McTell and Poole’s freezing winter 1962/63

Ralph McTell: Lighthouse, Poole.Tuesday (1st November 2016)

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. With an inimitable deep velvety voice and a guitar style that is without equal, McTell delivers songs that are often deeply autobiographical. He’s a profoundly skilled songwriter and compelling storyteller. His opening numbers 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.

But there were observational songs too like Pepper and Tomatoes which he penned in response to the appalling ethnic cleansing that occurred as neighbour turned against neighbour in the former Yugoslavia.  There was Reverend Thunder which told the story of blues legend the 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. Here was a one-time simple South London folk singer who opened his ears to some wondrous sounds and soaked up everything that was going.  It was all there at the Poole concert – a  little bluesy ragtime here, the earnest words of a New York cowboy there and the occasional blast of a soul-warming Dylanesque harmonica. It was a joy. McTell says that as a songwriter and musician he’s still learning. At 71 he sounds at the top of his game, though one or two of the high notes he would have routinely included a few years back are now 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. He’s right of coures. There really have been a lot of changes in the ensuing decades. Who’da thought back then that radical vagabond folkie Dylan would become a Nobel Laureate? Now that we all know how well deserved that award is, it seems an obvious choice but back then it would  have been unthinkable. Ralph Mctell made a point of publicly adding his congratulations from the Lighhouse stage and it underlined the fact that then times really are a changin’.

Sadly one thing that has not changed in the past half century is the lack of empathy shown to the homeless, the poor and the mentally ill.  The pen-portraits that Ralph McTell used to describe the deseperate, lonely and vulnerable in Streets of London are as pertinent now as they were on the day that he wrote the song. 

Jeremy Miles 

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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