RALPH, ALBERT & SYDNEY
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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