Folk News, August 1977
Ralph, Albert & Sydney

Folk Roots, May 1988

Folk Roots, March 1992
The Silver Boy

Folk Roots, Jan/Feb 2001

Folk Roots, Aug/Sep 2002
National Treasure

Folk Roots, Oct 2002




Ralph, Albert & Sydney

(Warner Reprise K56399).

Recorded at Royal Albert Hall, London, May 1976 and Sydney Opera House, Australia, August 1976.

Produced by Bruce May and Peter Swettenham.

Folk News

August 1977

Karl Dallas

The Live "in concert" album is one of the oldest clichés on the folk scene - indeed, there was a time in the early, populist, singalong days, when it was held to be the only viable form of folk recording. So we had a plethora of hootenannies and singaround albums, all of which actually failed to capture the elusive character of the music they were supposedly designed to trap on vinyl.
It is to Ralph McTell's credit that, with the eight albums under his belt, he has waited until now to do his live album. It's been worth waiting for.

The thing that makes most live albums such a bust is that the very nature of the medium makes for sloppy musicianship and a reliance upon phoney audience rapport to convey a sort of
instant appeal. It takes a consummate artist like McTell to show how there are, indeed, things you can do with a live album that are impossible in the studio, how alternative readings of well-known lyrics can throw them into a new dimension.
The other thing that usually happens with a live album, especially when it comes this late in an artist's career, is that it becomes something of a "greatest hits" collection. This is, perhaps, inevitable, for a live performance by McTell that didn't include "Streets of London" would be somehow unbalanced - though he did, as a matter of fact, go off the song for a while. And though I haven't heard him do "Michael" in concert for quite a while, it is good to have it here again, with the added maturity that years have given this reminiscence of a disturbed childhood.

But Ralph has resisted the temptation to lean too heavily on the past, apart from the inclusion of some of the Blind Blake songs, which Ralph does so well, but which he has never committed to record before.

With the exception of "You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here" Ralph's albums have rarely been heavily produced. It's the sheer economy of his warm, light-toned voice and simple but clean guitar that is the thing that distinguishes this solo work, and makes one question the occasional flirtations with band accompaniments, which have given his live career such
unpredictable ups and downs.
Among the new songs on the album are two apparent trifles, which repay more careful listening. "Big Tree" on side one is, at one level, another childhood reminiscence, a story of forbidden games between a boy and girl of kindergarten age, and of the loss of innocence resulting from an adult's prurient observation of them. But beneath the charm is an almost Biblical allegory.

"Winnie's Rag" is a gentle story of abandoned love among the Cockneys, for which Ralph makes quite an unnecessary apology in his introduction. Quite apart from its intrinsic charm, one thing this song underlines is the way ragtime struck deep into urban popular culture in this country, which throws Ralph's re-creations of traditional rags into a completely different light.

What this album really does, however, is to define the importance of McTell's talent. The undiscriminating may be tempted to write him off with the rest of the singer-songwriter breed, unconnected with any real meaning of the word folk. That may be true with the majority of such writers, few of whom are able to trace any legitimate ancestry back through the folk bards like Guthrie, Tommy Armstrong and Leadbelly, but in Ralph's case such a write-off does both him and the listener scant justice.

If the folk tradition is more than mere archaism, something in which bricks and mortar are as important to the landscape as cocks of hay. then a singer like McTell, who mirrors in almost
every line what it has been like to be a working class kid in the post-war years, may consider himself to be its offspring, with no apologies at all.
One cannot always identify with his feelings: for instance, my reaction to the strangled poetry of Sylvia Plath may not be his, which seems to me rather soggy, but what touches about this song, "Sylvia," is not that it gives any particular insight into her tortured soul, but the use that Ralph himself has made of reading her work to explore his own psyche. Another song, not included here, the moving "Ferryman," gives a similarly distorted view of the work of Herman Hesse, which is none the less valid because of its very sincerity.

Often that word, sincerity, is a misnomer for sentimentality and megalomania, characteristics which distinguish most dictators and superstars. Despite his high status in the crossover world of pop folk. McTell is no superstar, thank God. His lyrics speak directly and unaffectedly for the ordinary guy, much more unpretentiously than any Emerson, Lake and Palmer reworking of Aaron Copland, playing a gentle fanfare for the common man.
Back to Folk Roots Index


Folk Roots Magazine
May 1988
A British Songwriter
Ralph McTell opens up to Ian Anderson

The name Ralph McTell will probably conjure up quite different images to the various sections of our readership.  Older folkies will remember him as a remarkably down to earth chap who used to charm audiences in the folk clubs of the late 1960s with catchy, understated songs and some snazzy ragtime guitar, but has long since been missing from that world.  Newer roots persons may have got the idea that he is a cosy family entertainer who does kids’ shows on the telly and once had a hit record with Streets of London.

The latter, in particular, should read on.  For all the stylistic differences, McTell has far more in common with the likes of Billy Bragg than they could ever imagine, and he’s just made a solo album of country blues songs.  We’ve been trying to pin him down for an interview ever since his excellent Water of Dreams album came out in 1982, believe it or not.  I finally trussed him to an armchair this February and set out on a rapidly-failed attempt to do the Ralph McTell Interview That Never Once Mentioned Streets of London.  But the subject soon came up.   Using my best TV news interviewer’s phrase book, I asked him how he felt about that song in 1988.

The current philosophy is: I’m ever so glad that it was me who wrote it.  I think that the song would have been written by somebody at some point.  I just think it was such an obvious subject to write about, it was there to be written about.  When you’re a youngster, though, and that’s the second or third song and you realise the effect that the song has and that people want to hear that one, you feel that you’re never getting any of your other stuff forward.  It did feel like an albatross at times.  In fact, when it was a hit, I refused to sing it.  I think I did a whole tour without doing it, which left a lot of disillusioned punters.  Then I thought “This is really dumb”.  Tom Paxton sings Last Thing On My Mind.  Everybody has to sing their hit.

Thank God it’s a sentiment that you can really get back into if you think about what you’re singing.  You don’t have to falsely emote it.  Sadly today the tragedy of homelessness in London is, if anything, worse because there’s more cynicism about it than there was at the time I wrote it.  I can get into it, and, if that’s all they’ve come for, well, I make them wait right to the end.

How likely are you to write songs with a social content these days?  It surfaced to some extent on Water of Dreams.  I think some people were surprised to find that you still did it.

They shouldn’t be surprised.  My politics haven’t changed since I was a kid and every now and then something is so glaringly wrong it needs to be sung about.

I was shocked rigid by the reaction to Water of Dreams.  It seemed to me that people were saying “Jimmy Kelly was a drunk, Liddell Towers was throwing punches at policemen and Blair Peach was a ‘leftie’; somehow they deserved it.”  It was unlawful killing of these people and there was no outcry.  I suppose, harking back to Germany when things were shifting radically to the right and people were saying they didn’t know what was going on, I saw all these things as symptoms of what is going on here.  If you could put it so that it would be a song about the people’s individual conscience – the word ‘police’ isn’t mentioned anywhere in the song – that if things worry you and you put them to one side they will come back to you in dreams, they will not be ignored.

I know that many people in my audience were shocked about my taking a political stand.  Bruce (Bruce May, his brother and manager) said to me once, with the best advice in the world, “Don’t sing that and Bentley and Craig in the same set.”  I thought long and hard about it, and I thought, “No, I have to do it.”  If I lost a few people, fine; but I may have gained a few.

I would have thought you would gain. I know a lot of people who’ve been apolitical who’ve become politicised by what has been going on in the last 8 years.  Things have become so glaringly obvious to them that they can’t ignore them any more.  If you can take an audience that’s come along for a night’s entertainment and make them think a little…

I try to do that with all my songs, different aspects of love, things like that.  Different routes to touch people.  To talk about Bentley and Craig for a minute; I’d been writing that song since I was 4 years old, when the actual hanging took place.  I remember it because I was raised in Croydon, a stone’s throw from where this incident happened.  I know that under law there is no way that Bentley could have been otherwise dealt with; Ludovic Kennedy, a great humanist, has made the point.  What I’m saying is that you can’t bring back the dead, but surely after this number of years, some sort of acknowledgement that it was a wrong thing to have done, in the form of a pardon of some sort, would be in order.  The boy that actually committed the crime is alive and walking the streets now.

I also felt that the judicial system was more and more not giving people the benefit of the doubt, as we’ve seen recently with the Irish cases.  I was just warning, saying, “Watch out! It’s getting worse.”  When I do this song abroad people come up to me and say “Look I think I misunderstood, they actually hung the boy that didn’t do it?”  It’s a song that when I do it I get the maximum impact; I move to another position.  I light it differently; I’ll go on singing that song for ever.

I’ve read things where people clearly have got the wrong end of the stick.  They have their fixed image of different people, and they’ve taken you and Billy Bragg as being completely opposite; you’re the cosy family entertainer and Billy is the young, brash reformer.  I see both of you as coming from almost exactly the same place.

That’s right, but Billy would probably admit that he does things in that forceful style because that’s the way he plays the guitar.  My style of playing is much more, I hope, seductive in a way.  You can play something gentle – like Water of Dreams – and put down something quite hard and strong.  I’m very thankful to have met Billy and he paid me the most wonderful compliment about songs of mine that he knew.  Songs that surprised me, like First And Last Man.  He clearly recognised me as a kindred spirit and I’m delighted by that.  I prefer to do things in a gentler way; also, physically, my voice doesn’t have the same power when I sing loud as when I sing quietly.  I don’t whisper, but I’m not so much a folk singer as a crooner, if you like.  I try to use the voice I speak in to sing with, rather than shout.

On the guitar side of things, are you as much of a guitar freak as you were.  I remember back in the 1960s everybody was seriously into the guitar.  You sometimes got the impression that the song was a subsidiary thing to what they could do with a guitar.

I’m still a guitar freak.  I can still remember the effect that hearing a Gibson guitar for the first time had on me.  It was as much about me taking up guitar as the song which was being sung – it was probably Jack Elliott singing San Francisco Bay Blues.  I’d never heard a guitar sound like that.  It thrilled me.  Trying to find a guitar that sounded like that one.

Here we are back at the beginning.  Who were the first people you saw live and how did you get to see them?

I was 16. I was just out of the army and back at school again.  I joined at 15 – I was a boy soldier.  I came out in 1959 and I was back at a Technical College where there was a jazz society.  I love jazz, more now than ever, I think.  At the end of the session someone put on an EP with a picture of a train on the front and this guy doing a spoken introduction: “Oakland is just across the bay from San Francisco…That’s where Jesse Fuller lives”.  I persuaded this guy to let me borrow it.  I took it home and played the arse off it.

I had an old guitar, an Egmond.  Plywood job.  I didn’t even know what a C chord was, I knew A and D I think, but I worked out the positions by listening to it.  I clearly had to get another guitar and I got one which had more or this twang that I was after.  I learnt to play that and somebody heard me play and said “I know a geezer who plays that stuff”.  His name was Max Faulkner.  He was playing Carter Family, Lester Flatt stuff and he’d never been able to work out this A7 chord in San Francisco Bay Blues, so I traded him an A7 for an E minor.  He taught me Willowy Garden and I taught him San Francisco Bay Blues.  Then I heard about Wizz Jones.  He’d been collecting blues and stuff, I suppose, via the Third Programme and people he knew that had brought records over from the States.

I first saw Wizz on Brighton beach in 1960.   It was part of the ‘Brighton Raves’.  Everyone would turn out of Ken Colyer’s club, jump on the milk train and go down to Brighton.  I used to live near the Purley Way, Croydon, so I used to hitch-hike down.  I remember seeing this bloke with extraordinary long hair playing this cobbled together box.  I could hear this music and someone said “This bloke’s called Wizz Jones” in reverential terms.

And then I think Henry, the jug player, was a huge influence on me because he somehow found all these kindred spirits, and within two years all this music was flying around.  I moved down to Poole in Dorset, at one time with Henry.  We rented a house down there, and around Bournemouth Art College were these other guys who’d discovered this music.  They were playing things like Leadbelly.  There was so much music, a great wealth of music everywhere and everyone was learning from everybody else, because the records simply weren’t available.  They started to become available round about ‘62.

Then all these little clubs started to spring up.  Henry organised a club in Croydon called Under The Olive Tree.  It was a coffee bar, and I suppose that’s where I first heard people like Wizz, Davy Graham and Long John Baldry.  These were the elder statesmen, as it were.  My brother recalls that I was never seen without a guitar in my hand.  I was always learning – at my own speed, because I was bone idle – but gradually my fingerstyle technique developed and I learnt to play Anji very quickly – I think I got three folk club bookings on the strength of being able to play Anji with a double beat on the bass string.

Clawhammer and then rags and things started to come, and then the next major influence on me without any doubt at all was a guitar player called Gary Peterson, who was, and is, the most phenomenal guitar player.  He had the benefit of studying guitar with Reverend Davis, and also he was Californian, and there were a lot of really good ragtime players in California.  I listened to Gary; I didn’t consciously steal from him, but we became very close friends in Paris around ’64, and I came home with my head in a completely different place as far as the guitar was concerned.  I’d started to listen to it in a different way.  And it was then that I started writing.

How much was the song constructed around what you wanted to do on the guitar?

I think, in all honesty, that’s how it happened.  I had little tunes going, mostly in D – and they still are, mostly, with the bass string turned down – and people would say, “Yes, it’s very nice, but why don’t you write some words to it?”  I’ve always had what I think are high standards about what lyrics should be about – that they should say something as well as just accompanying the song.  So although the song would definitely be born out of the tune, it still had to say something to me or it wouldn’t get written.

When you started getting out into folk clubs, you’d obviously been almost entirely influenced by American style playing.  Did coming into contact with people who were playing British traditional music – you must have run into early Martin Carthy – ever have any effect upon you?

Oh yes.  When I’ve been in the States people still regard me as a British songwriter somehow writing out of a British tradition.  Martin was another guy that Henry introduced me to.  I think he played down at the Olive Tree.   He was also on television round about that time with Nadia Cattouse and Sydney Carter.

I played a version of his Nine Hundred Miles for years having heard him play it on that TV show. I’m still an enormous fan of Martin’s approach to his accompaniments.  I think they’re wonderful, quirky, odd and incredibly influential, and obviously I would have soaked that up, but I was never confident of this singing out, this folk singing.  I couldn’t trust my voice, and I’ve got early records to prove it! I was a terribly insecure, small-voiced singer for a long while.  Things changed for me round about ’73, ’74 I started singing properly.

Was there a reason for that?

I think my voice broke again! I really do.  I started to believe in myself, I started to sell lots of records and people seemed to like it.  I found that people weren’t coming to hear me play the guitar, they were coming to hear me sing the songs that I wrote.  It must have happened like that.

So I was soaking it up, and I suppose I have absorbed quite a lot of English music over the years.  But I can’t sing a traditional song with real confidence.  Anyway, so many people do it so much better than I do.

How did you get into children’s television?

The head of children’s programming had to fill 26 10-minute slots, and he had the brilliant idea of doing an alphabet.  “What we’ll have is a little animal whose name begins with one of the letters of the alphabet, and we’ll have a story about him and a song.  I’d really like Nerys Hughes to do the reading because of her associations with children and she’s a wonderful reader.  Now, who can we get to write the songs?”  I’d just recently done a bit of music for Granada for an educational programme and the girl that booked me said, “Why not Ralph McTell?”  And they all laughed and said “He’s got his own career.  He wouldn’t do this sort of thing”.

And they rang me up and asked me, and I said, “No, I’ve got my own career.  I’m not doing this sort of thing.”  So they said they’d really like to meet and talk with me, and Bruce said to me, “Look, you’ve got four kids of your own; you’re probably just as much an expert on children’s TV programmes, having watched them with the kids, and now you’ve got the chance to make a contribution.  You’re following in the footsteps of people like Woody Guthrie, and people that you’ve always admired.”  There’s no answer to that.  I think all writers should have a crack at writing songs for kids.  It’s not a bad thing to do.

So in spite of the fact that I probably look more like a grandfather figure than a father figure for the age-group of the kids that the programme was directed towards, they gave me two or three stories and I wrote two or three songs.  And they loved them.

Suddenly these bleeding scripts came flying through the letterbox, clogging up the hall like Thomson’s Directories.  Some of them were really difficult to get songs out of, and some were really easy.  I think I was scraping the barrel a bit with Daphne the Dolphin, but it wasn’t my idea!  Some of them, like Kenny the Kangaroo, became enormously popular.  So after that, and the phenomenal ratings they got, they more or less constructed the next series around me, which was Tickle on the Tum.  I was getting more confident; I was walking and talking at the same time on some of the shows towards the end!

I would like to mention Nerys Hughes, in as much as she was so encouraging towards me.  TV’s another medium – radio’s alright because you don’t have to shave.  They don’t know what you’ve done the night before.  I used to walk in the make-up room and the girls used to go, “Oh my God!”

Anyway, they got quite a good team round us, and Tickle on the Tum became enormously popular.  They had stars saying, “I want to be on this show”, and I had a chance to meet real heroes of mine, like Graham Stark, Willy Rushton, John Wells, Penelope Keith.  They were adding credibility to this inane show.  I did four series altogether, and thought “That’s enough”, because the last thing the world needs is another children’s TV presenter, and I don’t want to be a presenter anyway.

What effect have those things had upon the audiences at your concerts and their expectations?

I wish I knew.  For a while during Alphabet Zoo, while it was really big, people would bring kids along, and I would have to do – and with pleasure – a couple of the songs from the series.  My brief wasn’t just to entertain kids, it was to entertain unemployed Dad at home, and alleviate Mum’s boredom, so the songs may have had other meanings.  Like there was Holly The Hedgehog that nobody wants to sleep with – I got away with that – because of her prickles.  And children are thinking “I wouldn’t want to sleep with a hedgehog either”, and Mum’s having a little smile maybe.

So there would be a few children in the audience, and that was nice, but I really don’t want to encourage that.  I think it’s wrong to have kids up till really late, just to hear one or two songs, so I’ve dropped that now from the set.  I think I shall know within the next year whether it’s affected my audience adversely or not.  But it’s funny to be recognised in the street again.  That last time was 1975/76.

Do you think that the time may well be right for you to do another record like Water of Dreams, if you’re worried about your credibility?

My last album was Bridge of Sighs which I’m reasonably satisfied with.  I’ve got some songs on there that are amongst the best I’ve ever written, but the album hasn’t a complete feel because I was using some songs from previous sessions and older work, and they’ve upset the balance of the album a little bit.

I thought that something I’ve never done and perhaps ought to have done is an album of songs by black musicians that I’ve admired all my life.  So I started going through my collection of records and it was like being 19 again – really listening to Blind Blake, really listening to Jesse Fuller, Robert Johnson.   Blind Blake remains the ultimate guitar player for me, but equally Blind Boy Fuller in his way, lovely swinging stuff.  I started to pick numbers, and recently finished.  I went direct to digital tape – it didn’t half show up the warts!

I recorded 20 tracks in three sessions, some I did five versions of, others the first take was the one.  I’m doing Robert Johnson songs, one Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Jesse Fuller, Peg Leg Howell.  In many ways it tells you more about the South London Blues Chapter.  This is the music that was available to me when I was learning to play, and my affection for it has not diminished one jot.  In fact, my admiration has gone up even more.  The music is so wonderful.

I find that on a lot of those things that I used to really like, the lyrics now seem so glaringly sexist that I find them truly embarrassing to play to people.  I certainly couldn’t sing them like I used to be able to.

That’s a point that really hasn’t worried me.  Perhaps when the record comes out people will tell me.  I think that the men were trying to reflect their times.  If anything, it’s the guys singing how their women have mistreated them rather than the other way round.  I hope I’ve avoided that trap, but I haven’t worried about it.  The criteria for picking the songs were poetry, originality of melody, skill and speed.

What are you actually playing now?

On the album I’ve got my old faithful, the J45, but I’m also playing a Kalamazoo which has got a lovely, bright, clean sound.  My little Martin I think appears on one track, a 00028, which are both 1932-35.  If it does sell, it’ll be lovely.  If it reminds people that I do play guitar as well as write songs, that’ll be nice.  If it turns on a section of my audience to music that they may never have heard before, that’s nice.   I’m really pleased with it.

Any other projects?

I’m worried about not writing, having written a hundred and something songs for those TV shows.  I don’t dash things off.  I’ve never been able to do that.  I’ve always been deeply envious of people who can.  I’ve not written anything of substance for getting on for two years, and I did start worrying about it.  It’ll come.  I’ve written one for Fairport, which I’m very pleased with, but I’m just going to let things roll and see.

Certainly, there’s enough stuff to be writing songs about now.  You approach despair at the complacency of people just not doing anything about what’s going on right now.  It’s very depressing, that there seems to be so little support for the nurses, the miners.  Why aren’t the unions in support of the Health Service?  What’s going on?   Why is everyone so fucking scared?  It’s all very well doing it musically from the stage, but one tends to be preaching to the converted, and I’m dubious of that.

Do you have to be left wing to notice the things that are wrong in our society?  No.  Unemployment is a fucking disgrace, and it’s been planned, as far as I can see, to keep people down, to prevent strikes.  A few years ago people were able to strike without fear, without being called ‘the enemy within’, without being beaten up by the police for what is their right – to withdraw labour to improve their life and conditions.

With Stranger to the Season – “a man without a job is a stranger to the season”, apparently a quote from Kahil Gibran, what a beautiful statement! – I’m saying that work is a pulse to life, and without it life is a grey nothingness.  There’s such a thing as pride.  I’m not talking about people who don’t want to work – there’s always going to be them – I’m talking about people who really want to work, to have a bit of pride in themselves.

You must agree with the sentiments of the song, and if you agree then start doing something.

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Folk Roots
March 1992 (no. 105)
The Silver Boy

Ralph McTell is celebrating the 25th year of his career with a major work hears John Tobler.

As middle age remorselessly advances on many of us, Ralph McTell not only looks good but, far from resting on his laurels, is about to release the most adventurous album of his 25 year career.  Granted, there’s also a ‘silver anniversary’ package, but it’s The Boy With A Note, an album including both songs and spoken prose/poetry, reflecting on the life of the first Dylan – Thomas, that is – which deserves a far bigger audience.  But is this change of direction for McTell a rehearsal for retirement? 

“No, I want to keep on going because I’m enjoying it more than ever before and I feel confident about what I’m doing, so I’m looking at special projects now and again to break up the solo touring thing.” 

So had Dylan Thomas interested McTell for a long time?  “I had a very short education and when I drifted into music in the early ‘60s somebody introduced me to Dylan Thomas, a name I knew, and I read the poems and short stories and little snippets he wrote with delight – there was something lovely about the language.  I knew nothing else about him until about three years ago, when I’d been to dinner at a friend’s house and I saw this biography by Constantine Fitzgibbon on the table and I said it looked interesting.  The friend said I could borrow it.  I read it and dropped it in the bath so I bought a replacement – I just saw the cover and hadn’t checked the author, and they’d used the same picture on another Dylan Thomas book by Paul Ferris. 

So I read that as well, and Dylan became important to me because, first of all, I was older than he was when he died and although I could never presume to judge his work because I still don’t understand a lot of the things he wrote about, I could see so many things in his life, especially in America, that have happened to me and to people I know.  Especially the solo artists, including myself, who had a propensity for drink; never to make them screw up on stage, but to provide comfort or confidence either before or after a gig, and the problems that leads to.  These human failings endeared him to me and put next to his art, which is considerable, I developed a real empathy for this character who was almost totally hopeless as a human being; a walking mess.

“I also read a book by Daniel Farson called Soho In The ‘50s, which has just one mention of Dylan Thomas: ‘I only met Dylan Thomas once, in a bar.  He was just leaving for America and he noticed that a magazine I was carrying had a short novelette by Raymond Chandler in it.’  Dylan’s main source of reading was pulp detective fiction, and suddenly I got the idea to write a story about him, adopting the persona of a gumshoe, an alter ego, a Jiminy Cricket or a conscience, a slightly involved figure trying desperately to be impartial, warming to his subject the longer that he observes.  He’s always at Dylan’s shoulder, jotting down notes and thoughts about the way this man’s life is going, because that’s how I got involved – I became a detective, wrote it all down and refined it six times until I’d got it into shape.  I read it to a friend who was supportive but said he didn’t know I could do something like that – I didn’t know either.  It’s almost a poem; it rhymes here and there and it’s got certain rhythms and so on, and that was going to be the end of it, but I got an idea for a song to go in a position within the story and I felt that if I could write five songs and this story, I might have an album.  In fact, I ended up with nine songs, several linking narrations and two poems, one read by Nerys Hughes and the other by Bob Kingdom in the voice of Dylan Thomas. 

“A Welsh schoolmaster told me in 1967 that it was better to be a big frog in a small pond and I kept thinking about Dylan in little parochial South Wales – he had to break out of the pond and go to London to cross the big pond to America, so there was this image of water tied up in it.  The pond isn’t a boating lake, it’s an estuary which leads out to the sea which is the way the cycle closes and I just got so fired up about it.  I spent a huge amount of money – the profits from the last two tours have probably gone into first recording the version that was sent to the BBC and secondly my own version.”  Was it commissioned by the BBC?  “Not initially.  I told Maartin Alcock I was doing something I felt very strongly about and he asked if he could help me with orchestration.  He’s one of those guys who can just write out the charts and we went through the eight songs which were done by then, and he talked loosely about what he could do with his machines.  We went into the studio and did the eight songs and mixed them in two days, and they have formed the basis of everything on my album, my version, except for the Maggie Reilly song, Conundrum of Time, as that hadn’t been written. 

“We employed a well-known actor who does a lot of voice-overs to read the poetry to see how it would stand up.  I thought it was my fault for not writing it very well, but he seemed not to have a grasp of what he was reading at all.”  Editing together the narration and the songs, McTell was not too pleased with the results, and decided to redo the spoken passages himself.  Having heard both versions, his is infinitely superior with – perhaps because he understood perfectly what the words were supposed to convey, having written them – considerably more obvious relevance and serendipity to the overall concept. 

“I did it straight through and it was sent to Frances Line at BBC Radio who commissioned it to be specially recorded for broadcasting.  Although I’m grateful to the BBC, who went to endless trouble to do it the way I wanted, I’m not sure it was a good thing to have done that, because we then had to go to the BBC, do all the arrangements, which Graham Preskett did beautifully, and bang it all out in four days.  I think this is a three-week album, and that’s working every day, and in fact it’s taken about that time to do my version, which I did when the original plan to license the BBC recording proved to be unworkable for various reasons, and that’s why I think the second version is so much better than the first.  But it’s done, it’s sitting in the vault ready to go out on March 3rd, in the same week as St. David’s Day, and I’ve also got the version with my narration ready which I hope my fans will want.” 

This has not been a cheap project, as McTell notes that the BBC went as far as hiring special recording equipment and the 60-piece orchestra which must have cost at least an arm and a leg.  However, the results seem to justify the expense, as several of the songs, such as the quirky Jake Thackray-like Slip Shod Tap Room Dance and the poignant Miss You Most Of All, a potential stadium ballad which will surely attract cover versions, are memorable.  The narration provides poetic continuity to a story line which seems, according to someone familiar with Thomas’ erratic life, largely accurate.  The attention he paid another good song, Wonderful Country, can be judged by the fact that it was at one time called A Proposition of Prepositions: “‘To wake up at home with you by my side in the house on the shore in Wales.’ I thought to get all those words in one line was a sort of Dylan Thomas thing.”

McTell contagious excitement and pride in this creation should be perhaps tempered by commercial considerations, because this is not simply a random collection of nice tunes…  “It’s probably the least commercial thing I’ve done in my life.  I was really driven to see something right through to the end, confident that it was good and grown up work.  Usually people say ‘Oh no, not another concept album’ because so few of them really work, but I’ve tried to take this different non-academic view and look at a life going wrong, a life running out of control.  We had the benefit of hindsight and all these books about him to put the picture together, and I’d like to think it’s a kind of contribution, not just to the mythology, but to understanding the man from a sympathetic point of view.” 

McTell’s recent low media profile has been deliberate and was the result of his exhaustive work on The Boy With A Note, which has yet to be placed with a record label, although hopefully this will not be a problem.  Prior to this meisterwerk, he had experienced problems with writing new material in the wake of his Alphabet Zoo and Tickle On The Tum projects which brought huge success among pre-teen fans in the ‘80s, but severely damaged his street credibility.  He also felt uncomfortable with his management situation – his brother was his manager for many years, and McTell now feels that inevitable sibling rivalry took its toll on their relationship, which ended when he returned a couple of years ago to his original manager from the late ‘60s, Michael McDonagh. 

McTell’s silver anniversary album, to appear on Castle (who also released his previous compilation, Affairs Of The Heart, in 1989 and more intrepidly, his latest blues album Stealin’ Back in 1990) should satisfy regular concert goers.  It contains well-known anthems like From Clare To Here and (inevitably but importantly) Streets Of London.  No McTell interview is possible without mention of the latter, which has now apparently attracted over 160 cover versions, of which McTell’s favourites include Mary Hopkin, Glen Campbell and Harry Belafonte.  “He did a great version where he changed the tempo and some of the words, but I want to hear it by Bruce Springsteen, who apparently played it onstage after he came back from London, and by Aretha Franklin, who sang a bit of it onstage as part of a medley of songs about London.  With Streets Of London now, twenty years on, the situation’s still the same, in fact it’s worse, because the public have become numb to it.  It’s like another picture of a starving black child, people are brutalised by the experience and fail to be moved.  That’s why Geldof and the people who got behind him did such a phenomenal job to shake our consciences about hunger, although I gather it’s bad again in Africa.”

The deceptive tunefulness of that song and the contrast between melody and message in many of his compositions, is arguably McTell’s greatest strength, even if too few realise that the singalong choruses contain lyrics which comment, often controversially, on social and political topics.  “I’ve enjoyed the harder-edged things I’ve worked on simply because I know now that I’m not going to be the English Bob Dylan and I have established a place for myself within the general sphere of popular music.  I won’t compromise – no offence to Val – to get on the Val Doonican Show.  If neither Val Doonican not another highly successful Irish star will sing From Clare To Here because it mentions drinking, that’s fine with me, and those have both happened.  One Scottish woman wouldn’t sing ‘I never get to mass’ for fear of alienating her protestant audience, so even in a song like From Clare To Here there are areas of controversy.  Perhaps I’ve been too subtle in my writing, but nevertheless I’ve got this big audience, which is more than can be claimed by some of the full-frontal performers who have just a bunch of fashion-conscious trend-followers with them.  I’d rather have the debate going on than just play to the gallery.”

Bentley And Craig was a song McTell wrote about the miscarriage of justice in the ‘50s when Derek Bentley was hanged for shooting a policeman although he didn’t have a gun, while Christopher Craig, who pulled the trigger, was too young to be legally responsible for his actions.  This ‘stranger than fiction’ story has now been made into a feature film which McTell feels can only help the campaign for Bentley to be posthumously pardoned (which seemed imminent at the time we went to press): “I met Iris Bentley, Derek’s sister, for the first time in the Fairfield Halls just a few days ago.  We invited her, and when I dedicated the song to Iris for her bravery, the whole audience gave her a round of applause, so I had to prolong the guitar introduction to give me time to swallow the lump in my throat.  I really gave it the lash that night.”

Isn’t it about time that Ralph McTell was treated with the respect he deserves as one of Britain’s most enduring singer/songwriters and blues guitarists?  Only blind prejudice (in many cases motivated by envy at his huge success among the silent majority) prevents him from receiving critical acclaim worthy of his achievements, of which The Boy With A Note is the latest – and arguably the greatest.

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The Letters Page
Folk Roots
January/February 2001

A wet and windy autumnal Sunday evening in Bristol. Ralph McTell is back out on the road again doing a tour supporting his new album Red Sky (no relation to Bob’s album of similar name) and book Angel Laughter. Despite the weather and virtual zero publicity St George’s Hall is almost full. The enthusiastic audience are calling for more as the lights go up. It was exactly the same last night in Taunton. How does he do it?
During the concert my mind wonders back almost 30 years. I am sitting on the floor at Imperial College London seeing and hearing Ralph for the first time. It is my introduction to the music of Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Arthur Blake, Reverend Gary Davis and of course Blind Willie McTell. I discover Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention amongst others. The names and musicians go on.
Ralph was pilloried by the musical establishment during the eighties when, during a fallow period, he started writing children’s songs. This I have never understood. Shining lights like Woody Guthrie and Tom Paxton have done the same with no detriment to their "grown up music". The critics however must have their say.
On the afternoon of the Bristol concert my five-year-old boy Matthew was getting restless. It was a foul wet afternoon. I found Ralph’s album of children’s songs "Alphabet Zoo". Nearly an hour later he had not moved from the spot and was deep in concentration- totally captivated! Like all Ralph’s albums the music is impeccably played and beautifully arranged. Nothing wrong there at all. We need to get our children interested in music and what a better way?
So here we are thirty years on. I try to encourage my friends to see and discover Ralph for themselves. Of course most of them have heard of "the song" but nothing else besides. Some of the younger ones have never even heard of him. The Bristol Evening Post gives the concert scant regard, just a few lines on the middle pages.
I am sure Folk Roots will review Red Sky, hopefully favourably, in due course However, I am equally in no doubt that it will receive limited attention in the press elsewhere.
It doesn’t really matter though. We are all out there enjoying the man and his music more than ever. In the words of "The Big Yin", Ralph McTell is a national treasure. His music and songs need to be cherished. Thank you Ralph.
Dr. Mike Cohen.
Westbury on Trym.
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New Day {Roly 002}

National Treasure {Leola TPGCD 21 }
Folk Roots
Aug/Sept 2002
Nos 230/231

Young Ms. Druce and the maturer Mr. McTell both play resophonic guitars on their new CDs and indeed, are so proud of their instruments that they are pictured posing with them ?Emily on her front cover (and the CD itself) and Ralph on his back tray (the guitar alone is featured in close?up on the front and the CD!). And, by strange coincidence, both artists have included a version of the Robert Johnson classic Come On In My Kitchen... and placed it second in the running order. But, despite the presence of resophonic guitars and the inclusion of several country blues songs, neither of the albums are really blues albums . Ten of the fifteen tracks on Druce's New Day are self penned. The opening line of the first track Call Me goes "I might be up or I might be down? and as the CD progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Emily is more down than up on this outing. There's a strong melancholic air pervading many of the songs, reinforced by Emily's wistful vocals and her own slide guitar work. Even the more uptempo numbers don't fully shake off the overall sombre tone. Emily is not alone in creating the mood of the album ? in this she is aided by bassist Kevin Willoughby and guitarist Chris Sirnyth who plays dobro and lap steel. Emily deserves full marks for ploughing an individual furrow and is definitely a singer/ songwriter to keep a ear out for. And if she keeps on putting a few county blues in the set, that'll be alright with me.

And talking of singer/songwriters... Ralph McTell, who was given a lifetime achievement award at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, has decided to give his songwriting a well earned rest for his latest (must be getting on for 30th) CD. Instead it's a labour of love as Ralph pays homage to a number of his musical heroes who include Reverend Gary Davis, Woody Guthrie, Blind Boy Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt (whose soft vocalisations are most approximate to Ralph's own delivery). The horizon is further widened by the inclusion of a lovely version of Stephen Foster's Hard Times, Alan Tunbridge' National Seven (which Ralph acknowledges he learned from Wizz Jones), Eric Bibb's Saucer & Cup, and a couple of well crafted, home made instrumentals. He has such an identifiable quality that whatever he chooses to play always comes out sounding like Ralph McTell. And what a good all?encompassing title National Treasure is. National resophonic guitars are definitely treasures, the songs that Ralph has chosen and lovingly covers are also treasures and, of course, after a lifetime of creative songwritng and constant touring Ralph is a bit of a treasure himself. Dave Peabody
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Colin Irwin finds the songwriter waxing lyrical about his blues roots

Folk Roots Magazine
October 2002 No. 232

"Hello, is Ralph in please?" An elderly man at the door in his undies looks confused. "Ralph? Ralph McTell?" The answer comes back in the form of a totally bewildered stare. "Is this Ralph McTell's house?" Man looks as if he's about to cry. Elderly woman appears. "Oh hello, I was looking for Ralph McTell..." Long silence followed by an outbreak of jabbering in something foreign between the two of them. They gaze back at the stranger before them,
smile wanly and shut the door.
Several phone calls and even more misunderstandings later, it transpires that Mr McTell moved out of this particular abode six months earlier and now lives somewhere else entirely but hey, never mind, it makes a nice intro...

Eventually traced, Ralph is in spirited form. No longer the Blue Moon Allstars midfield dynamo of yore (though rather touchingly still a Fulham fan), Ralph is a grandad now, but not one of the pipe and slippers variety. A quality singer-songwriter from the days before the term was sullied by a generation of carpet browsers, he maintains a determined hunger for playing and writing... indeed, he's currently in the throes of a veritable gail of activity. There was his wonderful album National Treasure paying tribute to the blues gods like Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake and the Rev. Gary Davis who inspired him to take up guitar in the first place.
"It was a real labour of love doing that album," he says, "that old blues still means such a lot to me. The sound of the American steel strung acoustic dreadnought really did inspire me to play guitar.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller... these were the guys who got me into all this. My first guitar was a Harmony Sovereign which I bought at Ivor Mairants Music in Soho for £29, which was a lot of money at the time. I'd been saving up for ages. I went in the shop and they let me play it, so I just sat there playing it all morning. It just felt so good. Having that guitar gave me the confidence to take off and start busking in Paris and my life changed. I'd always wanted a National and it took about 35 years before I got one, and then somebody told me it wasn't a real National! I will get a proper one though. I always wanted one but it seemed an indulgence if I was only going to use it for a couple of songs in a set. It feels like I've been playing these songs all my life. Those guys had something very special and the songs still really touch me."
A real organic album. National Treasure was recorded in Ralph's kitchen in Cornwall, with his son Sam acting as co-producer and engineer and even contributing harmonium to one track. There is also the matter of a second volume of his autobiography Angel Laughter on the horizon. "I enjoyed writing it. I didn't think I would, but I got a lot out of it. The more I wrote the more it triggered in me.
It's very different from writing songs and it's hard work, but I felt good about doing it. I had no set plan for it, but I'd do bits and people said they enjoyed it and that encouraged me to do more. Looking back on your life forces you to confront ideas and issues."
Not that he's planning to give up the plectrum for the pen. He has developed an intense obsession for the works of Dylan Thomas and has ambitions to follow his early '90s project, The Boy With The Note, with a further musical profile of the life and times of the former greatest living Welshman. Not that he's abandoned his old job, of course, and he says that gigging these days is more satisfying than ever.
He's launching another major UK tour almost as we speak and can't wait. "They're still out there," he laughs. "It never ceases to amaze me but they're still there. And I'm enjoying playing more than I've ever done. I'm much more relaxed than I used to be on stage. I used to be a nervous wreck!"
And what about that song? He's always appeared to have a love-hate relationship with Streets Of London, which turned him into a household name, but while he was only too ready, willing and able to move on after its massive success, others didn't appear to let him. Askedabout which songs he's most proud of having written. Streets Of London is notable for its absence. "I am proud of it and I can't knock it. It opened a lot of doors and in many ways I wouldn't be where I am without it. I'm grateful that people still like it and want to hear it. But I don't think it's one of my best songs and it can be frustrating when some people only know you for one song. And I hated being a pop star.
I really couldn't stand the whole fame thing that followed it. I wouldn't want to go through that again. I'm very happy as I am, thank you."

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