Ralph McTell levels with Julian Piper about his early days as a troubadour and, of course, that song.
“I was happy in my little network. Someone would say, ‘I’ve just got an album by Blind Crippled Clarence Cloghead’ or whatever, and you went around and listened – even if it was really painful. But you had to hunt the knowledge out – I still call it that – the knowledge,” Ralph jokes.
The tall guy sitting opposite me chuckles and takes another sip from his tea as he begins yet another story. Busking in Paris, hoboing to Istanbul, appearing on Top of the Pops with Queen, and admitting that his first major tour with a band ended up in a drug fuelled meltdown. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear from some wrinkled and retired rock star, but strangely this is Ralph McTell, one of folk music’s great iconic figures, now half a century into the business and having just completed a mammoth tour.
When we meet he’s just flown in from Denmark and despite the airline losing his cherished Gibson J-45 en route, the experience seems to have worn him down not a jot. “I still just get such a buzz from it all, more so than ever now because I realise that this is about as good as I’m likely to get!”
People have always travelled west, and as you drive from Okehampton towards Penzance the vast skies and brooding swathes of Bodmin Moor lend a unique mystery to the Cornish landscape. It’s long been Ralph’s adopted home and he makes no secret of loving the place. The last time our paths crossed was over a decade ago. Ralph was sat alone in his dressing room looking as though something appalling was about to happen. Stage fright, I wondered…
“Totally,” he laughs. “But I made a conscious decision 10 years ago not to have a drink before going onstage; it’s all about being a man about things whether it’s the dentist or whatever. Ultimately though I think it’s about the awe that I still have for playing in public,” he admits.
Ralph’s friend, Wizz Jones, first lured him to Cornwall in the early 60s. “Wizz was a Croydon boy like me, but had this old style of guitar playing as if he’d been living in America with black musicians. He was the authentic English version of an American bluesman, and had been living with a collection of so called Beatniks in Newquay – it is on YouTube, filmed by the Tonight programme with Alan Whicker.”
Fresh from busking in Paris, down on his luck and with an invitation from Wiz Jones to play some club gigs in Cornwall, within a few days Ralph found himself living in a tent.
“I was thrilled to bits – it was a like walking into a time warp. Everything was timeless, slow, very parochial and a bit like how I remember England in the 50s. Everybody said good morning, things were cheap, and I lived off easting pasties,” he recalls.
“Wizz heard about a folk club in the middle of nowhere called the Folk Cottage, a club with everyone sat on bales in a circle, in a barn. By stealth he took it over, and after Wiz had stuck up posters everywhere, within weeks it was packed. It was a firetrap! We had no PA, no alcohol – but we ended up running seven nights a week. Although I play all over the world, I still get people come up and say ‘You’ll never guess where I first saw you?’ I say, ‘Was it a barn in?’ And they go, ‘Yes! How did you know?’,” Ralph says.
The Cornish folk scene of the 60s is the stuff of legend. Feeding off the artistic miasma centered around St. Ives, it was a fertile proving ground for singers like Michael Chapman and Derek Brimstone. Home for Ralph was a caravan for which he paid £50 and had towed behind a hedge.
“Those days were some of the most carefree and happy of my life, with music central to everything,” he enthuses. “It was a very exciting scene with a whole network of clubs to play. I was working three or four nights a week, getting 30 bob for playing with Wiz and then £3 on my own. We were rich!”
Ralph’s own material was an eclectic selection of songs drawing on blues numbers by Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotton and a smattering of his own songs interspersed with a few Dylan and Woody Guthrie numbers. Surprisingly, it was blues music that remained Ralph’s dominant influence – adopting his name from Blind Willie McTell – and learning songs like ‘Cocaine’ and ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’.
“A lot of those songs we learnt came from Rambling Jack Elliott. I’d heard Reverend Gary Davis singing ‘Cocaine’, but Jack’s version was completely different and I wondered where the heck he gotten that arrangement from. I’ve even heard Keith Richards play it the same way. I asked Jack about it one time and he just shook his head; he couldn’t believe how much he influenced people with his whole approach and that wonderful expressive voice. Jack was a caricature of Woody Guthrie, so much so that I was disappointed the first time I actually heard Woody; he wasn’t as corn pone and down home. I also went to see Joe Williams, the nine-string bluesman, in Croydon, and he didn’t give a damn about timings; if he wanted to change chord he changed chord. I was transfixed – it’s like traditional jazz – to many it’s cacophony of noise but I could always pick out whichever instrument I wanted to hear. Then I found the music of Jesse Fuller, bought a 12-string guitar and learnt to play ‘Working On The Railroad’; it was like early jazz and had a wonderful swing and humour to it, the same as Blind Willie McTell. Sometimes these guys weren’t in tune, but it didn’t seem to matter – it was all there. All my heroes like Robert Johnson, Blind Blake and Reverend Davis, all took tremendous liberties with the music that a white guy wouldn’t do,” he laughs.
Ralph’s favourite guitar remains his trusty Gibson J-45. Over the years it has had various modifications, and he maintains that the K & K pickup system he uses is second to none. But in those early days, finding an instrument to reproduce the sounds of his American heroes proved difficult. “None of the guitars available at the time sounded like Jack Elliott’s records, and it was when I was at Croydon Art College that I first heard the name Gibson. There was a big J-200 with red flowers for sale in a local music shop, but it was £65. I couldn’t believe it. £65 for a guitar! I just thought that was ridiculous. Who would pay that when guitars were £10 or £20? “Then I saw Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor on the Tonight Show and thought that’s the noise I want – that lovely bottom end – and it was a Gibson. But I ended up buying a Harmony Sovereign from Ivor Mairants for £29 which I took all over Europe in a solid case with the end sawn off because it wasn’t big enough,” he says chuckling.
“Travelling with the guitar, a bed roll, and a bag nearly broke my will. I was trying to travel light. Then the guitar got smashed when someone stood on the case and the sides telescoped into each other. It was my sole means of support and I could have either gone back or carried on. I decided to go on but I was in such a rage. I got it repaired and years later loaned it to my son. He left it where he was staying and the guy that owned the flat said that if he didn’t come to get his things, he’d throw it all out, which he did – including my beloved Harmony!”
At what point did you realise that the way ahead lay with writing your own songs? “It was an intellectual decision; I knew I would never sound like Robert Johnson because I’m very much a Croydon bluesman, the sum of all the bits I heard from hot cross buns to Barbara Allen at school and Blind Boy Fuller to Jack Elliott. I had a folk technique with a conventional melodic sense but had to count up the frets to find a note and didn’t know how to make chords. I still very rarely venture beyond the fourth fret! But I’d be sitting down noodling away and Gary Peterson – who was a friend and a fine musician – said ‘Hey, that’s a really pretty tune there, you should write some words to that…’ We all thrive on the odd pat on the back, but it’s always been that joy of discovering something on the guitar.”
Then there’s that song. “I was recording with Gus Dudgeon who produced my first album; he saw me as a crossover artist. Transatlantic Records were signing up every folk singer out there, they’d had huge success with Bert Jansch but weren’t sure about me. They weren’t very keen to spend a lot of money and when Gus said he thought some strings would help, they refused to pay for an arranger. He managed to convince Tony Visconti – who’d never done anything like this before – that he should take on the job and bought him the book on how to arrange string sections,” Ralph laughs.
“I started writing the song in Paris and was originally going to call it ‘Streets Of Paris’. I’d offered it John The Fish who was a local singer, but he said he thought it was a bit sad. So when it came to making the album Spiral Staircase I really wasn’t keen to sing it, but Gus persevered and convinced me to do one take when the others had gone to the pub. The first cover version appeared four days later, and then it went straight to the top of the charts. By the time 1975 came around it had been out there for five years and was apparently so popular in folk clubs that you had to book your turn to sing it. I was persuaded to re-record it, and being Christmas time, it was a huge hit again.”
Fortuitously, before the release, Ralph had begun rehearsing a band that included Rod Clements from Lindisfarne, Mike Piggot on fiddle and the American drummer Danny Lang. With the renewed success of the record, a tour quickly followed. “I was dreading it and it was like the Dylan scenario; everyone shouted out, ‘We want to hear you on your own’. The band started to fall apart and get depressed. I got very depressed, drank too much and there was lots of white marching powder coming from Danny. In the end the band broke up and I did the rest of the nights with just Rod and Mike. I became very confused and lost, went to America and stopped playing for six months, and it all happened because of that song!” he laughs.
Since that time, the Ralph McTell story has continued to be unabated. Albums, tours, composing material for television series – there seems nothing the man can’t turn his hand to. What’s clear is that Ralph still enjoys playing music as he did when he was hanging out in a drafty Cornish barn with Wiz Jones. “It has all been an incredible life and even now, every time I open my guitar case and take out my guitar, even before I strum a chord I get a buzz. I just think, ‘You lucky bastard!’”
Ralph’s collection of guitar instrumentals, Sofa Noodling, is out now.