Genre: Folk (contemporary)
Tracks: 20 (18 songs)
Playing time: 75
Availability (out of 3): *
Related website(s): http://www.ralphmctell.co.uk
My rating: 10/10
I like… The range of song topics and moods, the powerful lyrics and great tunes, Ralph’s natural stage manner
I’m less keen on… Its being hard to source!
I was in two minds whether to review this album in view of its present scarcity. In the end I have done so, as used copies will be available at times, and in any case it is a worthwhile album to review!
Ralph McTell’s musical career has spanned almost 50 years. He is best known for his song “Streets Of London”, for which he won an Ivor Novello award. In 2002 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Ralph “back then…”
He is a remarkably gifted songwriter, able to capture details with striking phrases and imagery. His songs cover a huge range of topics, from incidents of his own childhood through to (for example) genocide, and with a liberal collection of love songs happy and sad.
is in effect the second of a series of three live albums (at the time of its release). The others are “Ralph, Albert and Sydney” and “Travelling Man”. All three were recorded years apart, and the three together make for some fine listening and a great introduction to Ralph’s music. I have seen him live on a number of occasions, and he has a relaxed, natural manner and engages brilliantly with his audiences.
If proof of this rapport were needed, two brief tracks included on the album comprise a proposal of marriage from Ralph on stage on behalf of a young lady to her partner – and an announcement of the happy response!
Because this is a compilation of songs from performances captured on tape in over fifteen venues and over the best part of two decades, the sound is variable. It’s generally good; one (the charming “Near Enough”) is of inferior quality, but that’s only one song of eighteen!
This album, then, doesn’t quite have the feel of being at a single Ralph gig. This isn’t a criticism; it’s simply an observation that the album notes themselves make.
Thankfully this album was issued in a plastic jewel case, just the thing to preserve it in good condition – especially if, like mine, your copy bears his autograph, signed at a gig!
Having already stated that Ralph can write songs about all manner of subjects – and songs of high calibre, at that – it seems useful to give an overview of the subjects covered.
“Gypsy” is a protest about the mistreatment of, and prejudice against, gypsies, and concludes with a plea to “let the gypsy dance”. Mrs Adlam’s Angels” is a song about a Sunday School teacher from Ralph’s childhood. “Lovin’ I Crave” and “When Did You Leave Heaven” are Ralph’s take on some vintage blues/ragtime songs, deftly accompanied on his guitar.
“Factory Girl” tells of the dreary life of a young woman factory worker. “From Clare To Here” is a song of homesickness (Clare being County Clare in Ireland, not a lady!) “Red And Gold” is about a English Civil War battle in 1644 for Cropredy Bridge. “The Slip Shod Tap Room Dance” comes from Ralph’s “Boy With A Note” album about the life of Dylan Thomas.
“Girl From The Hiring Fair” is a love song. “Old Brown Dog” is a moving song about – well, an old brown dog whose owner has died and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, it’s about the dog’s swansong!
Some of the songs – even those that aren’t biographical – are sung in the first person, the “I” and “me” and “my” adding to the evocative nature of the lyrics.
Ralph’s guitar accompaniment is adept and supports the songs rather than taking it over – unless he wants it too, of course, when he does so with a skilled and marvellous touch!
Mrs Adlam’s Angels
“I wonder if her angels have their arms around her curled,
keeping her safe from harm, and guarding her from the world…”
I had this song on Ralph’s “Spiral Staircase” album on vinyl, and I like the childhood memories that Ralph evokes of Sunday school in “the dingy mission hall.”
Ralph and the other children “thought they saw a halo in her hair”, and although he and his brother never saw any angels themselves they “heard them softly singing…”
I also like the way that the perspective shifts. It begins with Mrs Adlam telling the children about God, and wanting them to feel safe in his care. It concludes with Ralph reflecting on her in her old age (as quoted above), now needing angelic protection herself as she becomes frail and vulnerable.
describes the dreariness of life in a factory where early in the day an attempt is made to talk “but their voice is soon drowned by the din” and the new day’s rhythm begins.”
The lady in question lives for her nights out. There are details like being told not to be late home by her mother, because she will need to be up early for work the next day, and some great descriptions of her joy as she runs to the garden gate for her night out.
From Clare To Here
was written, Ralph announces, as the result of a chance remark by an Irish fellow labourer on a building site where Ralph worked for a time – “It’s a long way from Clare to here…” American singer Nanci Griffith recorded a version of this Ralph song.
I like the details such as the deferred fulfilment of the promise to write home, the Friday nights of drinking “to sort of ease the pain a bit and level out our thinking…”
“…it’s a long, long way, and gets further every day,
oh, it’s a long, long way from Clare to here.”
Red And Gold
is my second favourite track on the album. The title comes both from the colour of ripening fields, poppies, blood – and the red and gold clothing worn by the Royalist army.
“The king’s men, they wore red and gold, Cromwell’s men were plainer,
though the blood they shed was coloured just the same…”
It describes a field labourer who passes out after injuring himself, and wakes to the sound of battle as the Royalists and Parliamentarians fought for Cropredy Bridge, Oxfordshire, in 1644.
Cropredy Bridge as in 1644
It captures the horror of civil war with brothers killing one another, and also captures the abiding effect of the memory of the man who tells the story in the song. It’s sung in the first person, which gives it a more personal and immediate impact. It also has some clever imagery and links between the two colours of the title.
Blues and similar…
Ralph is a very adept guitar player, and three tracks on the album showcase his skill – and his love of vintage blues and rags. “Lovin’ I Crave” is a song made famous by Bind Blake, and has a ragtime, upbeat, syncopated tempo. “When Did You Leave Heaven” comes from the singing of Big Bill Broonzy and is a little sentimental, but both its pedigree and Ralph’s delivery prevent it from being excessively so. The fabulous playing of the great Joseph Spence (from the Bahamas) is echoed in the final tune, “Great Dreams Of Heaven.”
The Girl From The Hiring Fair
is set in the days when fairs were held for farmers (and other employers) and prospective workers as a means of recruiting. I think Ralph does a fine job of telling the growing desire of a shy young man for a young lady who is recruited along with him.
The tension is built up brilliantly and beautifully, progressing from coy initial glances to the portentous moment when “I had her near at last” in the harvest field, and ends with romance and passion.
is my favourite song. Sung in the first person and with conviction, it sounds for all the world as though it is autobiographical, but as far as I’m aware it isn’t.
It’s a moving account of bidding farewell to a brother, and has the refrain “It’s so hard to say goodbye…” and some very poignant lines and phrases:
“For I fully intended to put in a half day
but my good intentions went with you on the train…”
It’s a great pity that this album has become so scarce, and, to me, that’s its only downside. I think Ralph is at his best live, and this album doesn’t disappoint. It contains a wide range of songs written over a period of nearly twenty years, and they are all moving in one way or another.
My rating: 10/10
Please note – this is not a money-making blog and I am simply trying to share my enjoyment of music or other media. However I am anxious to credit any images included in my posts.
“Ralph back then”: http://rock6070.e-monsite.com/pages/folk-blues-1/ralph-mctell.html
“Mission Hall Wellington St”: www.peoplesmission.co.uk/our-history/our-history-part-2/
“Factory girls”: https://libcom.org/library/making-english-working-class-ep-thompson
Cropredy bridge: : http://www.britishbattles.com/battle-of-cropredy-bridge
Hiring Fair notice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Hiring_and_mop_fairs#/media/File:Take_Notice_that_the_Cardigan_Hiring_Fair_1861