Ralph McTell

Heroes & VillainsSlide Away The Screen
The Mermaid And The SeagullEight Frames A Second
Zig Zag LineEasy
The SettingBridge Of Sighs
Messrs. Stephenson And WattThe Journey
Peppers And TomatoesSand In Your Shoes
The Case Of Otto SchwarzkopfSand In Your Shoes
BargesNot Till Tomorrow
From Clare To HereRight Side Up
The Ghost Of Robert JohnsonSomewhere Down The Road


Ralph McTell playlist



Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Ralph May was born in December 1944 in Farnborough, Kent although he grew up in Croydon, south of London. Named after Ralph Vaughn Williams, a career in music was almost destined. McTell’s father had worked as the composer’s gardener before World War II. Following the birth of his younger brother, Bruce, McTell’s father walked out on his family and many of McTell’s songs contain reference to the absence of, or the search for, a father figure

His guitar playing has been modelled on the style of the American country blues guitar players of the early 20th century, including Blind Blake, Robert Johnson (see Topperpost #55) and Blind Willie McTell (see Topperpost #130). These influences led a friend to suggest that Ralph change his professional name to McTell.

In those early days McTell became involved in the London Soho folk scene, meeting along the way the likes of future Pentangle singer, Jacqui McShee, Martin Carthy and Wizz Jones. There then followed a period when McTell busked around Europe, spending a fair amount of time in Paris. He occasionally weaves French into his songs. It was in this period that McTell met Norwegian student Nanna Stein, the couple marrying in November 1966. On their return to England, McTell was playing in a duo with Wizz Jones and with the jug-band that accompanies him on the first two albums.

I had a pleasurable task of listening through the catalogue to come up with a list of ten songs and I have selected songs that mean something to me. For a broad appreciation, I point you towards Paul Jenkins’ perceptive essay from the fansite Ralph Albert & Sydney (see link below) named after McTell’s famous live album. I am sure the ‘what no …’ responses will come and I will be delighted to read them and find out why you think a particular song should be included. I will mention some songs that missed the cut. As is my wont, the songs are arranged in the form of a playlist, I have however diverted from my usual modus operandi and selected two tracks from one album when there are way more than ten to choose from. I have excluded the Animal Alphabet series for no other reason than space.

In 1967, McTell signed to Transatlantic Records and recorded his first album Eight Frames A Second from which I eventually selected The Mermaid And The Seagull with its fabulous surreal word pictures. The album contains the jug band arrangement of Louise, Willoughby’s Farm that has shades of Love’s Alone Again Or, and also a cover of Morning Dew. The album was produced by Gus Dudgeon who went on to produce Elton John, and arranged by Tony Visconti who was to work with David Bowie. Visconti’s wife Mary sang backing vocals; she was better known as Mary Hopkin. Eight frames a second refers to the speed film goes through a projector when in slow motion. McTell’s website has some of his own insights into the recording of some of his albums including this one.

The opening track of McTell’s second album, Spiral Staircase (1969), was to define his career, give him his biggest hit record (but not until 1975) and his most covered song. I will state that I think Streets Of London is a beautifully crafted song and was the first title I wrote when beginning to compile the ten. Written in the late 1960s, it is an indictment that I still see these characters on a daily basis as I walk through Victoria Station. Injustice is a theme McTell returned to again and again. The album has some great tracks; England 1914 is simply beautiful for example and would be included in a list of 20.

As I have explained in other posts, I tend to include favourite album tracks in favour of singles.

My Side Of Your Window from 1969 opens with Michael In The Garden which uses the garden as an allegory for the world which people with autism inhabit and the way the less informed judge them. It does borrow heavily from The Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man, or maybe it’s the other way round!

In May 1970, McTell sold out the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank and in August played at the Isle of Wight festival with Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. In 1971, he signed for Warner Brothers and at the same time met Fairport Convention which began a lifelong professional relationship and also personal friendships. I have excluded the songs McTell wrote for Fairport and subsequently recorded himself.

The 1970s brought five quality studio albums and the above mentioned live selection Ralph, Albert and Sydney; four of my selections are from these albums.

Not Till Tomorrow (1972) got its name when the record company phoned McTell to ask him for the name of his new album. He said “not till tomorrow” to indicate he had not made a decision but the caller took that as his answer. It has five contenders for this Toppermost; the simplicity of First Song, the fun of When I Was A Cowboy with its serious underlying message, the word pictures of Standing Down In New York Town, and Danny Thompson’s exquisite bass on This Time Of Night. Far and away the best track on the album borrows its tune from Edvard Grieg and takes its lyric from McTell and his brother’s summers with their grandparents in Banbury; Barges relives some of the idyll of childhood.

Easy contains Maginot Waltz, a song that gives a personal take on a couple of friends about to go off to fight in the First World War and Run Johnny Run that was recorded by Fairport Convention and tells of a prison escape. Zig Zag Line is about a father and son climbing a hill and the bonding that happens in the ascent. You are not sure if this is Ralph with his own son or a wish for this closeness with his father.

Right Side Up includes Naomi which I think is a perfect love song and From Clare To Here, the inspiration for which came when McTell heard a chance remark from a fellow site labourer in around 1963, “It’s a long way from Clare to here.” The latter song has been covered by numerous artists and is considered as McTell’s second most popular song after Streets Of London. It brings with it memories of my friend Huw Chidgey singing it at the Lanchester Polytechnic Folk Club in Coventry in 1978/79. Perhaps the best Irish song written by an Englishman.

I have Slide Away The Screen on vinyl and have, to date, been unable to source a copy on CD or download. It has McTell’s tribute to Sandy Denny. White Dress was written by Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg for Sandy to sing and was recorded on Fairport Convention’s album Rising For The Moon. McTell changes the gender. Heroes & Villains tells of how life contains contradictions that can bring surprises. This was the last album McTell recorded for Warner Brothers.

During 1981, Ralph McTell, Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks formed the GPs (originally the Grazed Pontiffs after the attempt to assassinate the Pope) to play rock and roll standards. Contractual restrictions meant that it could be no more than a ‘scratch band’ although a version of Cut Across Shorty appears on The Cropredy Box, the three CD set of Fairport Convention’s set at the 1997 festival.

In 1982, McTell released Water Of Dreams that, again, has tracks I wanted to include. Bentley And Craig was covered by June Tabor (see Topperpost#125) and tells the infamous story of the warehouse robbery in Croydon in which Christopher Craig shot a policeman for which Derek Bentley was hanged. An account of the incident can be read here. Hands Of Joseph describes the way a man’s occupation can be defined by his hands.

Mr Connaughton on Bridge Of Sighs (1986) is a childhood upstairs neighbour who was a father figure for the young McTell but, tellingly, the song indicates he did not know the man’s first name. The Girl From The Hiring Fair was written for Fairport Convention. The Setting is a song of goodbye and of the Irish migration to America, and influenced by the writing of Sean O’Faolain.

The Journey is a four disc compilation of recordings from 1965 to 2006 released on Ralph McTell’s own Leola label and is a good start point for new listeners. Old Puggy Mearns (originally on Readings from Angel Laughter) is a bit of fun that could have been co-written with Ian Dury. Messrs. Stephenson And Watt is a celebration of British engineering in the Industrial Revolution and exclusive to the compilation.

I have selected two songs from the 1995 album Sand In Your Shoes (at the time Ralph McTell’s first album of new recordings for nine years following Bridge Of Sighs) and could have chosen five. Peppers And Tomatoes is set in an unidentified country that could be in Eastern Europe and speaks of prejudice, exclusion and ethnic cleansing, and could apply where any such atrocities happen. The Case Of Otto Schwarzkopf is based on a poem by Schmuel Huppert and is McTell’s take on the Holocaust.

Somewhere Down The Road from 2010 is a fine album which includes the evocative Around The Wild Cape Horn and McTell’s tribute to one of his heroes, The Ghost Of Robert Johnson, which seemed an appropriate way to complete the playlist.

McTell has recorded a number of covers over the years; indeed the album Gates Of Eden is a collection of songs written by his influences. I have already mentioned Morning Dew. There are versions of Bob Dylan’s Love Minus Zero, Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade and John Martyn’s May You Never to be found too. Maybe someone would like to come up with a Ralph McTell topper ten of cover versions.


Ralph McTell website

Ralph Albert & Sydney: Ralph McTell fansite with comprehensive discography

Ralph McTell biography (Apple Music)

TopperPost #193


  1. Peter Viney
    Feb 10, 2014

    Another good one, Ian. The webmaster did the “Wot no?” in the video clip already, I see. I don’t know the breadth of his catalogue, so I’ll add a single I did buy, the sweet and lovely “England” which was on his own m-r Mays record label in 1981 … Mays was Ralph May and his brother Bruce May.

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Feb 10, 2014

      Thanks for your comments Peter. Maybe I should not have ‘bounced’ Streets of London but then I don’t know what to omit. England was on the list too and missed the cut but has made it on to the Spotify list. Ralph’s brother Bruce was his manager in two separate periods and it was during one of these periods that they set up the Mays label. I believe that Bruce is involved in the Leola label on which McTell currently releases his recordings.

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