In this article Owen Holland examines Ewan MacColl's early work in agit-prop theatre and his later activity as a songwriter, performer, and collector in the second British folk revival. He argues that his experience in the theatre provides a necessary route into understanding the problems of his later work – and what unites the ‘two halves’ is MacColl's consistent sense of the function of art (specifically his preferred media of drama and song) within a wider politico-cultural praxis. There is a contradiction in MacColl's praxis, however, in that while he wanted to create a popular culture of participation, his dogmatic textual strategies and exclusivist tendencies often became coercive enough to undermine his intentions. The discussion of MacColl's writing is situated within a critique of the problems that appear in his wider praxis, and Holland concludes by asserting that MacColl's agency as a writer was achieved through the development of a performance-oriented aesthetic. Owen Holland is a PhD candidate in the English Faculty at the University of Cambridge, affiliated to St Catharine's College. His research focuses on utopian fiction in the late nineteenth century, with a particular interest in William Morris.