One song made and nearly broke Ralph McTell. When he wrote Streets of London at the age of 23, he had no idea how much he would live in the shadow of that song. L.A. Livingston finds out there is much more to the story. First printed in the Irish World, November 1999.
Ralph McTell is an imposing man in size only. In personality, he appears affable, friendly and open. His handshake is strong but not crushing. The fingernails on his right hand are a length some women would envy, while the ones on his left hand are clipped short and close. He looks tanned and seems very down-to-earth.
The singer-songwriter, who released a new album this year entitled Travelling Man: The Journeys, The Songs, recently returned from a tour of the United States, and is currently on a tour of the UK. Although born Ralph May in Famborough, Kent, in 1944, for some reason McTell has been claimed by the Irish. He writes songs about Ireland -- From Clare to Here was a hit for Nanci Griffith -- and he has toured the country regularly, including one with Mary Black. Sinead O'Connor has done a version of Streets of London (who hasn't? The song has been recorded by about 200 other artists, he says). He'll be performing with Irish fiddler Martin Hayes and American guitarist Dennis Cahill at the London Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on November 21 (1999).
"Irish by absorption; my grandmother's name was Coleman, which is an Irish name, but there's no way of proving it," he says. "I'd love to be able to claim some (Irish heritage), but by my proportion of Irish friends, which is considerable, it's disproportionate really -- I just have an affinity with Irish people and Irish music and culture. I'm very proud of it if the Irish do claim me as one of theirs."
McTell, who boasts owning 14 guitars, concedes he is a folksinger but says he didn't start off liking folk music. Young Ralph May listened to blues music (he changed his name to McTell - after Blind Willie McTell, a blues guitarist who became his music hero -- in 1966), some Carter Family, some Woody Guthrie. He says he was in a jazz club at the age of 16 when he heard a Jack Elliott record playing, and knew "this is what I wanted to do." He now listens to jazz music, having recently discovered a pianist by the name of Benny Green.
Although information technology has made the world a global village, and music is increasingly moving away from individuals and their stories, McTell says folk music is still "vital."
"I hope the younger generation will find it just like I did. When I found my way into it, it wasn't fashionable at all," he says. "I'm always struck how everyone's so evangelical, when they're young, about what they've discovered to be the truth, and they know with a certainty which disappears as you get older. Folk music is so downright honest, unpretentious, says what you want to say in a different way."
It was the song Streets of London that made McTell his name as a folk singer-songwriter, but it was both a blessing and a curse for him, he says. The song took on a life of its own, it seemed, and became so well known, its author found himself living in its shadow. He counts the time of its popularity among some of the worst moments of his career.
"In 1971 or '72, I decided I wouldn't play it anymore because it seemed to be holding me back against progression. In 1974, it was a big hit, and, on several occasions, I refused to play it onstage when I was touring with a band. I said, 'Look, I know I have a hit, but this is what I'm doing now,' and I saw my life as a progression, my writing and music as a steady progression from there. By the '80s, I realised it was a privilege to have written a song like that; it was a bit of great fortune to have written a song that was already travelling around the world," he says. "It has trapped me, as far as the general public is concerned, as a one-hit wonder, but I wrote the song when I was 23. I have always considered that one of my driving forces is to be better rather than more commercial, and I think my writing has gotten steadily better over the years. Streets of London is a song that has opened countless doors for me, impeded my progress in some respects, I think, but I owe it more than I don't owe it, if you know what I mean."
The song has "its own career," McTell says. It is sung in schools, it's been translated and used in German and Scandinavian schoolbooks, it's one of the first songs new guitar players learn . . . McTell says he considers From Clare to Here, written from a conversation with an Irishman with whom he worked on a building site as a young man, more successful than Streets of London.
"I wrote Streets of London for a lonely friend, not to draw attention to homelessness. It was my attempt to say to someone, 'Hey, life's not so bad.' Self-alienation like these people have chosen, living within the city and not being touched by it, moving through it and being lost in that sense, and my saying, ' Look, you have a friend here,'" he says. "Clare to Here was specifically about missing your home and the kind of spiritual aspect of homesickness, and on that level, its success is that it communicates its intention . . . It was a song borne out of genuine experience when I was working on the building sites as a young lad, and I was with some Irish lads and one of them said that one day -- 'It's a long way from Clare to here' -- and I remembered it because I would have said it's a long way from here to Clare because this is where we are, but in his heart, that's where he was; it's a long way from Clare to here."
Despite his success with those two songs, and others he has written, it is difficult to connect his name with their popularity, or with the progression of folk music over the last few decades. His name was glaringly omitted from a recent celebration of numerous English folk artists hosted by Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy in London -- an oversight he admits he's not happy about.
He says wryly, and the words may hold true in the musical sense as well as the physical sense, "I'm a big bloke, but I keep slipping through the cracks."