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Six Decades of Ralph McTell


Folk Legend Ralph McTell is back on the road


Few could imagine that in post-war London, there was a teenage boy dreaming of being a musical guitar-in-hand vagabond playing chords and blues melodies perfected by blind African American musicians.

 

But this is what Ralph May was doing in a Croydon housing estate in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. He would indeed change his name to Ralph McTell – after country-blues great Blind Willie McTell - and go on to become a singer-songwriting folk legend himself. The fact that he would compose one of the most covered songs in popular music, “The Streets of London,” had much to do with him finding fame in the mid-70’s.

 

Now, a few months short of his 80th birthday, McTell is back on the road, having gone to the other end of globe to perform a series of solo concerts across Australia and New Zealand. He stopped over in Auckland for a one-night gig at The Tuning Fork, a cozy music venue frequented by the likes of singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Jay Farrar and Jimmie Dale Gilmore over the years.

 

The engaging McTell had a packed venue enthralled as he reminisced about his life while accompanying each story in song as he plucked and stroked his Gibson guitar in perfect harmony with his still-vibrant vocals.

 

As you might expect he started with his childhood, opening with “I Don’t Think About You,” a song he teased was about an early teacher.

 

He then recounted how he and his younger brother were brought up by a solo-mum in war-torn South London. The estate in which they lived included a number of Irish immigrants who had helped to rebuild the capital city and in particular a family named the Connaughton's who stayed above them.

Cue: "Mr Connaughton," with the ever-so-clever lyric:Con

Oh Mr Connaughton when we lived underneath

Oh you said it was a lucky man who had gap between his teeth

And for a while I had a gap too

But it closed when my big teeth came through

 

He followed with one of his finest melodies, “Barges,” which he wrote in 1972 for his brother Bruce. It was inspired by summer holidays the pair spent at their Aunt Olive and Uncle Reg’s property in north Oxfordshire, an area best remembered by McTell for the canals which flowed through the county and the painted barges that plied their trade there.

 

He then moved into a trio of songs epitomizing pastoral beauty and the allure of life in the English Countryside. There was “Peppers and Tomatoes,” which had its roots “in Uncle Reg’s allotment,” and “The Girl from the Hiring Fair,” a song he would perform over the years with Fairport Convention. And he closed the set with the truly beautiful “Nettle Wine,” from his acclaimed 1972 album Not Till Tomorrow, produced by Tony Visconti. It was McTell at his musical finest

 

McTell was at his most expansive when he returned to his roots as a budding musician and how the great Woody Guthrie had influenced his early years and his desire to go on the road. It was time to strap on the harmonica and tell it best in song, with “Walk into the Morning:”

No money in my pocket but a cigarette in my mouth

No fixed destination ‘cept some vague direction south

Bedroll on my shoulder, a guitar for company

Some Woody Guthrie songs and the road in front of me

 

Besides troubadours like Guthrie and Bob Dylan, McTell’s other great fixation was with American blues musicians and in particular African American guitar players like Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, his namesake Blind Willie McTell and, in particular, another blind guitar player Reverend Gary Davis or Blind Gary Davis, as he was commonly known.

Such an infatuation was not uncommon among emerging English musicians in the 1960’s with the likes of guitar legends Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck all obsessed with the advanced guitar techniques of American blues artists.

 

McTell’s discourse on Rev. Davis and his influence on his own ragtime progression actually took longer than any particular song at The Tuning Fork. He told intrigued fans how he first learnt about Davis in the mid-sixties. He then meandered into a story about how the blind reverend would carry a gun to protect himself from stealing hands dipping into his busking jar! McTell and Davis  would finally met in 1971, a year before Blind Gary died. McTell then said it best in his endearing musical tribute “Reverend Thunder (Blind Faith).”

 

McTell first released “his second most covered” song, the classic Irish ballad “From Clare to Here” in 1976. The origins dated back a decade when McTell was working with Irish immigrants on a London building site and when he asked one, named Michael, if he missed home, the man replied: “Yes it’s a long way from Clare to Here.” It received wider exposure in 1993 when Nanci Griffith included it on her acclaimed Grammy-winning covers album Other Voices, Other Rooms.

 

He told his audience that he recently discovered the song in a journal on Irish music. “I smiled when I saw it listed as ‘a traditional Irish’ song! I took it as a compliment,” he quipped before delivering a suitably acoustic offering of the sad lament.

 

McTell also delivered two stripped-down versions of songs from his last release Hill of Beans (2019), a well-received album which saw him reunited with Visconti. There was the Danish-inspired “Gammel Dansk” and the comedic “Close Shave” – a “true story” about the dangers of flirting with the pretty wife of a razor-in-hand barber!

 

When it came time to close, there was still the bleedin’ obvious – as they might say in Croydon - and McTell introduced “Streets of London” with the invitation: “It’s singalong time.” The  dedicated fans duly obliged.

 

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation

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