Those who only know him through ‘Streets of London’ have missed a songlifetime of treats – while the social conscience of that early anthem has continued throughout his canon, he can also do tender, probing, wistful, playful etc over a whole range of themes. And the melodies are strong, structurally defined, the guitarwork and musicianship proven and unquestionable.
Again kudos to brother Al for the initial discovery – he saw him perform in Bargoed when Bargoed briefly had some kind of Folk Club (and yes Andy Watkins, an honourable mention to you for playing an important part in setting things up and – as you often told me – meeting Ralph at the station), while I was at home presumably too young to care or doing homework or something. Allan came home with enthusiasm, and a copy of McTell’s third album ‘My Side of Your Window’, and it was not difficult to catch the infectious enthusiasm. Even now I think this is an absolute classic of an album, and I could blog on several of these tracks. I’m tempted, but won’t; let’s move on.
Over the years I’ve seen him playing live…five times, I think. One was certainly with my sister Sue, when we both fell in love with ‘From Clare to Here’; one was certainly in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, where he did his Thomas-inspired set; but the first time was in Cardiff’s long gone Cory Hall (see also my blog posting on the Hart/Prior ‘Serving Girls Holiday’) and I think he did this song then.
Its long, elegant melody, repeated for five verses, combines the classic directness of traditional folk (‘Lo, and I give you the travelling man..’) with something more arty, more consciously ‘constructed’. But I do remember that first hearing as a spellbinding experience – the simple, linear, mystical narrative hooking in my ‘sensitive’ teenage soul with ease. It was a great concert, but for me, that was the highlight. Not surprisingly, when the ‘You Well Meaning’ album was released., either Allan or I bought it – a ‘different’ bunch of songs – some piano compositions (new) – and ‘Ferryman’ was the closing track.
Some people felt that – after having heard the natural ease and fluency of the totally raw acoustic Ralph in concert – this album seemed ‘over-produced’ by comparison. Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti had done the job, and yes occasionally the tinkerings felt a little clumsy. ‘The Ferryman’ was left largely untinkered with until verse 3, when strings and some ethereal choir-sounds appeared, presumably to accentuate the mystical feel and/or the river’s sinuousness. Perhaps it wasn’t as heavyhanded as some tracks but a bit distracting in some minorly odd way. Still, such a song…
It’s about Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’, this song. He was a fashionable read at the time, Hesse – we were all dipping in – perhaps the Eastern transcendental business struck a chord with the spirit of the time, the figure of the questing traveller having a strong romantic appeal for the young. (Steve Turner: ‘Everyone loves a seeker; nobody loves a finder.’) I finished reading Siddhartha on a train travelling across Scotland; there’s romance for you.
I suspected that we were experiencing a bit of Buddhism-lite here: filtered firstly through Hesse, and secondly through McTell. But for those of us who were fervent but faltering Jesus-followers, I suppose there was something attractive, and something dangerous in this ‘dabbling with the east’! Refreshing because it was at odds with the often-rigidly-overly –systematic nature of the theology in which our experiences of God were described, even channelled; and dangerous because the apparent flakeyness and ‘impersonalness’ of the mysticism (like Lucas’s ‘the force’) was a challenge to our sense of a personal deity.
No doubt, while significant differences between faiths exist, this unease was a bit of adolescent fretting and agonizing! Today I think..my beloved T S Eliot (in the Four Quartets)had no trouble recognizing within the Eastern faiths areas of connection and correspondence. And I also think – so much of the wonder of God, not just his creative breath but also the mysteries of incarnation, redemption and salvation cannot easily be contained within prosaic blocks of fundamentalist evangelical discourse, but its understanding and exploration of truths are complemented by the paradoxes and imagery of more mystical expression.
So now as I hear the song, I sense the beauty of its construction solidly reflects areas of valid spiritual longing, exploration and truth: the necessity of the search, to relieve the natural human ‘burdens’ (‘Many times he’s tried to lighten up his heavy load..’); the inexplicability of the things that drive our pilgrimages (‘ the whisperings of despair that he could not explain..’); the image of the river as a symbol of fluidity, movement, time and timelessness, blending of many sources – as he learns from it that there’s a kind of unity to all experience (‘in it was the beauty and the sadness of the world/ The sounds blended together and they became a whole…’) – and Christians recognize some revelation in that – since we follow one who will bring ‘ all things in heaven and on earth together..’ (Eph. 1). In the song, the traveller’s eyes are opened to something of eternity (‘And the river had no beginning..’) and in the final verse to a revelation that the cyclical realities of eternity can all be glimpsed within himself (‘And the traveller was the river, was the boat..’) Ha. OK, you can sense I’m straining a bit now – these days McTell’s more grounded stuff like‘Peppers and Tomatoes‘ appeals more – but I am saying this was a significant marker in the jukebox of my life…
Forgive me the heaviness, and let’s lighten!:– even if the song simply tells a mysterious folk tale of sorts, and inspires a reverence for nature, and for rivers, it’s enough. I was going to go on to talk about when I bought the songbook so I could learn to play it, then on the train home met a man who said ‘It’s worth getting that songbook just to learn The Ferryman’! But I’ve said enough. Lovely song, ambitious but worth it.