We have colour TV and we’ve been to the Moon but some things just never change
by Jeremy Miles
Ralph McTell: Lighthouse, Poole.
Celebrating 50 years on the road, acoustic folk giant Ralph McTell was in understandably nostalgic mood for this wonderful concert. For a start he was returning to Poole where he spent the freezing winter of 1962-63 living in a beatnik crash pad in a fish-crate store over a bookies shop in the High Street. There have been a few changes since then. “There’s so much more traffic,” he murmured in wonderment. “We’ve got colour television… We’ve been to the moon!”
McTell has written a few songs too. Not least his greatest hit Streets of London which he slipped in as the penultimate number, with the audience singing along, in a set that had taken us on a remarkable journey through his life and career. He said he would have saved it for the very end of the show, done a medley of his big hits but, he observed wryly, “You need more than one to do that.”
It’s true that he’s never been much of a commercial prospect but Ralph McTell is a profoundly skilled songwriter and compelling storyteller. Equipped with a deep velvety voice and a guitar style that is without equal, he delivers songs that are often, though certainly not always, deeply autobiographical.And while the music business may tend too let him do his own thing, I think he’d agree that he hasn’t done too badly.
His opening numbers at Poole Walk Into The Morning and Nanna’s Song evoked memories of life as a young busker in Paris while Barges recalled days of innocent wonder and childhood games. There were observational songs too like Peppers and Tomatoes which he penned in response to the appalling ethnic cleansing as neighbour turned against neighbour in the former Yugoslavia. First and Last Man was inspired by a poster of a Native American Indian on the wall of his flat and Reverend Thunder told the story of blues legend, Rev Gary Davis, who even though he was blind, carried a gun to deter thieves.
Other prime influences on McTell included Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and of course Bob Dylan. We were treated to the result of their distant tutelage and a few spin-offs too. A little bluesy ragtime here, a blast of Dylanesque harmonica there. It was joy. McTell insists that as both a songwriter and musician he’s still learning. At the age of 71 he sounds at the top of his game to me though one or two of the high notes he would have routinely included a few years back are now something of a challenge to his vocal abilities. It’s not a problem. His mastery of stagecraft and songmanship is a more than adequate compensatory factor.
He encored with West 4th and Jones, a song inspired by the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album he recalled first seeing (and hearing) when he was living in Poole, penniless but full of optimism for the future. McTell is of course right. There really have been a huge number of changes in the past five decades. Who’da thought back then that radical young vagabond folkie Dylan would go on to become a Nobel Laureate? We all know how well deserved that award was and Ralph McTell made a point of publicly adding his congratulations from the Lighthouse stage. But back in 1963 such a notion really would have been unthinkable.
The decision to award Dylan’s the Nobel Prize for literature is proof positive that the times they are a changin’ Sadly one thing that has not changed in the past half century is our lack of compassion for the plight of many of the homeless, poor and mentally ill. The pen-portraits that Ralph McTell used to describe the desperate, lonely and vulnerable in Streets of London are as pertinent now as they were on the day that he wrote the song.
Footnote: I have long admired Ralph McTell. His 1974 album You Well Meaning Brought Me Here was the first I ever reviewed professionally. That was a turning point for me, discovering that people would give you free records and then you could get paid for writing about them. A dream come true at the time. Our paths have crossed a number of times since. I’ve interviewed him, chatted with him, seen many concerts and always admired his honesty and musical integrity. He’s one of the good guys.