Celebrated singer-songwriter Ralph McTell fills Tim Hughes in on his 50-year career

He is one of our greatest singer-songwriters, with a musical style shaped by the music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Mississippi blues. But while he is best known for the enduring classic Streets of London, much of his inspiration came from much closer to home — the landscape of North Oxfordshire.

While London was being blitzed, Ralph’s mother Winifred came to Banbury to live with her sister Olive. It was there she met her future husband Frank, who was on leave from the army.

As a boy, the young Ralph May would often return to Olive’s house in West Street, Grimsbury; holidays which sparked off a love affair with the county which continues to this day.

“We thought Oxfordshire was paradise!” he says. “My mother’s family had moved to Banbury to ‘avoid the Zeppelins’ and as a boy I had breaks staying with Aunt Olive and Uncle Reg. They were very happy times for me and my brother and I loved being there. They had a piano in the front room and I used to play it even then.

“Later, most of my friends in Fairport Convention moved there too, and it became known as the ‘folk-rock belt’. I still go there every year, for the Cropredy Festival, for the fun of it.”

Ralph — who changed his name in tribute to the bluesman Blind Willie McTell “and because it needed another syllable” — is a regular performer at the festival, which is organised by Fairport Convention. Cropredy, the scene of a bloody English Civil War battle, also provided the inspiration for his song Red and Gold. He wrote the song for Fairport while staying with the band’s Dave Pegg, in the village. Another song, Barges, was inspired by watching the boats on the Oxford Canal.

“Barges is one of my most requested songs,” he says. “I still love Banbury. They have knocked it about a bit but the central area is pretty much as I remember it.

“I’ve also had the privilege of twice playing in the big church in Banbury where my Uncle Reg used to be a bell-ringer.”

After periods spent, beatnik-style, busking around Europe, and a short and unsuccessful period at a teacher training college, Ralph hit the folk club and festival circuit. He was signed by Transatlantic in 1967, recording Eight Frames a Second later that year.

It was a song on his second long-player, Spiral Staircase, the following year, however, which was to change his fortunes forever.

Streets of London, which was released as a single in 1974, was a simple observational tale of homelessness, and it struck a chord with the public. The single reached number two in the charts, at one point selling 90,000 copies a day, and earning its writer an Ivor Novello Award and a Silver disc. Such was the song’s impact, more than 200 artists have covered it, among them Glen Campbell, Harry Belafonte, Cliff Richard and the Anti-Nowhere League.

While keen for the tune not to overshadow his other work, he says he never tires of playing it. “I am still known for that song,” he says. “But thank goodness there are handfuls of other songs that are asked for. I’ve written better songs that tick more boxes for me, but I can’t be cynical. As soon as that song’s played there’s a palpable change in the room and people often sing along quietly. It means so much to people.

“It was kept off the top of the charts by a song called Lonely This Christmas, by Mud — and if I had to sing that song for 40 years, then I’d be sad!”

Does he resent the glam-rockers for denying him a number one hit? “Not at all!” he laughs. “It was a relief. Even with a number two hit, people were looking for the next one. It was a blip though, and people shouldn't expect another. I didn’t even expect the first!”

So how does he explain the song’s popularity? “The tune is slightly hymnal and spiritual,” he says. “But it also dwells on one of our deepest fears — to be involuntarily isolated.

“It’s about people living outside normal society and it paints a vivid picture. It is sung in churches and primary schools, used as a teaching aid and translated into dozens of languages. And I’m still waiting for the royalty cheque!”

Ralph is midway through a tour to promote new album Sofa Noodling. The title, he says, is a reference to his habit of picking up his guitar and casually fiddling with it while relaxing. “If I’m watching telly I ‘noodle’ along and sometimes hear something which I work into a song,” he says.

“Music has always accompanied my life. The first time I was paid to play, apart from busking, was in 1964, so next year I’ll have been playing for 50 years.”

Ralph, who turns 69 next month, is an elder statesman of folk — though he dislikes the ‘f’ word. He says: “I love rock and roll, folk ballads and blues, and what I’ve done is convert all that into my own sound through an acoustic guitar which is pianistic in style. I’m more a songwriter than anything, though I am inspired by the folk music of these islands.”

Recognised as a master guitarist, with a back catalogue of more than 300 songs, he admits he is still improving. “I practice all the time. I’m just trying to get better at what I do. I pick up the guitar two or three times a day and play for 20 minutes.

“I never get bored. You can’t be bored if you’ve got a guitar. I can always play something from the past — or go and buy a new guitar. I’ve got loads.”

How many exactly? “If a man knows how many guitars he’s got, he hasn’t got enough!” he laughs.

And are they all acoustic? “I’ve got a couple of electric guitars, but just for posing with, and wondering what might have been,” he laughs again.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get called upon to join a rock group though.”

On Sunday his One More For The Road tour reaches Oxford, for a sold-out show at the North Wall Arts Centre. “The tour is going well,” he says. “The audiences are great. I always get the faithful coming along, but I am also meeting people who are coming to see me for the first time.

“To hear that my songs have been a part of people’s lives means an awful lot to me, especially as they didn’t go into the charts — well, apart from one!”

  • Ralph McTell
  • North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
  • Sunday
  • Tickets have sold out