The Argotist Online
Ralph McTell is a singer/songwriter and acoustic guitarist who has been an influential figure in the UK folk scene since the 1960s. His virtuoso guitar style has been influenced by many of the American country blues guitar players of the early 20th century, including Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson.
He made his debut in 1968 with the album Eight Frames a Second, and his song ‘Streets of London’ (which has been recorded more than 200 times by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin) earned him an Ivor Novello Award in 1974.
In 1993, Nanci Griffith recorded his 'From Clare to Here' on her Grammy Award winning album, Other Voices Other Rooms. In 2002, Ralph was presented with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?
but I do try to be poetic.
you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
Yes I do. Not to work hard to conform to rhyme is sloppy and lazy and cheapens
the contribution made by harmony and melody.
you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear
rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be
like free verse?
I believe in all of the above. I find it very depressing that listeners fail to
discern between songs that conform to the old rules. Many modern lyrics that are
so called “free” and do not rhyme or scan are just idle work. I find these
songs ugly and a betrayal of the craft of song writing. Taking time to make your
statement in a song lyric is part of the challenge. Removal of this test is like
having a "witectomy”. The subtlety of rhyme empowers the music and gives
it dignity. To me there is little point making a song if it does not work within
the confines of its discipline. That after all is the nature of the craft. The
other is what we call prose, isn't it?
When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to
the music you enjoyed?
whatsoever. I have always loved and admired poetry for its own sake. It was not
until the lyrics of Bob Dylan legitimised my earlier admiration for the truly
great song writers of the thirties and forties that I realised these could be
termed poetic too. Subsequently the skills of great modern pop writers from the
Beatles onwards, and all those who have been influenced by the revolution begun
by Bob Dylan.
there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?
All of it to a greater or lesser extent. Description, narrative, rhythm,
alliteration, brevity (I am still working on that one) purpose, discipline,
twists, punch line etc.
Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
You can seldom dance to a poem! Poems are in colour but they are not stereo, 3D,
cinemascopic, orchestral, hard or heavy rock. Music adds weight, gravitas,
lightness, fun, pathos and contortion. It implies qualities that may not exist
in the lyric alone. It also disguises poverty of depth of ideas as well.
creep into your consciousness revealing themselves in a slower way (good songs
that is). You are not distracted by music when you listen to or read a poem.
Consequently you often make up your mind about a poem more quickly (and often
wrongly). I always read a new poem at least twice. Once to try to get an
impression of its meaning and twice to look for the tricks of the trade, i.e.
wit, humour, nuance, metaphor, balance, and all the other things that
distinguish poetry as one of the great arts.
confines the non-narrative lyric. Compromise induces repetition of key phrases
as a substitute for when more time is needed to get the message across. This
however is not enough to stop some of us from trying to bring poetic values to
our craft or sullen art (apologies to both Dylans).
© Ralph McTell