RALPH, ALBERT & SYDNEY
Recurring Themes in the
Songs of Ralph McTell
An Essay by Paul Jenkins
Paul Jenkins' Interview with Ralph McTell, May 2003
" ....... quite one of the
most perceptive appreciation of my intentions lyrically .... I wonder how he
managed to nail everything (almost everything) so accurately ..... "
Recurring Themes in the Songs of Ralph McTell
One of the best singer-songwriters to emerge in the last thirty years, Ralph McTell is known by too many only as the author of the 1975 hit, "Streets of London." To limit such a prodigious and important artist in this way ignores the fact that he has written dozens of songs that deserve equal recognition. A close examination of his work reveals a number of recurring themes.
Father and Son
Born Ralph May in London on December 3, 1944, McTell faced a difficult childhood. His father walked out on his family when Ralph was only three. Mr. May reappeared periodically, but his last visit came in 1951. On that occasion young Ralph interrupted his parents' row and "burst out with a string of invective that stopped both my parents in their tracks" (Angel Laughter, p. 45). "Why don't you go away and leave us alone?" he recalls shouting at him. In Summer Lightning, the second volume of his autobiography, McTell admits that "most of my songwriting is autobiographical" (p.9). It's only natural, then, that many of McTell's songs should concern fathers and fatherhood.
His earliest song to touch on the topic is "Daddy's Here", from the 1968 Spiral Staircase album. Told in the first person and played in a slow, wistful way, the song expresses well the child's anxiety that accompanies the increasingly rare visits of his father. Touchingly, the child's first thought is for the effect the visit will have on his mother ("and that means she'll be glad"). The child appreciates the effect his father's desertion has had on his mother, the stable, remaining parent, and the source of badly needed security. Such compassion is a McTell trademark. On the other hand, in the third verse the stable mother leaves the boy and his brother alone in order to speak in private with her husband, prompting the boy's agonizing question: "How could we know you'd only took a walk/To a neighbour's for a quiet talk?" McTell's use of atmospheric detail in the song is excellent. Mirroring the boy's anxiety are the dying sunshine he sees "flickering on a grey wall", and the growling dog he hears in the hall. The anxious children are reduced to "playing guessing games", wondering what the latest twist in the plot of their lives will be. Worth noting, too, is the fact that the artist in the boy/McTell is already present. To ease their fears, the boy and his brother tell each other stories. Soon enough, however, order is restored to their lives. The everyday, comforting details of "radio, celery, and Sunday tea" signal a return to normalcy. Life is better without the interloping father, and somehow the boy knows that he will no longer bother them.
Fortunately, a surrogate father appeared in McTell's life. The caring actions of this kind man are described in "Mr. Connaughton", from the 1987 album, Bridge of Sighs. The Irishman who lived above the McTell family for a time helped the boy experience many of the normal father-son activities he would otherwise have missed: building a soapbox cart, and fixing up a motorbike. Even more important, though, was the daily emotional presence of a man who realized how much the boy needed him, a man who helped him smile through days of gapped teeth and lonely anguish. The song's penultimate verse directly expresses the wish that the temporary surrogate were a permanent presence in the boy's life ("I wished she was my sister"). McTell's memories are vague; questions are repeatedly asked of both the departed Mr. Connaughton and McTell's own memory ("Were you from Cork or Tipperary? Was your first name Kevin or Mike?"). The details are secondary, though, the singer knows. No matter his first name, Mr. Connaughton played a role in McTell's life that he will never forget.
"Daddy's Whistling Home", from 1995's Sand in Your Shoes, offers another glimpse into the household of a family in turmoil. Set to a big band tune that is upbeat enough to sound slightly ironic, it portrays the damage an unfaithful husband can cause. The song is more subtle than either of McTell's earlier pieces about fathers. The listener is being shown, not told the results of the father's behavior, an act of infidelity hinted at early in the song, but only confirmed in the third-to-last line. His post-war family is struggling to make ends meet. Typically for McTell, the mother is portrayed as hard working and long-suffering. Instead of wishing on a star, she is looking to the heavens for some sort of answer to the question she is afraid to ask her husband: who is the other woman? The image of the supposedly relaxed, whistling father stands in stark contrast to the anxious, listening mother. She blames their lack of lovemaking on her husband's attempts to improve himself, and thus the lot of his family, by taking evening school classes. She tells herself it will "take a little time till he can say that we are his, and she can say he's mine." The image of the mother looking for the stars through the blackout curtains perfectly illustrates her hopes and fears. The truth is veiled, yet "everybody knows" of his unfaithfulness. She is able to sing in her kitchen, but her ears are more intent on "listening for Daddy whistling home." One is left wondering if a confrontation looms, or whether the mother will continue to explain away and tolerate her husband's actions.
Undoubtedly McTell enjoys portraying his own experiences as a father much more than describing the pains of a fatherless childhood. He has written a number of songs about parenthood, and dedicated specific songs to each of his children. "Zig Zag Line" from the 1974 album Easy, concerns a hill climb McTell took with his son, Sam. Climbing a hill is a wonderfully simple metaphor for the challenges of parenting. In this case, the climb is steep enough that the father and son must traverse the slope slowly, gradually, in zigzag fashion. Yet each seems quite happy to make the effort. The silent language of looks, shared grins, and held hands speaks eloquently of the real bond that is apparent. Deprived of his own father's company, McTell delights in the simple fact that he is together with his son, and that "he knew me and you know I knew him." The lines are repeated to underline the point. Many fathers might take such togetherness for granted, but McTell realizes how lucky he is and isn't ashamed to celebrate the fact in song.
"You Make Me Feel Good", from 1975's Streets album, is similarly simple, but not simplistic. Again, the everyday relationship - this time between McTell and daughter Leah - is celebrated. As background to his description of his down-to-earth daughter, McTell uses a series of opposites, noting his preference for dandelions over gardenias, sparrows to birds of paradise, and things you can rely on opposed to "things you can't control." In a song that runs just over 3 minutes, the chorus used to describe the daughter occurs three times. Paired with her "run-down shoes and shining eyes" is the daughter's freedom. "You can do what you want, and I don't mind." The fact that he can rely on her to be herself is enough to make her father feel good.
Dedicated to sons Tom and Billy, "Love Grows" from the 1979 album, Slide Away the Screen, is more general in nature. The song traces the evolution of love from first kisses to the "arrival of some little stranger" and makes clear that becoming parents increases the bond between partners. Two riddles underline the point: "What is it the more that you divide it/It just comes back multiplied?" and "What is it the more you give away/The more it seems to come your way?" Written in McTell's mid-thirties, this is a song of a mature man and happy parent who seems intent on letting others in on the secret he has discovered.
Some fifteen years later, "An Irish Blessing" (Sand in Your Shoes, 1995) updates the story. Now, as the "young ones start to leave their home" McTell the father realizes that much as he'd like to tread with them "their uncertain road" they must make their own way. He employs a traditional Irish blessing - in the original and English translation - as the song's chorus: "May the road rise with you/And the wind be at your back." Learning to let go is perhaps the final lesson parents must learn, and it can be a difficult one. With this song McTell the parent comes full circle and contrasts the feelings expressed in his earlier songs to those he's now experiencing: "To cherish is the easy part/The hardest task is letting go." Though the song's lyric appeal is universal, the use of Uilleann pipes, fiddle, and whistle lend it an appropriately Irish flavor. (Indeed, due to his famous song "From Clare to Here", many not familiar with McTell have assumed he is Irish.) If he has used a traditional blessing as the song's chorus, the final couplet is a worthy benediction in itself: "May my love be your protector/And walk with you till next we meet."
Before moving on to another theme, a song dedicated to McTell's mother, "Saucers" (from 2000's Red Sky album) bears mention. Oddly enough, McTell uses the nickname given to his mother by his father (inspired by her large blue eyes) as its title. Yet there are precious few hints of forgiveness in the piece. Contrasting with the "steel imbedded in her soul" is the image of her husband as "the blade that missed her heart." Whence she came by the steel to withstand such an assault is a mystery to her admiring son: "And from which well she drew such strength/I can only surmise". Water imagery (always a favorite of McTell's) runs throughout the entire song. His mother's aquamarine eyes are "The color of spring water/Held up to morning skies", and "at the shoreline's edge" they are "of a lighter hue" than the water "hidden in deeper blue." Water, the most common liquid on earth, is also, like mothers, the giver of all life. Some of McTell's most mature poetry lies in the song. The last verse in particular is noteworthy. The image of his mother's "calloused", "chapped" hands "inside a velvet glove" hiding "The scars and grip of love" beautifully restates the cliché that "beauty is skin deep." McTell could pay his mother no more worthy compliment than this touching song.
Like many artists, McTell draws heavily on his childhood experiences. "Barges", from 1972's Not Til Tomorrow album, is one of his most evocative songs. McTell is masterful at setting an atmosphere for his songs with their musical accompaniment. In this case, in addition to McTell's always-sublime fingerpicked guitar, Tony Visconti's recorder completely captures the listener's attention before the first word is sung. The song, both sentimental and wistful, describes an outing (or, more probably, an amalgam of such outings) taken by McTell and his brother while on summer holiday at his Aunt Olive's in Banbury. They are city boys in a country boy's world, shy, happy, but also ever mindful of their mother. Their worries for her are emotional baggage they take with them even on a jaunt like this.
Similarly, the weight of their fatherless childhood is apparent in the second line of the third verse: "Waiting around for smiles from the man." In this case, the man is the bargeman, but one feels he is a sort of surrogate, if but for the briefest moment. We have already seen in "Mr. Connaughton" the joy an act of kindness can bring to a fatherless lad. The song concludes with the syntactically challenging and possibly ambiguous line: "With summers of childhood leaving smiles on the man." In this case, "the man" is most probably the mature McTell looking back fondly on his childhood, but it could also be the bargeman mentioned earlier, happy in his work. The line "open the locks, let the boats sail on" may be McTell's way of stressing the importance of allowing yourself to open your memories, explore them in order to progress and mature in life.
"When I Was a Cowboy", from the same album, is a much more carefree and straightforward song. To continue the theme of fathers, the sheriff from the infectious chorus - who advises young cowboy McTell to "get early to bed and always keep your hat screwed on real tight" - can be seen as another caring paternal figure. The song is light-hearted enough, though, to make such conclusions appear a bit silly. Really it reveals the romantic boy's fascination with the world of the "old West", a feeling shared by many of his English peers. Interestingly, there is music playing in a "southern town" from this imaginary world. McTell's admiration for practitioners of the country blues dominated the curriculum of his musical education. After listing the numerous dangers inherent in a cowboy's life, McTell serves up a punch-line of sorts at the song's conclusion: "Life sure is easier back home in the alley."
More humor is evident in "Big Tree", a song recorded on McTell's first live album, Ralph, Albert & Sydney, released in 1977. McTell recounts his earliest encounter with the opposite sex and playfully compares it to a more famous tryst in the Garden of Eden ("Me and Susie at the top of the road/Used to run in the garden free"). The innocence of "touching tongues" and giggling is short-lived. An adult neighbor discovers the couple and chides them ("she told us both to be ashamed"), putting an end to the fun ("Ain't it a crime, or is it a sin/ We was barred from the garden, and we couldn't get in.")
The Artist's Dilemma
As an artist, McTell has struggled with his popularity. That is, while he has attempted to make his songs part of the popular mainstream, the success he's found has sometimes left him rather uncomfortable. As early as 1969, six years before "Streets of London" raced up the charts, he began to express in song what I will call, for lack of a better term, the artist's dilemma. What is the artist's ultimate goal? Popular acceptance? Self-satisfaction? Riches? Maintaining artistic integrity? Is any one possible without the others? "Clown", from My Side of Your Window, can be read either literally (as a circus performer's lament), or as a metaphor for the singer's lot. Many a performer would understand the clown's realization that much of his own identity is tied to his show business persona ("the people have gone, his identity gone.") Even given this thought, however, the song does end with the clown "laughing at the night." Perhaps it is bitter laughter, but it is laughter nonetheless.
Two years later, on the title track of the 1971 recording You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, the performer's concern has deepened. Addressed to his audience, his management, but, even more importantly, to himself, the song is a lament that begins by asking "where did it go wrong?" and ends with the mollifying lines "I know you well meaning brought me here/And I've done my best." Given the fact that it was written when his career was on a definite upswing, some might view the song as a rather strange sentiment. What success he has achieved (such as appearing in front of 500,000 people at 1970's Isle of Wight Festival) has surprised one who "never meant to come this far", not to mention one who never meant to "lose his way." Somehow he feels alienated, "on the outside." Success has come at a price. Words of the critics hurt him; pressures of the industry appall and intimidate him. The song is an attempt to explain himself to his fans, but more importantly to raise questions "that in the end" he must himself answer. These are the words of an artist full of talent, but also full of self-doubt.
Statements replace questions in "Zimmerman Blues", a track from 1972's Not Till Tomorrow album. Dedicated to, or at least inspired by similar problems facing Bob Dylan (ne Zimmerman), this song reflects a thickening of sorts of the artist's skin. He is speaking not just for himself, but for all artists who "have been used" by the system to create revenue but not necessarily to maintain their integrity or vision. The song is a dialog of sorts between "me", the artist, and you, the non-artist (promoter? consumer?). "Don't give me money", says the artist, "put something else on the bread", something meatier, more important. With success things "get harder for me", but "easier for you." So what do the "Zimmerman Blues" entail? An alienated relationship between the artist and his audience ("I get a little sadness now, just now and then/It comes to remind me, when I called you a friend.") An artist unsure how to proceed except to follow his conscience and his artistic instincts.
"Sylvia", from the same album, recounts his empathy for Sylvia Plath, the American poet who died by her own hand. In "Tulips" ("the one about the tulips"), Plath writes that "Nobody watched me before, now I am watched." Surely this line spoke to McTell, the singer who has been exposed to public scrutiny, even if by those who meant well. In the song, McTell rhetorically asks, "isn't it a shame/You had to go through so much pain/To help someone that you never knew." While expressing a sincere admiration for the dead poet, McTell is also reassuring or reminding himself on one of his own doubting days ("Does it help if I say I've been down too?") that his songs help those thousands in the record-buying public whom he will never know. Listening to the song, we are privy to what must sadly remain a one-sided conversation between two artists who have suffered.
In 1992, McTell created an entire album of songs and monologues about another artist well known for his self-doubt, the famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Indeed, the project ended a fallow period in McTell's career. In this work McTell sets out to explore the two sides of Thomas: the public clown, and the private, doubt-ridden poet. While songs such as "Slip Shod Tap Room Dance" describe the former, the latter is brilliantly depicted in "Conundrum of Time."
A dialogue of sorts between Thomas and his wife, the song begins by describing their marriage as one "soldered by wishes and dreams." That they are bound both by their artistry and their inability to fully realize their talent, is further reinforced by the chorus:
Shouldn't you be dancing?
Shouldn't I make rhymes?
There's music all around us
In this conundrum of time.
But there's so many notes love
Please find a tune
Please find the harmony
Please find it soon.
The despairing tone of the song comes from the fact that neither has a ready answer to the riddle that time has given them. Dylan sits in a pub while "fists full of doubt wrap round bottles of beer", his drunken eloquence lapped up by some, but seen by his soul mate for what it really is ("Well I think that I get lucid, but you say that I get loose"). Realizing the truth of her remark, Dylan retorts with an "oafish dance". The only thing they can agree on is that they're "both prisoners of love in this war that we make." Too much of the energy needed for creative endeavor is being spent quarrelling. McTell expertly compares his own artistic challenges in the second half of the chorus. Thomas' often-difficult search for a harmonious tune is one that McTell understands only too well.
One of McTell's songwriting heroes, Woody Guthrie, once wrote: "I hate songs that make you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you're just born to loose, bound to loose, no good to nobody, no good for nothing." Another theme prevalent in McTell's songs is optimism. As he has aged, McTell has come to appreciate the value of looking for silver linings in dark clouds. In "After Rain" from 1995's Sand in Your Shoes, for example, each stanza includes a concession to the difficulties of life, but closes with the reassurance that "the earth smells sweeter after rain." The song is another example of McTell's preference for water imagery. Besides "rain", McTell includes the words "deluge", "teardrops", and "floods" to portray the destructive and redemptive power of this most common and necessary of liquids.
"Weather the Storm", from 1976's Right Side Up, has a similar theme.
Into every life, a little rain must fall,
And for sure it poured down on you.
An umbrella's no good in a hurricane,
But just like the sun in the end you come shining through.
The chorus restates the challenge of life ("you weather the storm") but stresses its ultimate rewards ("and you come up smiling in the end"). "Throw Out a Line and Dream" from the 1986 album Bridge of Sighs alternates between two different points of view. One party is optimistic, seeing a river, harbor, and road where the other sees only a stream, quay, or track. The idealist pokes fun at himself by admitting that "wise men sleep/It is fools who dream". He points out that he cherishes freedom over possession ("you want 'em locked up/And I want 'em free").
Two songs from the 2000 release Red Sky amplify the theme. "Up" follows McTell's earlier pattern of acknowledging the challenges of life ("When you look to the hill you must climb/And your doubts will not disappear") but then reminding the listener that they can be overcome ("But don't look down, look ahead/Isn't that what they said/It's a long way up from down here"). The freedom/confinement imagery of "Throw Out a Line" is also revisited ("Like a bird set free from the chains of the night/And rise from the valley floor"). In "Icarus Survived the Fall", McTell makes his broadest endorsement of optimism. He turns perhaps the most recognizable representative of human folly into a hero in the song. He gives Icarus his turn to speak, and his advice is considerable. If not leavened by humor, however, his pronouncements, and the entire song, would flop as badly as his original flight. Again, the mature McTell recognizes that an entirely earnest statement of the sort would not succeed.
Time will steal your youth away
And dreams that fire your soul
It was not pride or vanity
That robbed me of my goal
I blame inferior materials
When things grew hot
Instead of saying how I blew it
Look how near I got!
The chorus is similarly witty and to the point.
Is your cup half empty,
Or is your glass half full?
Is that guy a fool to try
Or is he really cool?
Nobody made nothing
Who never made mistakes
I'm grateful for this opportunity
To put things straight.
It's easy to imagine McTell the songwriter taking his own advice, remembering that his creations, while not perfect, can create "something beautiful out of hopelessness. It all depends on attitude."
Were I to choose one adjective to describe Ralph McTell's songs it would be compassionate. It's hard to think of any of his material that doesn't display this admirable quality. The songs I'll discuss in this section are merely some of the most representative.
"Streets of London" is, of course, McTell's most famous composition. It is easy to understand its great popularity over the years, but I believe if asked McTell would not rate it as highly as some others in his canon in terms of quality. The chorus, with its direct and challenging question, is the strongest part of the song and makes it feel personal to every listener. On four separate occasions we are asked:
How can you tell me you're lonely
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand
And lead you through the streets of London.
I'll show you something to make you change your mind.
Self-pity is a vice we all fall prey to. Yet after hearing this song, it is one we never quite experience the same way again. The verses, also phrased as questions, are not quite as powerful, but include wonderful details that bring to life the old street people who are focus of the song. Our mind's eye sinks to the streets as we picture the old man "kicking up the paper with his worn out shoes." He is a discard, still awake while others sleep, as seemingly irrelevant as "yesterday's news." Later the old man ruminates, "looking at the world/Over the rim of his teacup." Wisely McTell does not give us a glimpse into his thoughts. We feel we already know their tenor. The final verse, maybe the saddest of all, yet holds a promise for a better world. As long as such songs are written - and find such a receptive audience - perhaps there is yet hope for "a world that doesn't care."
In "Gypsy", from 1972's Not Til Tomorrow album, McTell portrays another group of men and women who live outside the mainstream of life. Its message is one of both compassion on McTell's part and defiance on the part of his gypsy. We, who run the gypsies out of town, yet covet their daughters, lack their sixth sense for perception of life, and, most importantly, envy their freedom. Despite the fact that the world has become "cut up by fences" both physical and societal, the gypsy still remains, proud to retain his traditions and stick to the path we have helped make the only one he can travel. "Pykey Boy", written ten years later for Water of Dreams, has a similar feel. Again, the Pykey Boy - a traveler one step below a gypsy - acknowledges the challenges of the life he's chosen, (he's tired and "there's Parni [rain]in the sky") but spends far more of the song celebrating its advantages. After all, he's got a job, a good "juk" (dog), his eye on a gal, and once Spring ends "the summer belongs to me." The last verse of "Geordie's on the Road", also on Water of Dreams, could be addressed to any one of these songs' protagonists:
May the road that leads you on,
Like the choice to be alone,
Be direction freely made
And at the right time lead you home.
These songs champion the underdogs in life, and display McTell's sympathy for their lot.
"Stranger to the Season", released as a single in 1983 and later included on Silver Celebration (1992), addresses the unemployed. Gently sung, it is yet a stinging attack against Thatcherism and what it can do to the little man.
When the factories close down, the life bleeds from the town
Some politicians tells us, 'build another home'
But weren't they voted in to lead us?
The song displays the sort of compassion politicians like Thatcher lack. While they might provide "excuses and the carefully worded reasons", their policies serve only to "stir the bitterness that's growing/In the ones who've been betrayed." In the chorus McTell suggests that they have created a situation Nature never intended.
A man without a job
Is a stranger to the season
No music to the cycle of the changes will he hear.
Like a band without a drummer
There's no Winter, Spring, or Summer
There's no rhythm to the passing of the
Months that make the year.
Society at large will be hurt if this unnatural imbalance is not addressed.
Everyone is poorer for the millions
That keep growing
Whose season stays at Autumn
And whose only color's grey.
"Song for Martin" (Water of Dreams, 1982) brings a more personal approach. Written for Martin "Tubs" Soles, an old friend from McTell's days of busking in Paris, it is a stirring emotional appeal to rally round a man in need. (Soles fought a long battle against drug addiction and died in an accidental fire.) Like many in his situation, Martin won't admit he needs a little help from his friends ("Now don't take it hard when he says he doesn't need you/ 'Cos that's when he needs you most"). Simple compassion and fellowship is stressed as McTell begins the song's chorus (and its first two verses) with a direct appeal: "Don't leave Martin alone tonight." In typical McTell fashion the song has an optimistic spin to it, the chorus ending with the hope: "This time I think he's coming through."
In Angel Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, McTell writes at length about the role religion and faith played in his early life. "I needed to believe there was a God," he writes (p.36), "and that he heard my prayers, and I liked praying." On the same page he writes "I convinced myself on more than one occasion that God had spoken to me." Later (p.77) he describes a new stage of his faith. He recalls being in "the grip of an evangelical fever, and all I wanted to do was to get people to the Sunday school, not just because of a heightened religious conviction but because these people were so nice I wanted them to feel better."
"Mrs. Adlam's Angels" (Spiral Staircase, 1969) is a detached but affectionate look back at his old Sunday school teacher. The song is simply descriptive; the adult McTell, no longer a believer, passes no judgment on the old lady. Indeed Sundays at her house are described as a "dream", and McTell makes it clear that her intentions were good: "And Mrs. Adlam said, angels stood round our bed/To keep us safe from dark." The song ends with the adult wondering if such child-like faith is even possible anymore: "On a summer Sunday evening do I dare/To hear Mrs. Adlam's angels in the air?"
Though recorded the same year, "Father Forgive Them" (My Side of Your Window) is completely different in tone. According to Chris Hockenhull, the song was recorded for (but never included in) a film named Staircase that "offered a sympathetic view of homosexuality" (Streets of London, p.53). And although the line "Jesus was a man who kept the company of men" becomes more clear in this context, the song is really general enough to be a condemnation of nearly "Anything that doesn't fall into our scheme or plan." Just as he would later come to the defense of gypsies and pykey boys, the young McTell is asking for more compassion for those considered "outsiders" by the straight population. The last line includes the recognition that all of us, no matter our sexual orientation, must needs ask God for forgiveness.
"Wish I Could Pray", a track originally intended for 1979's Slide Away the Screen but only included on the CD release of the same title in 1994, contrasts McTell's current skepticism ("now I'm a man I think like a man") with his childhood faith recalled earlier in "Mrs. Adlam's Angels" ("When I was a child I thought like a child"). This comparison - which many would consider offensive - makes it clear why it was left off the original release. On the other hand, it's also a comparison many understand and have made themselves. This same group of unbelievers have also no doubt at one time or another similarly wished they could "believe that everything has been planned in advance" by a benevolent God.
By far McTell's most powerful song is this category is "Jesus Wept" (Sand in Your Shoes, 1995). Again, it's clearly a song of a non-believer, a song that echoes questions many skeptics have asked over the years, and one which makes painfully clear how poorly humans have interpreted and acted on Christ's original teachings. McTell's Jesus is a very human figure, demonstrative ("dreams and premonitions made him tired and emotional"), doubtful ("the biggest miracle was that anyone believed it"), fearful ("He wondered would the nails hurt, would he be man enough?"), even capricious ("Though Peter would betray him, he made him the rock on which he would build his church/To sort of keep him in his debt/A man about to die is allowed some satisfaction"). His last thoughts are of his earthly mother and father. Obviously, then, McTell's feelings for the human Christ are deep. The world would be a better, more compassionate place if his message were followed more often by those who celebrate him as the son of God. Jesus wept, and McTell is weeping with him.
Desperately lonely characters populate the world of McTell's songs. Miss Johnson, the central figure in "Chalkdust" (You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, 1971), is a teacher of young girls "who seem to grow so quickly/And prove she's slowly growing old." They are her tormentors, both with the questions they ask in biology class, and the manner in which they slander her, the old maid, via whispering groups on the playground and nasty words written on the chalkboard. Her emotional vacuum and physical yearnings are filled only by chalk dust. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that the chalk dust is derived from her very own creations, the "hard planned lessons of another day." Only the janitor, on his (k?)nightly rounds, has the gallantry or good manners to wish her good night. The entire meaning of the song is a bit uncertain. Perhaps she once had a suitor, whose name hangs "in the hall/On a dusty roll of honour, unread on the wall." Perhaps today it has all become too much and the letters "that she slips beneath the doors" are letters of farewell, announcing her resignation. At any rate, McTell's imagery in the song is brilliant.
Chalk dust settles everywhere,
Dries up her voice, whitens her hair.
Finding, filling every place.
But for punishment the hundred lines upon her face.
As the songs ends "with chalk dust floating in the rays of sunset/Through the windowpane" one feels her elegiac phrase must surely be altered to read "Ashes to ashes, chalk dust to chalk dust."
'Arri, the protagonist in "Tous les Animaux Sont Tristes" (Sand in Your Shoes, 1995) is as different from Miss Johnson as boats are from classrooms, and yet one could argue that he, in his own way, is just as lonely. In Streets of London (p.151), McTell explains that the song is based on the life of Aristotle Onassis. "He got his boat, got more boats, he was still sad, he had his family, but he wasn't happy, because he needed more. Like lots of wealthy men, he believed he could acquire happiness, and almost 'acquired' an artistic talent like Maria Callas because he hadn't anything else to do with his money. I think what happened to poor Callas, 'the small brown bird', was that she relieved the ache and the emptiness in his life, but in the end it wasn't enough, and the 'silver arrow' is a metaphor for money and neglect. He metaphorically killed her, and then his darkness returned, and he was still alone, so basically, as he couldn't get himself enough power, he married the widow of the most powerful man in the world." The title phrase ("all animals are sad after making love"), McTell continues, "comes from a line in a Latin play or poem, my friend Graham Preskett informs me, but I first heard it in French . . . Making love involves a climax and a subsequent anti-climax, which I equate with the young chap who's never satisfied."
"Tequila Sunset" (Right Side Up, 1976) is much more modest in scale, but equally effective. Written during what Hockenhull refers to as McTell's "hit hangover" in California, the song finds a lonely young man in a bar looking for something or someone to "put the life back" in his eye. It's a temporary fix, he knows. He meets a young woman and they agree: "Don't tell me your sad story and I won't tell you mine" Words are not what's needed now ("whatever we say it's just the booze talking"); rather a means to simply get them through the night (to borrow a phrase from John Lennon). Wistful as the song is, the listener somehow knows that unlike Arri, the young man's loneliness is not terminal.
"Holiday Romance" (Bridge of Sighs, 1986) recounts another temporary cure for loneliness, but this time from the female perspective. The woman in the song, wooed and won while on holiday, at first wears no rose-tinted glasses ("And he had such deep brown eyes/A different way of talking to her/She didn't even care if it was lies"). Back home, however, she still yearns for the man, while he has moved on. McTell stresses the universality of the situation ("Anyone can fall for/A holiday romance"), and reinforces the message by cleverly paraphrasing Bob Dylan's famous line ("Ain't it just like a woman?/Ain't it just like a man?").
"I Miss You Most of All" (The Boy With A Note, 1992) is a direct statement of lonely desire. An impression of how the gifted wordsmith Dylan Thomas might have stated his desires to his wife Caitlin, McTell employs the simplest of lines:
And I miss the bus
And I miss the plane
And I miss the boat
And I miss the point
And I miss the reason
And I miss the call
But, darling, I miss you most of all.
"Michael in the Garden" (My Side of Your Window, 1969) is one of McTell's most well-known and best-loved songs. McTell has stated that it's the kind of song one can write only when one is young. He has also written, in his 1972 Songbook, that the "song is not autobiographical, though there have been times when I wished it were." It is a personal song, however, having been inspired by his wife Nanna's brother, Olebjorn. Given McTell's message in this song, I am a little uncomfortable classifying it under the thematic heading of mental illness. To McTell, Michael is not necessarily ill or handicapped; rather, he lives in a different place, "at peace in his world."
The song is quite awkwardly structured and must have been terribly difficult to sing. It's also noteworthy that McTell, the artful finger picker, strums this song. This departure adds to its power immeasurably. In a sense, then, the song reflects the very differentness of Michael's world. Structured more straightforwardly the message of the song, too, may have seemed jejune. After three standard verses with chorus, in which those outside Michael's world are referred to as "they", the song veers off into a first bridge that changes the comparison from Michael/they to Michael/we (Michael, where are we?/We who see that there's something wrong with your mind?"). This is a very clever shift on McTell's part. Whereas the listener has joined with McTell in his/her condemnation of them, now s/he is forced into self-examination. The second, longer bridge heaps line upon line, heightening the tension in Dylanesque fashion until we win release and gain resolution just as Michael does:
That really he's free
And there's nothing to mend
For his wings are not broken.
The fact that McTell places Michael in a garden is also, of course, significant. Michael is the innocent in the garden, "At one with the insects, the flowers, and the trees, and the wind and the birds." By contrast, our experience and wisdom is a spider web that traps both ourselves and Michael, "a butterfly dying." The innocent Michael is able to pardon us, but McTell's attack on conventional wisdom is far less forgiving.
"The Ballad of Dancing Doreen" (You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, 1971) starts modestly enough, describing Doreen and her partner, Brian, as they compete in a ballroom dance. They do their best, eager to impress the judges, but another couple wins the competition. Brian cries, but the effect of the judges' decision is apparently more than Doreen can bear. McTell uses repeated parallel construction to portray Doreen's breakdown:
And Doreen was dancing when they called the management.
Doreen was dancing when he called the doctor.
Doreen was dancing when they called the ambulance.
Doreen was dancing and no one could stop her...
Now lyrical details from early verses we may have ignored bear closer inspection. Has Doreen really spent her evenings sowing two thousand sequins by hand on her gown? Doreen suffers delusions of grandeur, innocent enough at first inspection, but perhaps damning by song's end. She is a queen, and Brian is her king. The tone of the song is not typical McTell. Doreen's inflated sense of self-importance is described almost scornfully. McTell refers to her as "the lady" in the first two verses. Making a postman her king borders on cruelty, at least by McTell's standards, and the description of his "patent leather potent lover shoes" does nothing to deter the notion. We are left feeling very little of the compassion for her that we felt for Michael.
"Care in the Community"(Sand in Your Shoes, 1995) uses irony much more effectively. Just as in "Michael", McTell decries the public's apathy towards and misunderstanding of society's mentally ill. In the song we meet a probable schizophrenic ("There's a man riding the tube train/He's got voices in his head"), a disturbed woman talking endlessly to herself, a young prostitute taking her break, and another person - this time a young man - holding "a one-sided conversation." Before and after being introduced to this cast of societal misfits, we are reminded of how the more fortunate among us address the situation, or, rather, do not address it. The wonderful punning of the expression "take care" used in the chorus clearly signals McTell's intent to use the song as a warning. In an interview he stated: "We as a nation are frightened to say or do anything about it (treating the mentally ill or derelict), or to try and help these people for fear of embarrassment or injury." A society without compassion can quickly become one that is dangerous for all of its citizens.
R. Serge Denisoff (Journal of American Folklore, 1966) sees six possible functions of protest songs (besides entertainment):
1. To solicit outside support and sympathy for a cause
2. To reinforce the values held by those already active in a movement
3. To promote cohesion and high morale within the protest organization
4. To recruit new members for the organization
5. To propose specific actions to solve real or imagined social problems
6. To identify conflict or discontent in a society, usually in emotional terms.
"I've Thought About It" (My Side of Your Window, 1969) is a good example of this last type of song. It is very straightforward and relies heavily on McTell's impassioned singing and playing. There are no gray areas in the song; things are either good or bad. In some ways it is similar to Bob Dylan's early protest song "Masters of War." Both invoke the name of Jesus, for example:
And if Jesus came back
To lead us again
They'd make sure that he met
The very same end.
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.
Both accuse the powers that be of endangering the world for others: ("And it's your life and my life and none of our lives are safe"), and in Dylan's song ("You play with my world/Like it's your little toy"). Both are a bit simplistic but relatively effective nonetheless due to their depth of feeling.
"Blues in More Than 12 Bars" from the same album is more interesting in presentation. Set to a very jaunty tune, it's the story of Billy, a young ne'er do well who eventually rises to power by learning the nature of the game in a corrupt society. After landing in jail a number of times, Billy gets wise.
So when Billy then pulled a job, well he'd up and leave the town
And he robbed around the country till he had enough to settle down
And Billy used his head, took a wife into his bed
And he employed some other guys to do his dirty work instead
And Billy played it cool, and his kids did well at school
And his life of sobriety was respected by society.
So respected, in fact, that he becomes mayor, governor, and finally President of the United States. Setting the song in America lessens its sting for the UK audience and fits well with the playful bluesy nature of the music. It's a song you enjoy rather than endure.
"Pick Up a Gun" (You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, 1971) is a bitter attack against the British Army in particular and armies in general. McTell spent the worst six months of his life in the Queen's Surrey Regiment Junior Leader's Battalion at the age of 15. As he points out in the song, he "was luckier than many for I got released in time." McTell brings more than just personal experience to this number. In some ways, this is his first mature protest song. He indicts a society-wide system that takes young men and fills "their heads full of lies" and puts "fear in their eyes." Who is to blame? The press ("someone wrote the advert in the paper that they read"), the politicians who tell "the people you've got to have an army", the writer "vainly trying/His pen dipped in their blood when he writes that the dead have got the glory" and even the clergy ("Praise The Lord and bless the bomb") who passively add their "Thy will be done" to each soldier's burial. Little wonder, then, that so many young men are seduced into running away from home and into the army. The songs ends powerfully with McTell, the former soldier, stating that "you won't get your hands on my son/You can wait till Kingdom come."
Water of Dreams (1982) includes two of McTell's best protest songs. The title track reminds one of the classic "Joe Hill" with its use of a narrator who meets the spirits of three martyrs ("I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you or me"). Blair Peach is the major figure in the song. To most contemporary listeners the name means nothing. Peach was a 33 year-old white teacher (born in New Zealand) who was killed while taking part in an anti-racism demonstration in London in April, 1979. His death was a cause celebre for a brief time; McTell's song was written to preserve his memory. Two figures who accompany him in the dream are Jimmy Kelly (who died shortly after being beaten by Liverpool police in 1979) and Liddle Towers (another victim of a police attack). This background is necessary to understand the first two verses of the song. The real message of the song, though, comes in its chorus:
If you can learn to live with your doubts
You will soon learn to live with the lie.
But the questions will rise on the water of dreams
And be washed to the shore to be seen.
By your sleeping eye.
This is McTell's direct appeal to the conscience of an apathetic public. McTell apparently includes himself in this group, for in the last verse the three martyrs signify that it is precisely because he "never did anything" that they are visiting him. By including himself among the guilty, McTell frees himself from the kind of self-righteousness that blurs the focus of many protest songs. With luck the song reached enough contemporary listeners to stir them into action, thus fulfilling one of Denisoff's roles "to solicit outside support and sympathy for a cause."
"Bentley and Craig" tells the story of Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley, two young men from McTell's native London suburb of Croydon who, in November, 1952, committed a robbery. A police officer was killed during the attempted arrest. "We all knew that Christopher Craig had shot the policeman," McTell recounts in Angel Laughter (p.133), "and some knew that Derek Bentley was epileptic and mentally about eight years old." Just sixteen, Craig was too young to be sentenced to death. Bentley, however, was hanged only a few months after the incident. McTell recounts his feelings at the time. "Now the paper told me that Bentley was dead. In response to all my bewilderment and the awful silence that followed the news, all my voices were murmuring at the same time, and I begged for an answer with every look that I could give my family and the few grown-ups that we came into contact with."
This song is typical of the 5th type outlined by Denisoff ("to propose specific actions to solve real or imagined social problems"). In this case the action proposed by McTell lies in the song's final lines:
Oh you men on our behalf who sanctioned that boy's death
There's still one thing left to do
You can pardon Derek Bentley who never took a life
For Derek Bentley cannot pardon you.
In 1998 Derek Bentley was granted a full pardon, thus refuting the line in "I've Thought About It" that claims "songs never change things."
Sand in Your Shoes (1995) is one of McTell's most fully realized albums and includes a number of excellent protest songs. His disdain for the policies of Margaret Thatcher have already been noted. "The Enemy Within" (Sand in Your Shoes, 1995) takes his title from Thatcher's characterization of striking miners in 1984 ("There was a time when the strike was on/I thought that we might win/Even after we'd been called/The enemy within"). McTell cleverly chooses a member of the colliery band as the song's narrator. Numerous books have been written on the place of music in labor movements. The famous Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill once wrote: "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over." Just as important as a song's message can be the effect it has on workers' morale.
There was a moment as we marched back
With the colliery band in front
Some said we'd been defeated
But it felt as if we'd won
All on account of the cheering
The music and the crowd.
Gradually, however, the striking band member comes to realize the cause is lost. Friends are seen in grocery stores "Loading the shopping trolley/Instead of trucks with coal"; fewer and fewer members gather to play. Finally, the band room becomes "just a shell that keeps/An echo of our soul." In an interview with John Tobler, McTell states "my intention within the song, although I never like to be too confrontational, was to lead people in the South to consider what on earth this must mean to a community." The story is set to a wonderfully plaintive melody (based on an old Baptist hymn), complete with appropriate accompaniment of brass instruments. McTell's maturation as an artist is on full display in this wonderful piece.
"The Islands" has a gentler feel, but is also quite effective in its way. The song is a nicely balanced description of the battle waged between Nature and Man after the 1993 oil spill in the Shetland Islands. The first half of the song describes the natural order of animal and human life in the Shetland islands that will be assaulted by the oil spilling out of the wrecked ship Braer in the second. The natural colors Spring paints in the second verse are blackened by oil in the fourth. Chris Leslie's beautiful violin playing accents the gentle warning McTell sounds in the song. Nature controlled the damage this time around but will we be so lucky the next time the greed of oil companies tempts them to "sail close to the shoreline/To save both fuel and speed"?
"The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf" is based on a poem by Shmuel Huppert, an Israeli scholar who was imprisoned in Belsen during the war. As the song that follows "Peppers and Tomatoes" on the album it is an eerie reminder of the extent to which racial cleansing can be taken ("Pray humanity can hear/What it cannot see through tears/The cry of yesterday before tomorrow"). While we have Huppert to thank for the ingenious device of centering the piece around an inanimate suitcase (long on exhibit in a museum) we can applaud McTell's arrangement, his taste in bringing it to a new audience and salute his producer, Martin Allcock, for his appropriately haunting piano accompaniment.
"Peppers and Tomatoes" is another powerful song of protest. Though general enough to be applicable (sadly) to many civil wars, it was inspired by the unrest in Yugoslavia. "I was thinking of rural Yugoslavia," McTell says in the Tobler interview cited above, "where perhaps two Christian communities were living. I'm not talking about Christians killing Moslems (or vice versa) but Christians killing Christians." The story is told by a figure in the neighborhood minority who is growing more and more wary of contemporary events. The song is constructed perfectly. As the man's worries build, verse by verse, the chorus, demonstrating the faith he's placed in his roots, seems of ever-diminishing consolation.
Oh this little patch of dirt, oh this little pile of stones
I can wash the dust from my arm, my face, my skin
But this earth is in my bones.
Whereas in the first verse he contrasts himself with his neighbors ("I grow peppers and tomatoes . . . they grow beans and potatoes"), in the second he uses the pronoun "we" and stresses their similarities ("And later in the year we will bring wine to the table/Bring wine to the table, we will share what we have grown"). A feeling of "love thy neighbor" prevails for a short time. Soldiers enter the song in the third verse, and in the fourth the narrator's choice of wine is contrasted by the others' choice of beer. The fifth verse is pivotal. At its conclusion "some old men and young soldiers/Were humming tunes and singing words to songs that I didn't know." In the sixth verse we learn the source of the tension: religious differences between the two groups. By the seventh verse the man is preparing to flee, and in the eighth he states his resolve ("if someone tries to stop me/Anyone tries to stop me, I am ready now to kill"). In the final verse we learn he's left it too late. In present tense he describes how he hears the faceless soldiers utter the phrase that has become a terrifying euphemism: "You must come with us." The song jerks to a halt powerfully.
Paul O Jenkins, 2003
Paul is Director of Library Services at College of Mount St Joseph, Cincinnati
back to the top