When you realise that Ralph McTell has had a 40-year career it makes you think, I can tell you. OK, so I wasn’t buying his records in 1965, but the 1971 album You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here was a teenage dream and I could probably have recited every single lyric. And when I played the first CD of this vast retrospective box set and heard The Ferryman, it all came back to me.
The Ferryman is, quite simply, a perfect song. It’s also perfectly simple. McTell’s soft baritone voice is at its smoothest, his guitar picking is almost harp-like, some subtle strings and backing vocals add atmosphere as the song builds, and the mysterious lyrics are based on Hermann Hesse (no wonder I was bowled over as a teenager). It all works together to create seven minutes of luminous beauty and if you haven’t heard it, you should.
The above-mentioned strings and chorus belonged to the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and it speaks volumes that they weren’t allowed to turn the song into a schmaltz-fest. That was always one of the great things about Ralph McTell – while he could be sentimental, the simplicity of the presentation always kept him the right side of twee. (With the possible exception of Streets of London, but let’s face it, we adored it at the time – and it’s only because it got played so much that we now find it a bit of a clich�. The version here is earlier than the one that charted at No. 2).
What people may have forgotten is that there was an awful lot more than lovely songs. Lots of humour, hard-hitting blues, ragtime delights, political comment. All showcasing his virtuoso guitar technique, and while based in the folk tradition, broadening his appeal to anyone who likes a good voice and great music.
I was a bit sniffy when Ralph McTell’s last album Red Sky was reissued last year – it was good but not special. This set however provides such a wealth of goodies that it’s a must-have.
Many of the 66 tracks on these four CDs are previously unreleased, including some early delights from 1965 demo discs. These include a demo version of Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, and it’s fascinating to compare this to the polished 1998 version, recorded live at the Purcell Room and included in the album Travelling Man. I prefer the rougher version, for what it’s worth, but the latter is exquisite in its own way. McTell’s covered a good few Dylan songs in his career, and they are lovely if you need balm – his version of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, recorded in 2006 and previously unreleased, would soothe the most troubled breast.
Another track available for the first time is Ladies Love Outlaws, a Lee Clayton song recorded in 1976 that takes McTell into the world of Country with an irresistible chorus: “Ladies love outlaws, like ladies love stray dogs… / and outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their souls…”
Most of the new material is McTell’s own work however, and there are many little gems – understated, gentle compositions that invariably reward the careful listener (Messrs Stevenson And Watt is a personal favourite), but also illustrate the wide range of moods and styles he’s capable of carrying off. He’s helped by a variety of collaborators – many famous names from the folk world such as Dave Pegg, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson, but also the T Rex and Formerly Fat Harry rhythm sections.
The inclusion of so much previously unreleased material makes this set a lot more than a ‘best of’ collection. It really is a fitting record of a rich musical career and a must-have for those who already appreciate McTell’s talents. Newcomers are unlikely to fork out for a four CD set – but they would be well rewarded if they did. However he’s still playing live at such legendary events as the Cambridge Folk Festival and Cropredy, quite apart from touring, so with any luck there are plenty of new recruits.