Born Jimmy Miller, either in Auchterarder, Scotland[?] or in Salford where he was brought up, MacColl changed his name to that of a Scottish poet whom he admired. He took a prominent role in the working-class movements of the 1930s, and, with Joan Littlewood whom he married, co-founded the Theatre Workshop and moved to London, where he embarked on a successful career as an actor and dramatist. George Bernard Shaw called him a genius.
MacColl's abiding interest was in folk music, and he collected traditional ballads. His daughter from his second marriage, Kirsty MacColl, followed him into a musical career. However, in 1956, MacColl caused a scandal by leaving his then second wife Jean Newlove for Peggy Seeger[?], who was many years his junior. It was for her that he wrote the classic, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. His other best-known song is Dirty Old Town, written about his home town of Salford in Lancashire.
Seeger and MacColl recorded several albums of searing political commentary songs.
There is a plaque dedicated to MacColl in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. It was "Presented by his communist friends 25.1.1990" and calls him " Folk Laureate Singer Dramatist Marxist " and says " in recognition of strength and singleness of purpose of this fighter for Peace and Socialism".