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Ralph McTell: ‘My room was like a little Catholic shrine. I had pictures of Jesus – that was the father figure I was seeking out’

As he prepares for his 80th-birthday concert at Tradfest, the English folk singer-songwriter takes stock of his life and of five decades in music


It was, perhaps, inevitable that Ralph McTell would become a singer whose music combines traditions.

His parents named him after the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and he adopted his stage surname – he was born Ralph May – in homage to Blind Willie McTell, the American Piedmont blues guitarist and singer.

As the folk singer approaches his 80th birthday – a milestone that he is marking later this month with a celebratory concert at TradFest in Dublin – it is also impossible, after his more than five decades in music, to separate McTell from his sense of social justice. He wrote his best-known song, The Streets of London, with its depths of compassion and humanity, when he was just 22.

McTell, whose father left the family when Ralph was four years old, ascribes his insights on the human condition to a strict upbringing by his mother.

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“I think it came from an understanding of fairness,” he says. “And we went to Sunday school, so we had some religious education. I was fascinated by religion. We were loosely Protestant, but my little corner of my room was like a little Catholic shrine. I had pictures of Jesus – that was the father figure I was seeking out, you see. And then I realised that this might not all be true. So by the age of 13 or 14 I was beginning to release myself from the encumbrance of religious belief. I am long free of it now.”

McTell’s wife, Nanna, recently moved into long-term care; it has been a time to take stock of life – and the singer-songwriter finds much to be positive about in his 80th year.

“Everything is heightened with the shortening road,” he says. “As I’ve got older, I don’t know when it occurred to me, but it was very sudden: this is what I’ve done with my life.

“It’s complicated, but I think that music cheats time. If you’ve spent your life making music, you’re cheating time. The time that you spend writing and the time that you spend thinking and performing is outside the real world. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. It’s like a concertina: sometimes things are very close and sometimes the expanse of time can suddenly be way out there.

“You know, I draw a lot on the past, and I have the courage now to address things that I didn’t want to address when I was younger. Above all, I want to communicate. I’ve discovered that’s the thing I want to do most. I don’t need to write just to express myself. It’s the idea of communication that’s very important to me.”

Connection has always been at the heart of McTell’s work, whether in the likes of his 1975 song Dreams of You, the melody of which was inspired by what he calls “the mathematical precision and countermelodies of Bach” – specifically Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, also used by the Beach Boys in the intro to Lady Lynda – or in more recent songs where the subject matter can be less explicitly signposted.

“I think that’s because, for me, it’s not about playing at the audience; it’s playing for the audience,” he says. “A lot of bands internalise that. They’re working for the applause, but when you’re a soloist the idea isn’t the perpetual seal of approval of the applause. Sometimes I want to be more challenging, and that doesn’t mean thematically. It means that I want them to ponder what the song is about. So I’ve been a little more obscure in writing lately. Sometimes, when the sentiment of a song is too personal, you need to suggest it in other ways.”

If McTell’s voice is undeniably woven into the fabric of English folk, his guitar playing is shaped by the American folk and blues he has loved ever since he first heard it in his teens.

“The sentiment of blues music is quite narrow,” McTell says. “It’s often about how good you are as a lover, or how your girl is gone. But, for me, listening to someone like Robert Johnson, it was the sound of the acoustic guitar that got me. It has to be nurtured and held and played very close to you, like a fiddle.

“You’re communing with the thing in a different way. I love that, how you can get this almost pianistic polyphony and rhythm out of six strings and two hands. That’s always been a delight for me. And then, through Woody Guthrie’s songs, there were songs with social meanings. I wrote to Woody – a fan letter – when I was 17, and I like to say that we became penfriends – although he never wrote back.”

McTell shares a theory he has developed about his love of blues and his childhood.

“Being raised by your mum makes you a different kind of fella,” he says. “I used to use the comparison between John Lennon, whose mum left him, and so many boys who I know who play music who were raised by their mums. It’s worth a sociological investigation, I think. But we find each other, and that’s how we found a commonality between each other in the 1960s, through blues and black music in particular. Not Tamla [Motown] but through primitive guitar playing.”

McTell is working on a new album that, like his Tradfest gig, will feature a series of Irish collaborators, including Camille O’Sullivan and Declan O’Rourke, singing McTell’s songs and putting their own stamp on them.

“I have such a deep fondness for Ireland and Irish culture and music and poetry – and the fact that big men cry when they hear the right music,” says McTell, who ended 2023 with a very successful Irish tour.

“I still hear great music coming out of Ireland. I don’t know how a country of this size can have all the creative people that you have. The folk bands are exquisite and beautifully worked. That’s why I’ve decided to look at where this affinity comes from, through the songs.”

Tradfest 2024

Highlights of this year’s festival, which runs from Wednesday, January 24th, to Sunday, January 28th, include:

  • Alison Russell: This singer-songwriter is (with Rhiannon Giddens) a member of Our Native Daughters. Her latest album, The Returner, sees her move into a more mainstream space, but Russell’s songs still veer towards the quieter, less-well-lit corners of life;
  • Janis Ian: The artist has lost her singing voice, but she is still a compelling interviewee whose career was ignited by her timeless tale of what it feels like to be an outsider, At Seventeen;
  • Timothy O’Grady: The writer will be in conversation and reading from his book I Could Read the Sky, with musical accompaniment and against the backdrop of Steve Pyke’s remarkable photographs. A timely reminder of immigrant life on the edge.

Ralph McTell plays the National Stadium, Dublin, as part of TradFest, on Thursday, January 25th; he will be joined by Lúnasa, Declan O’Rourke, Camille O’Sullivan and Tom Paxton