Ralph McTell: The Unknown Soldier

 Summary

Format:  CDmctell-unknown-soldier

Genre:  Folk (Contemporary), vocal

Tracks:  5

Playing time:  22 minutes

Availability (out of 3):  ***

Related website(s):  http://www.ralphmctell.co.uk

My rating:  9/10

I like…   The lyrics, the basic arrangements

I’m less keen on…  – 

_______________

Ralph Mctell has been my musical hero for 40 years or so, and I am honoured to have had a number of CDs autographed at gigs over the years. He can write evocative and moving songs about almost anything, as a listen to almost any of his albums will testify.

Who?

Best known for “Streets Of London” (for which he won an Ivor Novello award), but sadly for little else, I think his music really deserves to be much better known. His lyrics are often strong enough to stand on their own merits as poems, most of his tunes are melodically strong (hummable and memorable) and, to cap it all, he is a great acoustic guitar player.

ralph-mctell

What better way to start my blog, then, than with a Ralph review? A few qualifying comments, though…

This is essentially an EP, not a full album, and one song makes up two of the tracks as a studio and a live recording. Also, the songs are united by the one theme of the First World War, so in some ways this isn’t a typical Ralph album. That’s the only reason I’ve rated this 9/10 instead of 10/10.

The album…

comes in card packaging, normally a pet hate of mine, to be honest. In this case though it seems almost right, seeming more in keeping with its theme than a plastic jewel case. I’m impressed by the cover and CD design. The cover consists of an image of a partial, worn and faded Union flag with an image of a “Tommy”, standing with his head bowed and his rifle down-turned to the ground.

The cover and notes contain all the lyrics, an explanation of Ralph’s fascination with the conflict, and some photographs from the period; one of these is of Ralph’s grandfather in army uniform, before departing for France. His stated aim is “not to recount the battles, deprivations or undoubted heroics of the participants…” but “an attempt to evoke the final loss of innocence we experienced as a nation.”

 

I do feel something of a connection with this album. My maternal grandfather served on the Western Front with the Royal Flying Corps, and later served in Mesopotamia. On the journey to the middle east he narrowly escaped serious trouble for thumping a sergeant who was mocking the speech impediment of one of my grandfather’s friends. The struggle to speak was the result of being subjected to a gas attack.

I wasn’t aware of the reason at the time, but in my boyhood there were many elderly spinsters – half a generation of potential husbands had been lost.

Poignantly – and very cleverly, I feel – the CD itself is printed as a reproduction of a commemorative bronze “medal” that was issued to families of the fallen. It bears the name inscription “Tommy Atkins” and bears the words “He died for freedom and honour”.

canopus-cvr

The open album sleeve and the CD (my photo)

The tracks

1: The Lamplighter (aka “England 1914”)

Ralph wrote this song back in 1968. It starts in a slightly whimsical way, “Night stirs her inky finger in the water of the day…” and begins by describing normal and peaceful scenes as the (gas) lamplighter does his rounds. There’s a change of mood, though, and Ralph cleverly includes a line that the gas lamps stand like soldiers, a warning of what is about to transpire. Dreams of hope and peace are empty, and as for the lamplighter – “he’s not coming back again”.

I find this a thought provoking, evocative song, and a moving take on the “nothing can be quite the same again” motif that forms one line.

2: Maginot Waltz

 I liked this when I first heard it as a teenager on Ralph’s “Easy” album. Written in the first person, it tells of a day trip in a charabanc to Brighton. The two young men, Albert and the friend who narrates the events are accompanied by Albert’s cousin, Marjorie.

A vintage charabanc

The two catch each other’s eye and their initial coyness begins to dissipate. They attend a dance at the Pier and in a nice touch “I explained of course that I could only waltz, and so we waltzed to every tune and air.” Marjorie is subdued on the return journey however, filled with foreboding at the imminent departure of her cousin – and of her new admirer, too.

I feel that the poignancy of the song is enhanced by the allusion to the naivety and optimism of the time. “We’ll both be home in a week or two” Marjorie is assured. “I’m sure to return – after me do not yearn – then we will waltz together all our lives through”. It’s only a song, of course, but it’s nevertheless moving, especially given the huge numbers of men whose promised return never came to fruition. I remember as a child a whole generation of spinsters in their 70s and 80s, due to the decimation of eligible men in the War.

3: Canopus

 Hearing this song live at a Ralph gig led me to buy this album. As well as being a powerful song, and allegedly based on a true story, I also feel it shows some of Ralph’s songwriting talent.

 

The First World War theme is dealt with here not so much by describing people’s experience but that of an industrial (steam) railway engine based in Cornwall, “Canopus”. Day by day Canopus hauled wagons of china clay from the pits to the coast. Once a year “he” took a trip of happy, singing Sunday school children on the same route.

197px-tea-treat_trip_on_pentewan_railway_from_st_austell_to_pentewan_before_19142

 

“Tea treat trip on Pentewan Railway from St Austell to Pentewan before 1914”

 

The normality is shattered. Tracks are torn up and transported across the Channel. So is Canopus. Instead of clay or singing Sunday school children he takes smiling, waving soldiers to the front line.

Like many of them, Canopus is abandoned somewhere. In my view it’s an imaginative song, using an inanimate object to portray a lost innocence and forsakenness. There are striking phrases about the horrors of embattled soldiers, too, “their bodies raped by bullets”.

4 and 5: The Unknown Soldier

 This song is represented by a studio and also by a live recording. Again I feel that this is a powerful and clever song. It tells the true story of the body that lies in the “Tomb of the unknown warrior” in Westminster Abbey. Apparently six unidentified bodies were exhumed and one was selected for this most poignant ceremony and burial.

The funeral ceremony was conducted two years to the day after the cessation of hostilities. Thousands attended, and the King walked behind the cortege.

unkwnown-warrior

“The cortege of an unidentified British soldier passes down Whitehall”

I find the whole song profoundly moving, but especially the allusion in the third verse to the belief or prayer of those in attendance that the body in the coffin might just be that of their own loved one, whose shattered body was incapable of being identified.

Part of the song is spoken rather than sung. I usually find this practice a bit cheesy, but given the subject of the song and Ralph’s evident empathy with the topic, I think it actually enhances the sombre mood.

I am also moved by the reference to the last enemy to be conquered – the sense of guilt of those who survived when so many didn’t.

Concluding comments

All the songs are sung to stripped-down arrangements, mainly with Ralph’s guitar to the fore behind his voice, though with some harmonica, violin and keyboards.

Perhaps not the best album to begin an acquaintance with Ralph’s work, simply because of its one theme of war, but it’s a fine collection of war (or anti-war) songs, moving and thought-provoking, and a worthy addition to a collection of contemporary folk music or to a collection of Ralph McTell albums.

My rating: 9/10

__________

Also recommended:

 One of Ralph’s live albums, “Ralph, Albert And Sydney” from performances in the 1970s or “Travelling Man”, containing a selection from across a wider section of his long career. “Somewhere Down The Road” is a fairly recent album with some splendid and evocative songs; for a sample of his earlier work I think that “Not Till Tomorrow” takes some beating. I rate all four of these 10/10!

__________

Photo Credits:

Section “Who?” (Ralph McTell):  https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/976x549_b/p044p0v1.jpg

Charabanc: http://www.oldclassiccar.co.uk/classic-car-images/kelly-springfield.jpg

“Tea-time trip…”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentewan_Railway#/media/File:Tea-treat_trip_on_Pentewan_Railway_from_St_Austell_to_Pentewan_before_1914.jpg

“Cortege of an unknown…”: http://i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article3943870.ece/ALTERNATES/s615b/The-cortege-of-an-unidentified-British-soldier-passes-down-Whitehall.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: mostlyacousticsteve

My musical interests are mainly (but not exclusively) “folk” and acoustic blues music. I aim to publish a post about every two weeks. Although I'm in my 50s I'm new to blogging - please bear with me. My other interests are playing acoustic guitar, photography and wildlife.

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