It was a bit surreal having Ralph McTell, the troubadour nonpareil, singing a line of From Clare to Here over the phone to me on February 14th.
The folk scene was it for me in the 60's and 70's, many a glorious hour spent in Bunjie's off Leicester Square, so I've grown up with Ralph's songs from those early days of strumming the chords to THAT song (Streets of London) which we didn't mention once.It was a bit of an anthem for those of us who heard it long before it became a hit.But of course there is much more to Ralph's repertoire than that and the fact that he can still tour and fill concert halls wherever he goes suggests I am not the only one who loves his music and his guitar playing.
So dovegreyreader asks...welcomes Ralph McTell to the virtual armchair in the Tamar Valley just before he heads off on his tour of Australia this week, and with very grateful thanks to him for sparing the time to do it.
dgr: Always a musician…
Ralph: I was always always affected by music and
wanted to make music for as long as I can remember. Music and magic fused into
one as a little boy, I was fascinated by both. Music affected me spiritually
and like magic was uplifting to me, my mum used to sing to me when she was in the kitchen,sad 40’s songs of parting after the war. I
thought she was making them up but she was expressing everything, so they were
very affecting for this little boy.
I’ve always been aware of the power and the hugeness of music but I didn’t really play anything until I got my first harmonica and I went around playing that, it was in my pocket constantly and learning to whistle was important because that meant I could play tunes. My grandfather gave me a one string fiddle made out of a cigar box and I played that for a while. It was always there, I always loved music, we got an old piano from somewhere and I plonked around on that.
I've got quite a good ear so I just taught myself but not very well but when the guitar came along and the music, the American folky kind of bluesy guitar style well that was it.
I knew what I wanted to do and that just took over my entire life.
dgr:Your finest musical moment...
Ralph:I’m still waiting for it I think.
It sounds vain to say it but I think most musicians who’ve had a long career would say this. Apart from the obvious, aren’t we lucky to be able to do this for people, to create some sort of resonance between the performer and the audience which is the most marvellous spiritual thing, some nights you don’t ever want to do it again because it went so perfectly.
There are not very many of them, but some nights are just wonderful and those are all fine musical moments.
I think the other finest moment you look forward to is putting the pencil down having finished a new song and play it through and all the bits are brought together, the rhyme scheme, the spirit of the thing, the rhythm, the accompaniment.if it all sits right that’s a wonderful magic moment and that’s all I crave really.
Not very much for myself I’m afraid, I was spoilt because my old mum, even thought she was dog tired would read to us most nights, adventure stories, the Secret Seven, Famous Five. Sometimes some fairy tales when we very small but she didn’t like those because they were usually rather mawkish. As little boys it was a very special moment, mum sitting with us because she was out all day working and we were little street herberts really. But she’d learnt this from being in service, she was a nanny’s assistant to the Marquis of Hertford she read very well, so we had that and BBC’s Children’s Hour on the radio, which was a blind medium really. I used to read stories out of comics with pictures but I was lazy as far as books were concerned and I’m still not an avid reader.
dgr:Teenage angst reading...
Not until I was out of the army, reading and the army don’t go together
it was all about shedding your softness and hardening up, I was a big gawky lad
and I had to grow up quickly. But when I was baled out and got back to college
there was a wonderful movement beginning, Woody Guthrie songs and Jack Kerouac
writing and I just fell for it like I did with modern jazz as well and I
thought it was all about unravelling the mysteries of life.
So I did start to read, poetry and a few books, Beat poetry and stories and then fell big time for God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell which was I suppose fanciful Americana and then the brilliant books by John Steinbeck, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, I loved them and they were all in harmony with what was going on with my guitar and in my head and they were hugely influential.
And I still aspire, Steinbeck’s basis for short story writing is much the same I think as I would try to put into song writing.One of the most illuminating books for me was Conversations about a Novel by John Steinbeck which was bought for me in the early 70’s by a roadie from a band of mine and was a book of letters Steinbeck wrote to his publisher every morning before commencing his work on East of Eden. Fabulous book
Ralph:When I was walking backwards from what I saw as the entrapment of
religious belief indoctrination and so on, spiritual books still held a
fascination for me and like most people who grew up through the 60’s and 70’s, I
tilted at mystic religion but there was one book above all others that helped
me through a bad time and it was the writing of Herman Hesse, namely Siddhartha.
What I took from the book was that you shouldn’t be afraid, that you are part of the world and you will make it resonate in a small way, even just by your footsteps, and if you listen and you look there could be enough of you, I’m not saying I’m an intellectual, please don’t think that, but if you have the ability to intellectualise it a little bit, to think a little deeper about it, it makes sense to me and then you have your lot of kindness and peace and that’ll do me because I have music and arts and other things and that will do instead of religion.
dgr: A lot of people feel quite inadequate about their reading, thinking I’m not a literary person, I haven’t got a degree, but most people read and take something from it don’t they?
Ralph: I believe they do but you see when you write words you’re trying to write all the time and you don’t want to copy somebody else so you’re trying to find original thoughts and you think and hope that through the subtlety of whatever your message might be people will glimpse that each song is a little piece in the jigsaw that relates to your philosophy.I’m delighted when people are moved and touched by books and by songs because we’re all in it to communicate if we’re not why do we do it?
dgr: It's easy to be judgemental, classifying people by what they read, if somebody gets something from whatever book it is they read then that’s perfectly valid, do you think it's the same with music?
Ralph: Well it’s absolutely the same as music, some people can listen to an old blues player playing an out of tune guitar and they’ll get it, some people can listen to Charlie Parker playing the most unbelievable bee-bop solos on a bad saxophone and they’ll get it, others won’t get it. They’ll get it from somewhere else and they may never get it from music at all. There are plenty of people who don’t “get” paintings and don’t understand colours.
If you can get a handle on what the artist is trying to convey, it’s so uplifting and worthwhile. I say to someone who doesn’t get jazz, well listen a little bit more until you do, people often say it’s boring, well do it until it’s not boring, it’s kind of a Buddhist thing I think. Whatever medium, whatever turns you on and opens your head to other ideas, even if you understand it and disagree, that’s OK too…I do wish I read more.
dgr: Recent reading?
Ralph: I’ve just re-read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Woody
Guthrie’s book Bound for Glory. Somebody very kindly sent it to me and I wish I
knew who they were because I can’t thank them and I’ve just bought a first
edition of that. Right now I’m reading an autobiography of an Irish writer and
singer called Tommy Sands, The Songman, A Journey in Irish Music.
I’m equally likely to have a book of Dylan Thomas or Seamus Heaney poems by the bed. I read mostly in the evenings, I can’t give up time during the day to read, that feels like a total indulgence, I should be doing something else like practising the guitar.
dgr:For those of us in thrall to the Irish writer Niall Williams, could you please tell us the story behind From Clare to Here?
Ralph: Now, it follows on rather nicely from what I was saying about
Woody Guthrie, the idea of the young socialist Ralph being all rebellious and
trying to be strong and brave and all the rest of it and could do without Jesus
and all that. Woody Guthrie’s message was a simple belief in humanity, the
working man would triumph eventually although he was condemned in
the main, through his education, to do rather lowly jobs.
I was more than qualified to do better than I did, but I wanted to work in as many manual fields as I could and I had dozens of jobs. But the happiest job I ever had was on a building site in South London, paradoxically opposite the grammar school where I was supposed to have been educated.I got fit and happy and well and strong as a horse and worked there for about eight months before an accident stopped that. During that time I worked with the Irish gangs, I noticed they were paid a bit more money than me and I was put together with a young fellow who was clearly lying about his age, all I remember is that his name was Michael.
I was playing a little guitar by that time and loving it and I was full of the poetry of work and music and young manhood and we were down in this trench and in an effort to bring him out of this ghetto mentality that a lot of the Irishmen had when they came over here in the early 60’s, it was a drink culture and they didn’t break out of their own very much, I tried to make conversation with this young fellow and it was very hard work.
One day I was rolling a cigarette in the bottom of this trench and I can remember it as clear as if it was yesterday, because we were way down, at least 12 foot deep with shoring and he was whacking away with the shovel and I said
“Oh it must be very strange for you Michael, being here in London"
“Ah sure it’s a long way from Clare to here”.
And if he’d said to me it’s a long way from here to Clare it would have just gone past in the conversation.We had an expression “Oh that sounds a bit Irish”, when we mean a bit convoluted, the subject and the object are in the wrong place. And I thought that’s it absolutely, it is a long way from Clare to here, that’s a poem, that’s worth examining because which came first, home or where he was?
Plainly he’d said home is more important, it’s a long way from where I’m from to where I am, rather than from where I am to where I’m from.
It stuck in my head.
I’d wanted to write a song in the 70’s about the continued exploitation of cheap labour again coming from Ireland.It was called The Lump at that time and it was uninsured work, trucks would drive round to various positions and say I’ve got work for 6 blokes, like the old dockers system, and I remember reading about beds that were never empty, one lot would go out and another lot would come in and I just got that opening line
“There’s four of us share this room” then the word craic. I didn’t even know how to spell it at the time, a lovely Irish word meaning how’s the tempo, how’s the mood, is there any fun in it and suddenly I got this betrayal of the ideal, of going away. I know mass doesn’t rhyme with craic but lots of things don’t rhyme and I had a first verse then all of a sudden...
(Sings) “It’s a long way from Clare to here”
And there it was and I just listed, as sometimes happens, the frustration and the boy who never settled down, just wants to get drunk and fight and get rid of his anger that way and another one not writing home like he promised to and the dreams of home and money disappearing and the song wrote itself in about an hour and has proven to be quite a hit, quite a few people have recorded it now.
There's four who share this room as we work hard for the craic
And sleeping late on Sundays I never get to Mass
It's a long way from Clare to here
It's a long way from Clare to here
It's a long, long way, it grows further by the day
It's a long way from Clare to here
When Friday comes around Terry's only into fighting
My ma would like a letter home but I'm too tired for writing
It almost breaks my heart when I think of Josephine
I told her I'd be coming home with my pockets full of green
And the only time I feel alright is when I'm into drinking
It sort of eases the pain of it and levels out my thinking
I sometimes hear a fiddle play or maybe it's a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It's a long, long way from Clare to here.