Interview with Ralph McTell
Ralph McTell is a frequent visitor to Irish shores. He first played Belfast back in 1968 and continued to play even during the worst years of The Troubles when the north became a ghostland for most touring artists and bands. I asked Ralph about one particular gig in Belfast – possibly 1976 at the time of his ‘Right Side Up’ tour – when the local audience gave him a standing ovation before he played a note, just for coming over here.
RM: I do remember that because I was quite overwhelmed by such a reception. It was amazing. That was a long time ago, and a whole generation of people have grown up in peaceful surroundings and cannot realise what it was like living during The Troubles. I have that memory, and I am sort of proud that I was able to come and play, and people treated me like some sort of hero, and I don’t deserve it. I just love playing in Ireland and playing in the north. To think that it might have lifted your spirits a bit, that’s a bonus as far as I’m concerned. I would have been here anyway. I tried to persuade so many bands to come over but, you know, you only need one member of a band not to want to do it and you don’t have a band.
FT: Ralph has continued to nurture that relationship with Ireland, which has flourished in song too. I asked him about the Celtic themes and why, despite this bond, he never wrote directly about The Troubles.
RM: Well I never felt it was my business to talk about it. I think the debate or discussions will continue between the hearts and minds of the people who live in the place where the conflict is. I see a lot of intransigence on both sides and it saddens me greatly because you hope and think that logic will prevail, but history is drenched in blood and sacrifice and it’s all tied up with the illusion of patriotism.
I had even written a song about the Easter rising with John Sheehan, which may still be available on YouTube, because you know patriotism isn’t the exclusive right of one side or the other. You know, one person sees himself as a rebel, another as a patriot. But when so many people have died and there’s such a history going back hundreds of years, it’s not going to be, you know, washed out on a Monday morning and then everybody lives happily ever after. It’s going to take a lot of understanding and tolerance and clear thinking I think. It’s such a shame politicians here have hit that impasse at the moment. Hopefully, people will move forward.
FT: Social issues have long featured in McTell’s work, be it isolation, loneliness, homelessness or immigration. Songs that were written many years ago, yet the underlying problem is still evident today, perhaps with homelessness and racism, even more prevalent that when they were first penned. I asked Ralph how he approached such issues.
RM: Well you see, rather than do what Christy Moore does in addressing the issue head-on, or like Billy Bragg… They come up with a statement you know; “war is bad”. Simple statements that hold true. But for me, in order to find the poetry of something that’s difficult to address, I need to take a sidelong look. That’s how I wrote about Harry in ‘Don’t Go’. You don’t know he’s black but you guess from the painting, you know. That’s my little bit of art.
FT: Despite the fact that ‘Streets of London’ was written in the 60s and ‘Don’t Go’ in the 70s, the issues still remain unresolved today.
RM: When you live as long as I have, you realise they are never going to go away. I believe in my heart that the central issue of people deciding to leave the common market was not the laws and dictates of Brussels, it was simply migration and immigration that people were fed up with. People feel threatened, and it’s not unnatural to feel threatened.
I believe that was a central issue in Brexit. When you’ve got hungry kids or you’re queuing up in casualty in hospital, you look for someone to blame, and it’s not the lawmakers you blame, it’s the foreigners. Yet it’s often pointed out by people who bother to look at these sorts of things, the migrant population contribute massively to the country. They pay their taxes, they work hard, they don’t cause any trouble, but they’re perceived as the cause, and I think it’s a decision we will live to regret if Brexit does finally happen, with or without a deal.
And, as for the ignorance of the British government to ignore the problem of Ireland. Where are these people coming from? They have actually appointed a Northern Ireland Secretary who didn’t realise there was a divided community in the north. I cannot credit the arrogance of the ruling class in Britain. It beggars belief! The fact that you have someone like Boris or other old Etonians waiting in the wings to take over is in total disregard to the will of the British people. They have constantly been betrayed as far as I’m concerned. And what we do is we soldier on and try to find some straws to hold on to of common humanity and I honestly see my role as something in that, in my words and music. I will keep prompting that. I don’t want to be a sloganeer. I seek to be artistic in my output rather than overtly political. That’s better done by other people and usually, it’s rhetorical because because everybody knows and your only singing to the converted anyway.
FT: I think that’s fair comment. There was a song you wrote about a colliery band in the miner’s strike, ‘The Enemy Within’, which was a fairly open attack on Thatcher, yet you never mentioned her.
RM: It’s about her putting down the miners and creating that distrust and breaking up the unions. It’s the most unforgivable thing that that woman ever did.
FT: There are other issues that you sing about that others shy away from. I am thinking about ‘Song For Martin’, which tackles mental health and suicide, love and old age in ‘Naomi’, and even industrial relations in ‘Chairman And The Little Man’. They are compelling songs, very issue driven. Is that part of your work ethos? Creating songs that make people think again about issues.
RM: Yes, well I hope so. I really do hope so. You seem to have to have found it Damian. I’m not sure many others have. And when you have a monster like ‘Streets’, which has become a monster, not a millstone, but a monster nevertheless, your other songs are hiking behind it really, craving for some light from behind the big song. It was 50 years ago next year that that song first appeared on a record, and since then I have been putting out new albums and singles occasionally. All to no avail.
As soon as I put out a new record, they will play ‘Streets Of London’, because they will compare it on a pop level, and I had no idea I was writing a pop record when I wrote it. It was a very complicated set of circumstances that made that song happen. It was written about alienation and that was because I had a friend that was a heroin addict and he was lonely from time to time, and yet he would deceive and his personality would change altogether, and he was living within and yet outside society, which is what smack seems to do you, and I was addressing these other alienated people, through him, for him to see that there were other people who had no way back and that he did. That was my intention, complicated reasoning, but those people mentioned in the song were merely examples of people who were on the edge of society.
The song is a monster. But how I balance it up is; it’s a song that has allowed me to travel the world, and given me the opportunity to introduce other songs to people and given me an audience that is still with me some fifty years later so it can’t all be bad. It’s incredible, when I ask my publishers how many versions there are they can’t tell me, but they know it’s been recorded into at least 20 languages. It’s just out there now. It’s kind of the world’s now, and I’m not being immodest I hope in saying that.
FT: I think ‘Kenny The Kangaroo’ might be more of a monster for you (Ralph laughs) and ‘Song For Martin’ was in many ways a follow up to the story of one of the characters in ‘Streets’?
RM: Yes that was about a friend I had and sang about in ‘Streets Of London’, and I thought I had to clarify the point about Martin, It’s about betraying a friendship through this insidious horrible drug that is heroin.
FT: Ralph has covered other many difficult subjects, miscarriages of justice in ‘Bentley And Craig’, and immigration in ‘Harry (Don’t Go)’. I asked Ralph how he decides which topics to write about, what issues or stories hit a resonance with him.
RM: Well, you’ve kind of answered the question for me. In the end, if you love poetry, and I do, I talk about poetry in a broader sense, like a beautiful move in football, or bat on a ball. A colour against a colour. You look for the poetry in whatever you want to write, and if you can find that, I will then tackle it as a subject for a song. For example, you mentioned ‘The Enemy Within’, which I’m delighted to talk about.
One of the results of the mines being closed was the abandonment of the colliery band, and the idea of the instruments being sold off, to help the miners, left the cases empty. They contained the soul of the colliery and therefore the soul of the community around it, and there was my poetic stimulus if you see what I mean. Same with ‘Peppers And Tomatoes’, which was written about the war in the old Yugoslavia, but which can equally be applied to Northern Ireland, or other conflicts around the world.
It’s about people of different beliefs with their feet in the same soil. This is their belief. This is my country. This is my land. standing next to each other. It nurtures them both, like a pepper plant, and a tomato plant in a grow bag, there’s more to unite them than divide. There’s the poetry and then you can start to find the issue otherwise it becomes a slogan on a placard… and I’m not interested in that.
FT: In one of your most loved songs, ‘Michael In The Garden’, can you tell me, does Michael have Autism?
RM: Well, he does, but you know what? The word hadn’t been invented. I swear to you, when I wrote that song, I had never heard the word, but that is exactly what is being described. My wife had a brother who was institutionalised in Norway. He had some disabilities. He never learned to speak, never learned to clean himself, but was amused by bits of knotted string and coloured glass, and smiled a lot. He was in his own world, and that’s what started the song off.
As a young lad, I had a friend who had Cerebral Palsy. I used to look after him. As kids, we would accommodate him in our gang from time to time. I’ve always had a lookout for people who don’t quite see things quite the same way or can’t express themselves in the same way. So once I got this image in my head, the song just wrote itself. It was a combination of people that I had met or knew.
FT: Dylan is obviously a huge influence on you, with ‘Zimmerman Blues’ and the EP of his songs you recorded. The new track you aired on the Jools Holland show, ‘West 4th Street And Jones’, is about Dylan too. Can you tell me a little bit about the background to the song?
RM: It’s from the cover of Bob’s second album, ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and it’s a picture of Bob and his girlfriend Susie Rotolo walking at that intersection in New York, West 4th Street and Jones, and they have their arms wrapped around each other. There are so many elements in that photograph that are more than poignant. For a start, she is open-hearted, open-minded, trying to keep her boyfriend warm, wearing a sensible coat for the weather. Dylan spent ages choosing his wardrobe and chooses not to look at the camera, a type of studied nonchalance there.
He’s imitating the famous James Dean New York photograph. He’s trying to effect that image and it’s freezing. So you have natural against artifice. We also have a couple who are clearly in love and I was in a similar relationship with a girl in London and it’s about this time that we learned of the assassination of President Kennedy. So, from February to November, a year that began so full of promise for our world with a young creative genius called Bob, who was going to change the world with his songwriting, to the death of an ideal.
We had to grow up in that year and now we’re faced with a madman in America. It was as if that year was a crystallisation of all that generation had to come through. Thankfully, the musical soundtrack has been stunningly wonderful, and the perception of the world through great artists like Randy Newman, Bob himself, and so many others… songs that really matter.
But now we have to fight the cynicism that we should have at the end of 1963, but we keep going, and that says a lot about the human spirit. But you know Love will continue, art will continue, and people will continue to strive to make sense through music and art of this crazy world. So that photograph remains eternal and full of promise.
FT: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Folk and Tumble