This much I know: Ralph McTell, musician

Music kept me on the straight and narrow.I discovered music at 16. I was in danger of becoming a bit wayward had it not been for the stabilising discipline of the guitar.

I was dreadfully shy and my guitar was my shield. I’m 70 now and 50 years later I still get the same symptoms of near panic before I go on stage. My hands change temperature, my heart beat increases. 

Once I’m out there, I know the first number will be too fast, but I also know things will slow down and I will play well. I don’t have to win audiences over. Most of them know the songs. It allows for nuance and intimacy.

Around 350 songs later, I’m still amazed at the success of ‘Streets of London’. I’d never have believed it if someone told me back then that I was going to have such a massive hit with a song about four destitute characters, basically moaning, about isolation, with a subtext of homelessness.

I was born in Kent at the end of the Second World War. My dad was in the army. He left us early on and my mother worked hard to keep the family together. My brother and I were in awe of her.

We were inventive kids. We made our own games and were never bored. I had a bad accident when I was five, I was hit by a lorry, and The National Health saved my life.

We were at the beginning of the welfare state so I also got to attend a free grammar school.

Not knowing my father is one of my major setbacks in my life. I can see him in my mind but I don’t remember the sound of his voice. When I got to be a teenager, I wanted to meet him and ask him what went wrong but he was killed when I was only 15. 

As a result, my academic career floundered and I joined the army as a boy solider. I only stayed six months. Then I discovered music. I love making something that didn’t exist before and sharing it with other people.

I never stop writing. Even when I’m walking around the shops I could be thinking about an idea for a new song. You hear about writer’s block, and sometimes I think I will never write another song. I can’t sit down and say ‘today I’m going to write a song about a flower’. 

I play the guitar and that’s a joy, the tune may not come easily but I know it will come eventually. But working on the lyrics — that takes time.

I live in Cornwall now but I’m a London boy at heart and sometimes I miss the city. It seems to have changed every time I visit.

I have been married for 49 years. The secret is I have a great Norwegian wife who understands the vagaries of a bipolar musician. We met when I was busking on the streets of Paris. I have four children and 12 grandchildren.

I am up and down. I don’t know any creative person who is not. When it’s dark it is extremely dark. When I am up, I can be high as a kite. I never resort to medication. 

I know I have to stay in the coalmine but that I will eventually come out of it. It is part of the cycle and I’ve got to deal with it. There is always a glimmer of hope.

I don’t believe in fate and I am not encumbered by any religious beliefs. I don’t think there is an afterlife. That’s why it is so important not to waste a minute.

I didn’t finish my education, so I’m reading a lot of poets. I like poetry as poems are like novels that have been condensed into a few verses.

I’m better off than I ever thought I would be but I pity people who are obsessed with money.

If I could change one thing in our society, I’d ask that we respect each other. If this were to happen, we would stop seeing different shapes and religious persuasions and we would just see people.

I’m pretty health-aware. In the past, I probably drank a bit more than I should have. It was part of the culture and of the craic, certainly in Ireland. At least it led in the main to bonhomie.

Life is not fair. You make your own luck. Having music in my life is a blessing. The only advice I can offer is this: the acquisition of talent is its own reward. 

If you are lucky enough to earn a living from your talent, you are doubly blessed. In conversation with Hilary Fennell n Ralph McTell plays on October 24 @ Hawks Well Theatre as part of Sligo Live Festival, 8pm.


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