovely song. But Man, I'm just waiting to find me some lovin by the old gas works croft. I'd like to warn people that certain choice pickin's linger round the Dirty Old Canal... Let's get this rebellion started!
  • Lila from Lawrence, KsI love the contrast in the song between the industrialized reality of many cities and the presence of the natural world, even among all of that.
  • Bonnie Strycker from South Bend, IndianaThis song is one of my all time favorites! I really enjoyed learning the history and meaning beyond my listening.
  • Maureen from IndianaI love that song! So cool to know where it is about. Awesome article! Thanks Songplace!!!
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