One More for the Road

Poetry, song writing, music, fame, radio, guitars and much more…

Ralph was kind enough to have a wide ranging chat with me before he embarks on another national tour. I would strongly advise you to get out and see him while you can! The ‘One More for the Road’ tour starts in Exeter on 4 October.
Dr Mike Cohen, Bristol, 29 August 2013.

Ralph, what have you been up to this summer?

“Rehearsing for retirement! I’ve always accused other people of doing that. I have found however that I am never bored. I’ve rediscovered poetry and am reading Seamus Heaney at the moment, who I think is an absolutely stunning poet. I am on the period from 1966-1986 when he was considerably younger. I love these poems - they are sombre, melancholic and joyful. And being Irish he has this wonderful gift. He seemingly never runs out of ideas. Poems, as I have outlined in other interviews, are a very different art to song writing. They are his own.

“I am playing guitar everyday but I have developed this sort of hand problem. I think it is a syndrome beginning with a Q!”

Sounds like De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. I could inject your wrist with cortisone…

“No thanks! It is a repetitive strain injury and periodically I have had it before. I have even strapped my hand up and appeared on stage with a crepe bandage and it looked awful! It seems to have something to do with scale length and I am currently playing a slightly wider necked guitar and it has seemed to upset it. I know my friend Steve Turner has had three injections and they won’t do it any more. But today I played for a good hour and I was fine. It hurt a bit and I don’t seem to have the usual strength in my left hand but I think it will be fine.”

Do you have a practice routine regarding playing the guitar? I heard the violinist Nigel Kennedy on the radio the other day - he said he started with scales. What do you start with?

“A hangover! Well, as you know, I leave a guitar on the sofa, so in the morning I walk past it, come back and have a play. Then I have a cup of tea. I don’t have a routine but some time in the day I will play for an hour or so... I wouldn’t say I practise but first of all I warm up. Usually some ragtime thing. Then I will attempt something that has been confusing me - now that is practice - something I haven’t really done since I was a kid. You then get muscle memory and your brain does do it for you.

“I am working on a lovely Irish tune at the moment by O'Carolan. It is called She Beg She More. It means ‘the big hill and the little hill’ in Irish. Everyone loves the tune - you can play it fast or slow. It sounds almost like a classical piece if you arrange it right. There are some lovely versions of it on You Tube. I have had the tune in my brain for a while and there are a couple of catchy little bits and I have added some parts. It is coming along nicely as a piece possibly for ‘Sofa Noodling Volume 2’, or may end up as a song if I get inspired with a lyric.

“I’ve been playing the piano a lot and I have enjoyed doing a project that I was invited to contribute to which is called 'The Lone Twin Boat Project’. People were giving objects from home made of wood that were then built into a boat. Did you hear about this?”

No, I haven’t.

“It was everything from a pencil to a hall stand. And they built this boat of people’s memories and it is sailing along - a motor driven boat. And they sent me the story and I wrote a piece about three planks that were left over for a shed that was going to be built after the grandfather died. It was right up my alley. You may remember my little stories about sheds? I found it was an absolute delight but it was a difficult tune for me on the piano. It was arranged by the husband of the girl band from Northumberland - the Unthanks - Rachel’s husband arranged it for brass band and it is out on an album now.”

It’s out now, is it?

“Yes - John Beresford probably knows all about it - he seems to know about things even before I’ve done them!”

Ralph sings ‘Shed Song’ on 'Harbour of Songs', an album inspired by The Lone Twin Boat Project

Any more new songs?

“I have completed all of two songs and there is one nearly finished. I may have the Suze Rotolo song ready for the tour - we shall see.”

‘How I stopped worrying and learned to love my albatross’ - I really enjoyed today’s programme on Radio 4 - can you tell me more about your conflict between commercial success and artistic integrity?

“The conflict is still there and I have wrestled with it and had battles with it. But I have stuck to my guns. I mentioned today on the programme how tiny details seem to hold great importance and they are important at the time. But in the great scheme of things all the anxiety and nerves that I went through over precisely the commercial aspects seem now to be relatively unimportant. There was a great expectation and pressure from people who really did love me and who were trying their best and this did lead me down the wrong path - I have to be honest about that. You start to believe your own mythology. You know how I have always loved Bob Dylan’s work and you can actually see the change that fame brings him. He became more obscure, more difficult and more tricky.

“There’s that lovely clip of him being asked, ‘Are you a poet, a protest singer, are you this and that?’ and he says, ‘I have always thought of myself as a song and dance man’.

“He had a wonderful way with remarks - he was famous for his humour and his presentation. It was an amazing jump in his persona from the Woody Guthrie kid who told the fibs about how he arrived in New York on a freight train to seeing him with his deadly shades - the buttoned up collar - the bouffant hair - and then withdrawing into himself. I have noticed this huge inner strength he has had. And now he has become his own myth - that person who is doing it his way. Fame has moulded Bob in a certain direction. He may not have responded to it and it may not have spoiled him. I think he has a horrible life. A friend of mine who has worked with him says, ‘You know, Ralph, why he tours all the time? It is because he has no peace.’ People camping outside his door and all that sort of thing.

“The danger with me as a young man was to believe that maybe there was something else. The open necked shirt - the medallion - the side burns - the long hair. I started to drift away after I left Warner Brothers. It was hard to fight, hard to get my equilibrium back. I managed it I think. I am very different now to what I was in my troubled times. My future now is shorter than my past - that gives you a sharp focus on your work. I do not want to waste anybody’s time. I want my songs to be as good as I can possibly make them. That makes it very hard to commit sometimes.

“You know Professor Brian Cox who has made those programmes about the elements, space and the universe? If anyone needed anything other than that - the wonder of what has happened in the history of time and space - and the fact that we are still here. That programme is almost spiritual. It is fantastic and liberating. It has really helped me a lot. I haven’t understood it all - I am not a physicist - but it parallels my feelings - when you talk about light years and so on. Being an elemental part of it all - that is good enough for me - one pass is fine for me - it is all I want (laughs). So my contribution, which is writing the songs - thinking and talking and being a fairly decent human being - and I have the great joy of sharing those experiences with people when I am on stage.

“You know I have had a very fortunate life really - it has not all been easy but then it’s not supposed to be” (laughs).

It’s the journey, Ralph, isn’t it? I am thinking of ‘Lunar Lullaby’.

“Well you see there you go - I had a go at it once before. The hugeness of it all and not being frightened of it. This is an enormous deal - you are on the edge of something and you have to push a little harder...”

I have always wanted to ask you, Ralph, within your repertoire there are many songs that should have been as successful as ‘Streets of London’ - which ones surprised you most by not being so successful?

“I think almost all of them, Mike - you have been kind enough to pin point Lunar Lullaby - that was a huge proposition - written in just three verses. There is never one meaning in anything we do. Obviously on some albums, when I was compelled to come up with one album a year, there are some songs that are lighter than others and perhaps not quite so deep. But there is always a double thing going on and what I find when people write a song with one message is it is good for listening to once or twice or joining in. I like words to reveal something.

“I have talked about The Setting. I have talked at length about Peppers and Tomatoes. There is someone using it for a doctoral thesis they are writing. This guy had studied the song so well and he brought up the subject that ‘…they were humming tunes and singing words to songs that I did not know’.

“Fundamentally, folk music defines a nation. It is not a left wing thing. If you are Irish your folk songs are your fight for freedom. And so it is in other cultures. Because we are English and have not been conquered we do not have that element in our music. Folk music contains our spiritual identity. Our songs reflect that. We are different from the Scots, possibly the Welsh and certainly the Irish - and every nation because it is our music - it contains our history. People were worried about the National Front or the English Defence League commandeering our folk music. Well, be aware it is there and that is what it does. Things like that get thrown up in a song. You condense all these things down - you make it rhyme and you put them in a song - and you whack it out. You cannot expect things to communicate first time - it is too big and too complex.

“Yes, The Setting is like that. I was really hopeful that someone would pick it up in Ireland or elsewhere, but especially in Ireland. It’s too difficult to bloody play. It is a complex song - it is like a short story. There are quite a few dotted around but in the end I have to please myself - I have to be satisfied with what I am writing.”

Ralph, I remember you released ‘El Progresso’ after ‘Streets of London’. I thought ‘Grande Affaire’ would have been more successful.

“Well, El Progresso was not me. It was Noel Edmonds who started playing it off the album and the record company said if he was playing it then we had better put it out. But I had no way of promoting it and it died on its proverbial. It was a long time ago Mike - 40 years...!”

If you had been an American Singer Songwriter, ie living in USA, do you think you would have had more commercial success?

“Possibly, but you have to work at success and I am quite shy, believe it or not, and not very good at banging my own drum. There are few kindred spirits in the world of publicity by virtue of what their job is.

“I have a small but dedicated following in the USA, but without record distribution and the machinery of media exposure I cannot and don't really want to compete. It’s enough that some folks know the music and sing some of the songs.”

I really enjoyed the Trinity College Seminar. How was it for you?

“It was one of the high points of my whole career - and the reason for that is our history. It was deeply moving for me to be invited to talk to an Irish University’s Faculty of Music and Literature and I loved every minute of it. You probably didn’t get a view of the audience but there may have been just one hundred or so people there. Professor Michael James Grenfell introduced the concert and my interviewer was Music Education coordinator Marita Kerin. She said she could have easily done another two hours. The next day I did more interviews and talks.”

Will it be packaged into anything, Ralph?

“It is a University programme - I don’t know. I loved doing it and was very emotional about it. There were some old friends in the audience including Jim McCann, ex-Dubliners. The audience were just lovely and Marita really got to the heart of it. You can imagine when you sing a song and someone asks you, ‘Why did you write that?’ or, ‘What are you going to do now?’, it really makes you aware of what it was. I was unguarded and tried to cooperate as much as possible - I will watch it one of these days.”

You can watch the Trinity College Seminar, ‘An Evening with Ralph McTell', on YouTube

Do you think you will do anything like that again? Some artists do workshops and seminars.

“I think I might. I don’t mind doing question and answer things. I am not very good at workshops. It doesn’t appeal to me."

As a young man, songs like ‘Daddy’s Here’ or ‘Mrs Adlam’s Angels’ must have evoked strong feelings in you. How do you feel about these songs now?

“Well, I was surprised when I did Daddy’s Here. They asked me if I would do that one. I wrote that as a snap shot in the way a kid thinks. It was one of my earlier songs and I found it very emotional singing it again. I remember deliberately writing it along the way a child would think or speak. The lines are uneven. We are sent away - she’ll be glad - and then she’ll be sad - and then we will have tea together. When I played it in Dublin I found it very affecting. Mrs Adlam's Angels is my first attempt to write a song about faith - and I have done it on several occasions. Sometimes I Wish I Could Pray is one, and at the moment a newer song, Bernadette is Weeping. I keep returning to this theme. Mrs Adlam was never my Sunday School teacher - she was my brother’s. She was ordinary working class and an evangelist. I think what happens now when I play it is the adults can identify with this teacher who is almost their Jiminy Cricket - their conscience. She was a sweet old lady and quite confident – there was not a flicker of doubt in her about her religion. Her belief was sound and she knew she would be with Jesus one day. Even at that age I was already having doubts but I couldn’t help but love her. I was affected by her and I felt I would have almost let her down if I hadn’t gone to Sunday School - so I went (laughs). I still get affected by the song. I was talking to Archie Fisher not too many years ago and he said he finds himself singing a song on stage and almost crying. It is because if you are honest and you are striving for something good and the songs have a meaning - then they remind you of the time when you wrote them. You will be affected by them and so will the audience.”

Lots of radio coverage recently Ralph - you are obviously a good friend of the Beeb?

“Well, I have a helper…..One of the things we have always felt is that we needed to tell the BBC I am still making records. If you do not have a record label - they have a record plugger department and they nudge them. I have not had anyone to nudge them for 40 years! So I have employed someone who works with all the folkies and his name is Will McCarthy. He has been reminding them that I still exist and a lot of stuff has followed from that and this is absolutely wonderful.”

I loved the concert you did for London Underground 150th anniversary.

“Yeah, dear old Ken Bruce is very good to me - that was enjoyable. I am excited at making slight inroads into Radio 4. I did a programme about my early days around Soho and there is more coming. Make sure you phone in, Mike!”

The tour - ‘One More for the Road’ - self explanatory, Ralph?

“It has got to be said it could be the last time I do a big tour. I mean I am not stopping playing but I cannot go on touring the country. I do not want someone to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘you were tired last night’ - I don’t want anyone saying that. I am holding my own at the moment. I may look tired at times - but it is tiring - you give a lot. I do not want to be mechanical. What I am saying is that we will see - but this is the beginning of slowing things down for the national tour. I will still be doing concerts but do not wait until I come to your town because I may not be coming. I would really like to do a London date on my big birthday but promoters have forgotten about me too. If I did a show people may not turn out - so I may have to go out with a whimper as opposed to a bang. The Royal Festival Hall would be a lovely place to play - I do not think there is much chance of that. I’d really love to do the Royal Albert Hall.”

Bought any guitars recently?!

“I have just got another Recording King today! It is a J45 copy - it will need a lot of setting up by Tom Mates. It is like a Gibson and costs £550. I would warmly recommend it. However I think I will only take two guitars out on the road.”

Any messages for your fans?

“I studiously avoid that term. They are my friends who know me better than I know them - just because there are so many of them. I am just so grateful to them for the support they have given me over the years. The letters I get and the emails I receive - they mean so much to me - like a pat on the back. I treasure that. I know so many of them - families and real friends. I look forward to meeting them again and saying hello after the show.”

Post script

Seamus Heaney died the day after we did this interview. Ralph has given permission to publish some words and thoughts which he wrote to a good friend in Ireland on hearing the sad news.

Dear Jim,

Seamus Heaney is one of the greatest poets of our time. I say is, because although he has sadly died, the poetry lives.

Through all his work there is the probing but gentle search for the real poetry of life and being alive.

His beautiful words seek the rhyme and reason for time and season and the passage of our lives interlaced with the flavours and scents of the earth to which we are all bound.

Not mystical but real. Magical in their effect, but like a frosty morning: sharp, true and tempered by the warmth of his humanity.

His poem, When all the others were away at Mass, was sent to me by an Irish friend Karen Thacker when my mother died and I have since passed it on to others in bereavement. This is the other reason why Seamus Heaney's work will never be forgotten. He is able to make us aware of moments, and with the grace of his language, turn the apparently mundane into works of profound beauty.

I had planned a visit to Ireland to hear him read. I am deeply saddened by the fact that I will not now have the opportunity to tell him these things.

I am currently deep into his early poems from 1966 to the mid ’80s and will spend some time today reading them and reflecting on the passing of a true Irish genius and a great man.

As ever,


With thanks to Ralph for sharing his time and his thoughts with Mike.
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