Trad: Ralph McTell's English heart and Irish soul

PLUS ça change, plus ça reste la même chose, as they say in Paris. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  

The phrase occurred to me as I was listening to the folk classic Streets of London before chatting to Ralph McTell, the song’s writer. 

I almost choked on my Corn Flakes when I heard that the song was originally about Paris, where McTell was living at the time, but the master of storytelling produced a song that could be about any big city in the world - and, like all great pieces of art, is both specific and universal.

This writer worked in London in the early-1970s and sat amongst the people who drank in the cafes that 79-year-old McTell portrays. Today, cups of tea have been replaced by skinny lattes, but the aching loneliness and the poverty under the surface remain the same.

Poverty is something McTell is well aware of.

“I wrote Streets of London when I was living in Paris, busking and trying to earn a few coins and having a bit of fun at the same time, living the life of an itinerant street musician while hanging out with Vietnam War dodgers and drug-users and God knows what. 

“Myself and a few pals had a couple of cinema queues that kind of looked after us, basically.

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Ralph McTell
Ralph McTell

“We only made enough to just get by on and pay for a room, but the poor people in Paris were sleeping over the hot air vents of the Metro, and that was a bitter winter in 1965. 

“And I started asking why no-one was taking any notice of these people. 

“They used to sleep barefoot in the middle of bloody winter. At least we had that room in a really grotty little hotel to go to,” recalls McTell.

However, Ralph’s empathy with the poor goes back before Paris.

“We knew all about poverty, but we were rich in the sense that my mother had been put into service as a domestic. She had been looking after a little boy who was actually part of the Royal family and who later became the Marquis of Hertfordshire.

“My mother would read him stories which she then read to us, but I was always, always interested in people and why they said certain things or why they did certain things,” he says.

After being in the army for six months, the young McTell bought himself out and went to college, and it was here that he heard the music that was to change his life. 

“I wanted to be a guitar player like all the kids at my age,” he recalls.

“At that time, there was skiffle, and rock and roll was out, but whenever I heard a guy called Ramblin' Jack Elliott - an acolyte of Woody Guthrie’s - I had found my muse. 

“Quite simply, it was the combination of simple guitar music, the twang of the instrument itself, and then a man who had something to say, that was the voice I was looking for. 

“I got really excited by this thing, the visions expressed by Woody, but also the kind of earthiness of the guitar.  I began to really work hard at playing the guitar and I soon got pushed into doing a guest spot at a folk club as a very nervous 18-year-old, but it was very organic. I didn't write anything for another three years or so.”

Betty Craig with singer-songwriter Ralph McTell, left, and comedian Billy Connolly
Betty Craig with singer-songwriter Ralph McTell, left, and comedian Billy Connolly

For such a strong-looking man, McTell admits to being quite emotional when it comes to music and song.

“The first time music made me cry was probably when I was about eight or nine, and we'd learned the song Barbara Allen about a boy who died for love, so I've always been that way. 

“I tried to toughen up – and I am tough in other ways – but music and the beauty in music and words, they affect me deeply. 

“That's the only spirituality I need. I don't need any religions or anything like that to guide me. Humanity is something that I care very much about. 

“It's very difficult when you get to me my age and you see the state the world is in, it’s a massive step backwards over the last sort of 20 years, maybe more.

“We have an alleged democracy, and we voted for these b******s who just don't care. In the 1960s, I was writing about alienation but we were more compassionate back then. We’ve become brutalised by the divisions in our society.”

Another testament to McTell’s humanity is the song that has become part of the Irish folk canon, From Clare to Here, which is based on a real conversation McTell had while he was working on building sites with a group of Irish navvies.

“I’ve grown up with Irish people all my life,” he says.

“There were my Irish friends when I was a kid, I was with Irish boys in the army for the six months I was there, and there was a couple of Irish boys living with me in a squat near Bournemouth. 

"So I've got an empathy with Ireland, not just for the terrible bloody history that we share as the two nations, but because of the way the arts are woven into everyday society through traditional music, your love of poetry, the sadness of leaving Ireland for emigration. I'm caught up in all that,” says Ralph.

The result is that the 79-year old is about to release a new album, From There to Here, 'an evocation of Ireland, its music and culture through the words and music of Ralph McTell, featuring performances by some of Ireland’s most celebrated actors and musicians'.

With the album still in production, Ralph is loathe to give much away about who will be performing, but he says he is “delighted to say that it looks like From Clare to Here is being covered by Declan O'Rourke, while Moya Brennan has already laid down the harp accompaniment to The Grey Sea Shore," a song Ralph wrote about the true story of a fishing accident off of the coast of Donegal back in the day, which he says “is more about the heroism and the transfer of affection from one of the brothers who drowned and the one who didn’t.”

“I also co-wrote a song with Phil Coulter, I Love the Ground, which was inspired by the great Barney McKenna from the Dubliners, and another song I recorded with John Sheehan about the Easter Rising called The GPO, so there is quite a mix of material on the album,” says Ralph.

Not only can we look forward to a new Ralph McTell album, but the troubadour from Croydon will be embarking on an Irish tour, with dates as follows:

  • October 26 – Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny
  • October 27 – Glór, Ennis
  • October 28 – Siamsa Tíre, Tralee
  • October 29 – Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick
  • November 1 – Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo
  • November 2 – The Mac Live, Belfast
  • November 3 – Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
  • November 5 – The Everyman, Cork
  • November 7 – Westport Town Hall, Westport
  • November 8 – Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen
  • November 9 – Guildhall, Derry
  • November 10 – An Táin, Dundalk
  • November 11 – Liberty Hall Theatre, Dublin