It’s an oft-repeated cliche that singer-songwriters express themselves through song because they lack the facility to do it any other way. If there’s any truth in that, Ralph McTell must be the exception that proves the rule, as this is truly a tremendous book. Actually, McTell’s a somewhat exceptional songwriter, so perhaps his ability as a teller of stories (his own) shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
Summer Lightning is the second volume of McTell’s autobiography, but it isn’t anything like the usual offerings from musicians. In fact, strictly speaking, it isn’t even the autobiography of "Ralph McTell" but rather of "Ralph May," the name that the author was given at birth, which he later changed in deference to the veteran blues man Blind Willie McTell. The period covered by the book runs from 1960, when a fifteen-year-old Ralph returned home from the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion (having rapidly decided that a military career with was not for him), to 1966, when he met Nanna (subsequently Mrs. McTell) in Paris. As McTell states in his introduction, "From that point on my musical career ran in tandem with my life with Nanna and our family, and that is OUR story. This, however, is mine."
In the early part of the book, McTell describes himself and his friends as "just like any normal post-war broken-homed kids." His initial attempts at resuming his education were doomed to failure with the discovery of a prodigious talent for playing the guitar and an epiphany in the shape of an EP record called Muleskinners by Rambling Jack Elliott. Consequently, he left school with an eight percent mark for his mathematics "O level" examination, and the ability to play "San Francisco Bay Blues." Interestingly, the one exam that McTell did pass was in English, as he’d already developed an interest in poetry, which he says was "not something that you bragged about in Croydon." His early attempts at writing seem to have consisted mainly of fan letters sent to his hero, Woody Guthrie.
Along with the all-pervading lure of music came the overpowering urge to escape the austerity of the London suburbs in a decade which had yet to "swing" and find some adventure in the world. From a frighteningly early age, McTell did exactly that. He made like Guthrie and Elliott, and "rambled."
The recounting of these rambles makes for a thrilling read as, like the author, the narrative is constantly in motion. The reader is taken from Dorset bed-sits to Spanish street markets, and from London building sites to Paris cafes, sustained on a constant diet of cheap booze, hand-rolled cigarettes, blues, folk and jazz. Concurrent with these travels around the world, we’re also taken on a personal trek down the roads that lead from boyhood to manhood, shy teenager to caring partner, reluctant busker to concert hall performer, and the collective journeys of a whole section of British youth from the twilight of the "post-war" age to the dawning of the "age of Aquarius."
Anyone who has ever listened to Ralph McTell’s songs will have been struck by both his seemingly uncanny knack for observing and articulating the small, important details of the human condition, and his remarkable empathy with the blues. These stories solve both mysteries, as a picture emerges of a "working Ralph," toiling away on building sites and timber yards, and a "travelling Ralph," hitch-hiking across Europe with a guitar and a bed-roll. Much of his "travelling" youth seems to have been spent living in conditions of appalling poverty. The almost constant lack of food and money, combined with the necessity of fending off the unwelcome attentions of truck drivers towards his girlfriend (and, occasionally, himself), paint a picture far removed from the romantic image of a rambling troubadour. The nadir is reached when, already malnourished, he sells a pint of his own blood and ends up hospitalised in Turkey.
That being said, this book is about far more than squalor and deprivation, and contains a reassuringly high number of "laugh out loud" moments, as McTell just keeps bounding along with a (sometimes bewildered) indefatigability. Whilst working in England "loading stacks of timber in the pouring rain," a colleague suggests that they should just pack the job in and go to Paris. When Ralph responds with "I haven’t got any money," his friend asks "where would you rather be broke?" Within two days, they're in France!
McTell’s writing style is similar to his stage manner, in that there’s an engagingly wry streak of self-deprecating humour running through the book. Whilst recounting an early, college relationship he writes, "I was gradually learning not to burn up every time a girl smiled at me (I haven’t quite got it cracked yet, but I’m getting better)." Throughout his travelling adventures he often refers to himself as "the world’s worst hitchhiker," and his experiences certainly seem to back that assessment up. That self-deprecation comes across as simple modesty rather than calculated "charm," an important distinction to note in the matter of his musical trade. When, for instance, he stresses that it was the voice and song writing (rather than musicianship) of Bob Dylan’s second (1962) album that captivated him, his assertion that "I could already play the guitar better than him and I could certainly play the gob iron (harmonica) better," can be read as no more than a statement of fact.
The single most effective adjective that I can think of to describe this book (and its author) is "genuine." You can place THAT word before the words "honesty," "humility," "talent" or "human being," and it will be appropriate every time. It’s a word that’s very close to "genius" which (in admittedly post-gig euphoria) I once applied to Ralph McTell in a festival review. Having read Summer Lightning, I can see no reason at all to revise that opinion.
McTell fans will, of course, love this book, and discover numerous insights into the origins of many familiar songs. (A good example of this lies in the account of how a very young Irish migrant labourer, from the building days in London, ruefully remarked, "It’s a long way from Clare to here," which subsequently became the chorus of a "hit" song for both its composer and the Furey’s). What, however, really sets this apart from the host of other "muso biogs" is the fact that it’s equally satisfying when judged purely on its own terms. As previously stated, it isn’t about McTell’s career, but his formative years. This wonderfully-written book will fascinate anyone interested in the music, fashion, humour, social mores and culture of those transitory times, even if they’ve never actually bought a Ralph McTell record. Mind you, anyone who reads Summer Lightning will almost certainly fill that gap in their CD collection very quickly.
Ralph McTell’s web site is here.