Ralph McTell: Intro. to Parallel Lives (see Pomera Press)

These are the opening pages from my book on the ‘Biographies of Ralph McTell’. See Pomera Press for details. 


  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Ralph McTell – Empirical Biography
  • Elements of Methodology – Constructing the Aesthetic and its Representation
  • Biography at Work I – Life and Work
  • Creativity Interludes
  • Creative Interlude I – Aesthetics (Philosophy/ Sociology)
  • Biography at Work II – Work and Life
  • Creativity Interlude III – Psychology
  • Biography at Work III – Another World Coming Through
    • The Boy with a Note
    • The BluesField Conditions
  • Creativity Interlude III – Spiritual
  • Fields within Fields
    • The General Conditions in Britain in 1940s, 50s, 60s
    • The Folk Revivals and the Fields of Power
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Ralph McTell – Recordings Consulted


This book deals with the life, work and times of the English singer-songwriter Ralph McTell. It is based on his biography and the songs it gave rise to. The study arises primarily from a concern with artistic practice in general, and individual artistic biography in particular. Essentially, it seeks to explore the way the artistic aesthetic emerges as part juxtaposition between personal dispositions and the socio-cultural context in which they are expressed and partly form them. A second theme takes up the term ‘parallel lives’ as a way of studying how biography – real, personal and imaginary – and biographical events are often used to express individual artists’ work; for example, in the way that they draw on their own life experience and that of others in their work. The ‘parallel lives’ theme sets the individual artist against the socio-cultural background of their creative activity; how it is shaped by the times and locales in which they find themselves and those who share these with them. It also concerns itself with the biographical resonance, which emerges between artists and their audience. It will interest those who have appreciated and continue to appreciate the work of Ralph McTell

Writing biography has a long and complex tradition, which raises issues of literary form and method. The study aims to avoid an overly deterministic approach by disrupting a linear narrative. This is partly achieved by employing an epistemological view derived from the French social philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. It hence considers its topic of discussion – Ralph McTell – in terms of a series of parallel analytic levels – personal biography, work, artistic field and socio-historic context. However, partly as a way to avoid replacing an idealised version of his life and times with a sociological deconstruction of them, it also incorporates perspectives derived from other human disciplines – philosophy, psychology and spirituality – as well as a series of authorial reflexive devices, which are intended to open up an appreciation for creativity and the dynamic forces, which generate them. Some of the text is placed in different fonts and/ or italics to indicate these parts are set apart from the main narrative of the book should be read ‘in parallel’ to it.

Time and place feature as an artefact of memory. The book therefore seeks to form a bridge between conventional approaches to biography – academic, popular, etc. – and to find an original structure to disclose its interests. In fact, it can be read in various ways – selectively or even in reverse – depending on the reader’s own interests and dispositional relation to its topic and themes. However, whilst accepting that it will produce different impressions on different people in terms of their own biography, the intention is to achieve a level of objectivity, which goes beyond the particularity of its content and form.

‘Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery
Is equal in its period and value to Six Thousand Years;
For in this Period the Poet’s Work is done; and all the great
Events of Time start forth and are conceiv’d in such a Period,
ithin a Moment, a Pulsation of the Artery’.

William Blake: Milton


The classic film, Citizen Kane, directed by the infamous actor-cum-director Orson Welles, seeks to tell the story of an imaginary media mogul Charles Foster Kane. The defining motif of this film involves Kane’s last uttered word – ‘Rosebud’ – and the investigation of its biographical significance by the newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson. The suggestion is that in the significance of this single word, finally revealed in a brief image at the end of the film, an entire life may be captured, explained and understood. Somewhat coincidentally, the British singer-songwriter Ralph McTell uses a brief reference made in the film by Kane’s business partner in one of his own songs. In this scene, ‘Mr Bernstein’ tells of an instance of seeing a woman getting off to the Jersey Ferry in New York as he was getting on. The story goes…he only catches a glimpse of her, he remembers no more than her wearing a white dress and carrying a parasol. No word was exchanged between them, no more than a glance was made. Bernstein continues: the year was 1896 – over forty years ago – yet, now, in 1941, hardly a month goes by without him recalling the girl to mind – the girl on the Jersey Ferry. Somewhat paralleling its ‘insignificant significance’ (or ‘significant insignificance), Ralph (I propose to mostly use his Christian name in the text) plays with the image and the words uttered by Bernstein in his own song in order to reflect on fate, time passing, and chances missed. The song (The Girl on the Jersey Ferry – from the album Somewhere Down the Road – (SDR), 2010) is full of pathos, not of regret but for what might have been; ‘it’s funny the things a fella’ remembers some time’, he sings. The girl would not even remember him, and yet she had such an effect. The suggestion seems to be that a single moment can somehow define an entire lifetime. Ralph himself seems to have picked out this rather insignificant scene in a film full of dramatic events – most would overlook it; in a brief moment in time, a single instance, an entire world and lifetime can be revealed.

The original spark for this project also came from a single instance – a personal one. The date was around 1968 when, as a 14 year old and I first heard the music of Ralph McTell. As I recall the moment, it was a Sunday evening and my parents were listening to a radio programme entitled Sunday Half-Hour on the BBC. It was not intended as a religious programme, but more as a reflective broadcast in keeping with its Sunday time slot, where an artist talked about and presented their work in a personal way. Here, for the first time, I encountered songs like Mrs Adlam’s Angels, itself a recollection of Sundays and Sunday-school, Daddy’s Here, concerning impressions gathered from visits from a separated father, and Ralph’s ‘signature’ song, The Streets of London (all from his second album Spiral Staircase (SS) 1969). I could not claim that this single event represented my own passage from child- to adult-hood – in an instance – The Beach Boys’ I Get Around coming from a jukebox in a café at Lands End, Cornwall, has that ‘honour’ – but it is certainly one of my strongest memories of becoming aware of another world and the thoughts, images and emotions it contained. Nine years separate Ralph and myself in age – not so much these days while we are both ‘post-mature’: But, at that time, it made all the difference. I was still a ‘child’ at school – he a man of 23, already with a wife, family and public career.

Subsequently, the music of Ralph McTell seemed to run through the strands of my own biography. A little while after the radio broadcast, I was allowed by my parents to attend one of his concerts – on my own, for the first time! – in St John’s Hall, Penzance, Cornwall. I felt ‘grown up’ to pass in the adult world. What happened that night went on to form an apocryphal part of my own family’s history…but that is another story. My attraction to his music and songs led to initial purchases of records – his, and those by many others of a similar style when I exhausted this supply – just three were available at the time – which soon became a lifetime passion for all music, for concerts, and explorations of art and culture. I learnt to play the guitar by listening to Ralph’s records, or the books (sometimes even programme notes!) in which chord tablature for his songs were set out – I had no time or patience to learn music ‘properly’! I attended many McTell concerts and was a ‘fan’, along with the crowds. As life progressed, like most people, I found that other interests, preoccupations and challenges took me in different directions. Although, curiously, whenever a new stage in my life came around, it seemed to coincide with another Ralph McTell concert, and a new opportunity to reconnect and see what he was up to…’these days’.

Reflecting on all this a few years ago, I realised that my experience was similar to Ralph’s own in some respects, and indeed was something we all shared one way or another. He likes to tell the story of how he wrote to his own hero – American hobo folk-singer Woody Guthrie – and how they became ‘pen-pals’, although, of course, Woody never actually wrote back! Behind this amusing anecdote there is a more serious understanding of the way we develop relationships – like the girl on the Jersey Ferry – with people who we never know and never meet, and yet they are a significant part of our lives. For me, Ralph has been a constant strand throughout my life; his songs and life somehow mirrored my own in many ways, and yet he never really knew me, nor I him.

To complete the personal part of this introduction, I should add that Ralph and I did meet eventually when he came to Dublin, Ireland, where I was working at the time, in order to give a public interview/ performance in support of this very project (see: https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhLLmiqrixA). As preparation for that event, I met him personally for the first time during an earlier tour concert in Winchester. Amusingly, Ralph’s first words to me were, ‘I know you, don’t I ?’

It is perhaps unusual to begin a study on such a personal note, and these thoughts might even seem trivial or non-consequential, flights of fan fantasy, in the light of what follows, but I would argue the opposite: it is in the mundane that the exemplary is born, and it is in the personal that the universal is expressed. The overarching title to this book is ‘Parallel Lives’. It concerns the way our individual lives run alongside and constitute each other – his and mine, his and others, and these others and mine through him – more often or not in unknowing ways and, in this context, how art mediates that constitution through patterns that are shared. Ultimately, it is about the formation of aesthetic dispositions, what I shall call ‘artistic habitus’, in the consumption and production of cultural artefacts: how this comes about, the mechanism of its transmission, and the values that are carried in the process. However, although building on the most intimate of personal experiences – his and mine, in both cultural production and consumption – there are also more public objective reasons for understanding artistic biography: How to go about studying it? In what terms? How to present findings? How to balance individual authenticity with public relevance? The relationship between memory and fact? Purely in terms of artistic biography and personal aesthetic experience, the study, therefore, seeks to address issues of provenance and effect – what builds the artist’s biography and how does this impact on their work? But, it does so in terms, which are personally valid and publicly accountable.

Ralph McTell is an exemplary case for artistic biography, as both his personal and professional lives exhibit a number of distinctive biographical characteristics. Firstly, his name is not his own, since he was in fact originally christened Ralph May and only later took up the surname ‘McTell’ as a nom de guitare in recognition of the inspiration he drew from the American country blues singer Blind Willie McTell, some of whose music he played in his formative years. Secondly, Ralph’s music is intensely biographical in its very personal accounts of life’s events, the people with whom he shared them (sometimes naming them by name), and the lessons he learned from these encounters; as a soldier, as a musician, as a father, as a husband and friend. Thirdly, there is a regular reference in his work to real-time public figures, often within a political perspective. Fourthly, there is biography of place in the songs of Ralph McTell – most noticeably, of course, in his biggest ‘hit’, the Streets of London. Fifthly, and somewhat unusually, Ralph has also imagined a whole series of fictional biographies in his songs; some named, others being more ephemeral. Finally, Ralph has incorporated the biographies of other artists and writers, and/ or their work, in expressing aspects of his own biography – for example, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath – as well as drawing on literary inspiration from a range of writers. Biography – in its various forms is, therefore, a feature of his work.

Ralph has already been the subject of biographical treatment. Besides two volumes of his autobiography, there have been accounts of his life and work by others (see Hockensall, 1997 and Jenkins, 1993). Typically, there are two approaches to biography. Either, the biographer offers a linear narrative of main life events and an interpretation of their causes and effects; or, the life and work of an individual are approached through a series of ‘themes’. Both are problematic. The first is often seen as being too deterministic, the second too arbitrary and selective, even biased. Both can be seen to be saying more about the biographer than their subject. In what follows, I wish to approach the biography and work of Ralph McTell by employing a perspective and the consequent tools from my own academic biography; that of the socio-cultural perspective of the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s biography is that he was born in 1930 and died in 2002, a lifetime, which saw him rise from a humble peasant background in the Pyrenées to become one of the leading Parisian intellectuals of post-war France (see my own intellectual biography – Agent Provocateur, 2004). Bourdieu offers me a certain theory of practice, which can illuminate both our methodological approach and our understanding of biography in the cultural and the cultural in biography. In essence, it seeks to preserve both the existential authenticity of a life all whilst offering an objective account (albeit reflexive) of its generative forces.

Bourdieu writes that ‘biography does not exist’ (see 1989: 69-72) and of the ‘biographical illusion’. By this, he means how narratives are often constructed to tell life stories in ways that assume conscious planning and design: so-and-so ‘then needed’, ‘then decided’, ‘always intended to’, ‘had already’, etc. In this, the biographer’s own life perspective is exposed (although usually not acknowledged) everywhere in their very attempt to construct such ‘life stories’. For Bourdieu, everything in life is much more hazardous, even confused, and guided by a whole host of semi-invisible factors and motivations. Ralph himself attests publically (see the accounts of making early records published on his web page: http://www.ralphmctell.co.uk/features.php) enough that in the course of his musical career he was often confused by what direction he was taking, or caught between contradictions of what he ‘wanted’ and what he ‘needed’ to do. This point is pertinent in approaching the work of Ralph McTell from our ‘parallel lives’ perspectives, and I wish to guard against making his story ‘fit’ mine – reading my own life into his. Employing Bourdieu’s methodological approach is an attempt to avoid this. And yet I also need to make use of my own generative involvement in what I am about to construct. I intend to do this in various ways: by establishing and stating the structure and principles of my narrative, by destabilising the linearity of my account by on occasion ‘reversing time’, and indeed occasionally interjecting my own personal comments, not in order to identify with Ralph and his work but to highlight the sort of structural resonances that can be set up between an artist and anyone engaging with their work. Bourdieu allows for such a degree of reflexivity by explicitly acknowledging, in a formative way, the relationship between myself, the subject and the object of my research – Ralph McTell.

But, Ralph remains the main topic of consideration in this book. Thankfully, we have a wealth of material at our disposal in understanding his life – both personal and professional – and the synergies between them: besides official biographies and published volumes of autobiography referred to above, there are numerous interviews (audio and video), including our own (made in Ireland, Scotland and England) and other writers’ accounts of his life and music, not to mention socio-historical accounts of both the times and places Ralph has inhabited. I use both his life events and work to disclose the underlying generative features of his artistic biography, and incorporate his own voice through extracts cited from the above sources.

The book begins with what I am calling an ‘empirical account’ of his life – by which I mean the briefest sketch of salient events; this is in order to provide a personal bedrock to the narrative. I then consider the methodological principles and practice I am proposing to undertake in more detail; these are based on Bourdieu’s own social vision – theory of practice. Actual analysis of biography then proceeds through a series of ‘layered’ discussions, building from personal biography and work through to the music field, which surrounded Ralph and the socio-cultural environment that provided a background to both. We need to understand Ralph in the context of his own biography and that of others; this involves what has been called both the subjective experience and its objective environment – and the parallel way the two interact. At the same time, we should allow for what Bourdieu calls ‘the repressed’ – the actual work itself. My intention is therefore to delve into the actual songs of Ralph McTell and their salient themes in order to explore and illustrate my narrative. This ambition will entail a consideration of Ralph’s musical oeuvre in its own time, and how socio-cultural structures carry values – sometimes across times and places. As previously noted, I also intend to ‘close the circle’ by joining artist and influence with consumer and effect in exploring the links between music, the musician and their audience as particularities also in parallel.

In order to give circumference to the study, I am going to focus on Ralph’s formative years; that is from his birth up to the release of his first LP in 1968, although this period will also necessitate an understanding of what came before and after in order to understand its logic.

Since I wish to put creativity, aesthetics and cultural production at the core of my concerns, these discussions are interspersed with a series of ‘interludes’, which address such issues from various disciplinary perspectives – philosophical, psychological and spiritual – as a way of talking about the same things in a different way and thus vocabulary. This is a further way of relativizing and positing my narrative in a reflexive way. These interludes are offered as distinct but co-terminus, of themselves being simply particular perspectives on the same phenomenon. By doing so, I hope we can open up both the personal and social as mutually constituting in the acts of creativity that are central to artistic endeavour.  In this way, a kind of ‘discursive montage’ (moving back and forth between times, places and disciplines within levels of narrative) is created by way of a multifaceted approach to understanding the dynamic actuality of artistic biography and the way it is expressed in lives lived in parallel.