Monday, December 04, 2017

"Old songs lose young meanings - but new ones, they gain..."

“Old songs lose young meanings
But new ones, they gain...”

The lyric may come from a different song - his First Song, indeed - but the sentiments resonate here at least when it comes to Ralph McTell and his most famous masterpiece.
Streets Of London has been re-recorded and re-released to mark its half-century and also that of the anti-homelessness charity Crisis - and McTell tells of his despair that his most famous track remains relevant so long after first recording it, with rising numbers of people living on the streets.
Guest vocalist Annie Lennox performs on the new recording released today - with all sale proceeds to the charity - alongside an 88-voice choir made up of not only charity workers but some of the homeless people they help.
The song, first released in 1967 before reaching number two in the charts seven years later, urges understanding and compassion for the homeless, with the chorus: ‘Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London.’
McTell, who turned 73 on Sunday, said: ‘The first time I recorded it, it was an after-thought on an album - but now it’s become so much bigger.
‘Yet the situation on the streets remains the same - it’s like we’re almost inured to it now, these scenes on the streets that I thought back then no civilised nation should ever expect to see.’

He first wrote the melody while busking in Paris and was encouraged to add words ‘to your nice little tunes’ by fellow-guitarist Gary Peterson - although the lyrics were inspired by vagrants he saw walking along Surrey Street Market in his native Croydon.
The choir on the track released today was conducted by Only Men Aloud’s Tim Rhys-Evans while guitar parts were provided by Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson.
Crisis plans to open 13 centres for more than 4,000 homeless guests over Christmas.
The charity’s chief executive Jon Sparkes said: ‘Our heartfelt thanks go to Ralph McTell, Annie Lennox and all Crisis clients and staff who lent their voices to this record.
‘The vital funds and awareness it will raise will help us support even more people facing homelessness this Christmas.  
‘It’s 50 years since Crisis was founded as an urgent response to an unacceptable situation – and it’s nothing less than a tragedy that we are still here today when homelessness should be a thing of the past.’
McTell explained : ‘Over the years my son Tom has taken over my career management and he said to me, “Dad, it’s time we did a charity version of Streets Of London.
‘The idea was to put down a backing track and have lots of different artists sing a line each, like the BBC's Perfect Day.
‘Suddenly Crisis came in, having had a similar idea, and said they had their own choir available which made it very special - made up of some of their clients and some of their staff.
‘I thought, if that doesn’t bring a tear to a glass eye at Christmas then nothing will.’
He praises Lennox’s vocals, although admits the new version is ‘very very different’ to his various recordings of the song in the past.
‘What I wanted from it now was to be a kind of secular Christmas carol and I think we’ve come pretty close.
‘I did it at the London Palladium recently and the Crisis choir joined me on stage - people were quite visibly moved.’
He did have to correct the choir on some of the lyrics they had found misquoted online - including the first verse about ‘the old man in the closed-down market’.
‘There are some really dodgy versions knocking around, with the wrong chords and the wrong words.
‘I had to explain the man was “kicking up the papers” not “picking up the papers” - to show more of a movement.’
Despite a 50-year career including more than 300 songs, he admits he may be seen by some as the quintessential ‘one-hit wonder’ - but takes pride in both his back catalogue and the one that stands out for so many.
Late-Nineties comedy sketch show Big Train featured a scene suggesting audience-members can be stupefied should he dare to play any other song but Streets Of London.
But he insists he rejoices in playing the same song every night - feeling pleasure anew, when sensing how an audience’s instincts surge when those opening chords and their delicate interplay kick in.
He said: ‘I’m thankful I can enter that emotional side of the song every time.
‘Even if I did begin to feel cynical about it, I don’t see how I could for long with a song that seems to mean so much to other people - there’s a change in the room when it starts.’
He suggests some bemusement at the Big Train sketch too, not understanding why it might be funny - not only for the claim he might bristle at playing the same song over and over, but that his loyal audience would demand it anyway.
‘I didn’t get that at all when I saw it - I thought, that’s not very funny, although apparently it is.
‘I’m sure that as far as the general public sees me, it’s as the personification of the one-hit wonder but for me, I feel so lucky I have a loyal audience that knows all the songs which all have their place.
‘When last year we did a concert of the 20 songs fans have voted for as their favourites, I was very relieved to find Streets wasn’t the most popular - it was up there, but by far the winner was From Clare To Here.'
Streets Of London has been covered more than 200 times, including by the late Glen Campbell who made it a regular part of his stage show - each time praising the song as one of his favourites.
McTell said: ‘His version would have to be up there among the best. He was very generous about it.
‘I also love the cover Sinead O’Connor did. Sinead has this childlike innocence about certain songs. She was very moved by it and does quote it quite a lot.’
He is a warm and wise presence down the phone, just as on record or in concert, even giving over time in the morning away from celebrations for his 73rd birthday and his grand-daughter’s sixth.
Favourites of his own, right now, don’t include Streets but instead The Ferryman from 1971 and the more recent West 4th Street And Jones - a reflection on 1962 and that year’s second “Freewheelin’” Bob Dylan album, all the promise in the air for folk music and the world beyond, only for the following year’s JFK assassination to bring in a bleaker awakening.
‘It was the beginning of what was going to be our time - on the album cover there’s Dylan and his girlfriend, they may be a young couple living in squalid conditions but they were free - yet there was hope and then despair.
‘The times we’re in now seem similar - we have a madman in charge of the free world, the nuclear threat is growing and yet despite it all, people are falling in love every day and life goes on.’

Thank you, Ralph, for your time and your generosity towards someone gushing about tapes heard as a kid, attempted finger-picking riffs on an acoustic  - including notes in a 1984 book borrowed from Barnet library in which he admits one nifty acoustic riff on Nettle Wine is unplayable on stage due to a fortuitous tape-snipping edit.
My dad greeted Ralph to a folk club he helped run in Newport in Shropshire at the turn of the Sixties into the Seventies and has occasionally promised to root around for the reel-to-reel tape recordings he made back then.
My mum ran a kids’ theatre troupe, the One World Players, named for the annual One World Week, and one of our arms-around-everyone numbers would of course be Streets - and my brothers have passed on a love of such songs their own kids, with two presently living in Nigeria singing Streets with their school choir in a local ‘Peace Cafe’.
Seven-year-old Eva suggests, however, her favourite of his is Let Me Down Easy.
Mulling it all over, I may have to agree.
Although, then again, there’s the jauntily subtle tragedy of Maginot Waltz, or the heartaching Factory Girl - the spindly jitteriness of Spiral Staircase, or the filigree finger-picking and clipped lyrics of mini-melodrama Terminus, or else the sagely poetic counselling of After Rain.
Ah, the soft crack of the voice in a moment towards the end of nostalgic Mrs Adlam's Angels - or the humane imagination of others' relationships and lives such as fictional(?) Naomi, all-too-real Sylvia, compassionately-celebrated Michael In The Garden or matey neighbour Mr Connaughton.
The questing wrangles with faith, whether in the wrought Jesus Wept or virtuoso Hands Of Joseph, or war whether within factional villages with their Peppers And Tomatoes or a nation's anxious streets on the verge in England 1914 - or a search for a non-nationalistic patriotism in England.
Or just how simple life (say, Summer Girls) and love (say, Dreams Of You) and heartfelt fervour (say, Words I Couldn't Say) or despair (say, I'm Not Really Blue) or denial (say, I Don't Think About You) and hopeful just a few reminders (say, Nanna's Song) can come to us all.
Perhaps, instead, the simple transcendence of an appreciative mermaid for an audience and a handy seagull for a cab - and the words just seem to float on by, maybe you've had the feeling...
Not to mention that ever-deft way around an acoustic guitar, any rag-time.
Too too many to choose from, then  - ah, just explore the man’s entire ouevre.
‘Let me take you by the hand...’

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