The folk song that spoke to a generation lives on

Ralph McTell.  Photo by John Haxby
Ralph McTell. Photo by John Haxby
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Ralph McTell, with Streets of London, created a song that will last forever. Nick Ahad talks to the man with much more in his back catalogue.

A Simon Pegg sketch show made it difficult to interview Ralph McTell.

Pegg, who has gone from British television sketches to bona fide Hollywood fare, was one of the writer/performers on a show that featured a sketch about folk legend McTell. The singer, played by an impersonator, was on stage singing his massively popular hit Streets of London. As he tried to play a second song, the crowd turned angry and demanded he play Streets of London, again, their anger only subsiding when the opening chords to McTell’s biggest hit start to be played.

Like all the best comedy, the sketch is rooted in truth – when you have a hit as big as Streets of London, which really was gargantuan by any measure, then you surely will have it hanging around your neck as an albatross for the rest of your career.

Which makes it a little tricky to talk to the progenitor of such a song, surely he will be at least bored, and possibly even irritated, at being asked about such a hit. Particularly when he opens with a comment about being asked about it during the interview sessions he’s been conducting ahead of a new tour.

“Everyone always wants to ask about it,” is McTell’s immediate attitude.

So I go in via a side door. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of other stuff to talk to the singer-songwriter about. At 76, he has spent six decades wandering and playing his guitar and songs. It began with him hitch-hiking around Europe, emulating his hero Woody Guthrie and in 1965 found himself on the streets of Paris, where he met guitarist Gary Peterson who became something of a mentor.

McTell wasn’t exactly an overnight success – he was at teacher training college while trying to write and perform his songs in the evenings.

He was, however, gaining a strong following on the English folk circuit and, in 
an absolute antithesis to today’s X Factor-saturated music industry, discovered hard work and earning an audience was a way to build longevity.

In 1970 his hard work on the circuit had begun to pay off and he was invited to play at what became one of the defining moments of the free love, hippy movement of the epoch, The Isle of Wight Festival. McTell remembers it as a defining moment for him, too.

“I was on the ferry there and was slowly becoming aware of all these people. When I went on stage I was wearing a shirt that I swapped for some second hand guitar strings – it immediately became my lucky shirt,” he says.

“When I got to the festival I was taken round the back of the stage before my slot and Kris Kristofferson was playing. I slowly started to get a sense of just how many people there were out there.

“I think it turned out that there were 500,000. I went out and saw nothing but a sea of people in front of me. It felt like I picked up my guitar, sang a song and two minutes later, I was off. I actually played for 45 minutes and performed an encore.

“Don McLean sang about the day the music died, for me, that was the day the music died. Jimi (Hendrix) played that afternoon, and he was dead within weeks.

“It felt like the last time music was just about the music, about young people in a field, getting stoned, having sex and just being there for the music.”

While the Isle of Wight was a highlight, the major breakthrough of McTell’s career came from the impossible-to-not-mention uber hit Streets of London.

In 1969 he performed the song at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and heard the crowd singing it back to him – even though he had only ever played it live at folk club gigs.

“I actually think the song is a little bit naive, it’s certainly not the best thing I wrote,” he says.

The song reached number two in the UK singles chart, 
at one point selling 90,000 copies a day and winning 
him the Ivor Novello Award and a Silver disc for record sales.

“Everyone thinks the song is about homelessness, but I actually wrote it for a friend of mine who was hooked on heroin. I used to think ‘how can he think he’s alone, when he has all these friends and there are people out there with nobody?’.

“The song changed my life and it’s actually really lovely to think that it will be around long after I’m gone.”

Ralph McTell’s musical journey to hit-making success

Ralph McTell was born in December 1944.

He joined the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion, aged 15, but after borrowing enough money to buy his way out, he returned to education (briefly) and began a lifelong commitment to the guitar. In 1967 in Cornwall where McTell was a campsite maintenance man by day, he began his entertainment career playing at night – and has never looked back, touring almost constantly since.

Ralph McTell plays Richmond Theatre Royal, Oct 14, Sheffield City Hall, Oct 16 and Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Oct 19.