Singer-songwriter Ralph McTell achieved stardom with the buskers' favourite, Streets of London, and was one of the few English musicians to play regularly in 1970s Northern Ireland. Will Hodgkinson speaks to him about his music and inspirations.
Ralph McTell's greatest professional blessing is also his curse. In 1974 the Kent-born singer-songwriter, who emerged from the same acoustic folk scene as such critically lauded guitarists as Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson, had a huge hit with Streets of London, an unofficial anthem for the city's buskers ever since.
It made McTell his fortune but also cemented his reputation within it, and all his many other achievements - buying himself out of the army to busk his way across Europe and establish himself as a musician in the early 60s, becoming the only English performer to play regularly in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles in the early 70s, exploring the creative possibilities of the acoustic guitar throughout his career - have been subsumed by the all-conquering power of Streets of London.
The middle of the road does, however, have its advantages. McTell lives in a huge house in Putney with Nanna, his wife of almost 40 years, and he is a very amiable, apparently contented man who plays his guitar every day and still has all the old records that set him on his path in the first place.
He picks out one by the man who, for him, "started it all". Davy Graham is a contemporary of McTell's who was the original guitar hero of the emerging early 60s British folk underground. He wrote a song called Anji that became a rite of passage for every budding guitarist to master, and he was travelling through Morocco and the Middle East in search of musical ideas when others dreamed of making it as far as Soho.
He was also a heroin addict and a wayward character, given to non-appearances at concerts and long periods of being out of contact. McTell and Graham's paths could not be more different. Contrasting McTell's comfortable life, Graham currently lives alone in a tiny flat in Camden and has not performed live or released records for years.
"At the age of 15, Davy Graham was filmed playing an incredibly complex guitar arrangement of Cry Me a River," says McTell, looking at his copy of Graham's debut album. "All of us guitarists - Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Jimmy Page, myself - owe it all to this wonderful musician. For my 19th birthday, a friend of mine bought me a copy of Anji and I was the first person on my block to learn to play it. That was my big achievement. But Davy never runs out of ideas, and there has not been anyone who has come close. He was on the same level as Miles Davis and all of the jazz guys, and the rest of us couldn't really pretend to understand what he was doing."
It was through Graham that McTell discovered American blues greats such as Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Willie McTell, who provided his name. "The older I get, the more I think that the Reverend Gary Davis makes me realise how I'm still in the basement as far as the guitar is concerned. You can play for a lifetime and you still won't be able to do what he's doing. How can a man get so much out of a $20 guitar? Apparently Blind Blake and Robert Johnson were the only players he thought anything of."
McTell was given a Robert Johnson album in lieu of a fee for a concert he played with Paul Simon back in the 60s: the organisers couldn't pay him because Simon had demanded so much money. "I didn't mind because this is the most fantastic blues record of all time," says McTell of King of the Delta Blues, the sole album that exists of Johnson's recordings. "The simple poetry of the songs - especially on Love in Vain, which the Rolling Stones covered, never fails to move me."
Woody Guthrie was a hero to a generation of folk musicians, Bob Dylan among them. Guthrie travelled through the Depression-era midwest to sing songs about oppression and hope, and McTell heard them first sung by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a wealthy New Yorker in hobo's clothing. "I was actually quite disappointed when I heard Woody Guthrie for the first time because Jack sounded so much more authentic," says McTell. "He was more believable than the real thing, and this happens all the time - Dylan actually copied Elliott, not Guthrie. Jack adopts an impossible hillbilly accent. But Guthrie was great because his playing was always rudimentary, his message was always direct, and he's a great inspiration for a young man learning to play guitar and write songs. You can learn his entire repertoire in three weeks."