Two songs from the 2000 release Red Sky amplify the theme. "Up" follows McTell's earlier pattern of acknowledging the challenges of life ("When you look to the hill you must climb/And your doubts will not disappear") but then reminding the listener that they can be overcome ("But don't look down, look ahead/Isn't that what they said/It's a long way up from down here"). The freedom/confinement imagery of "Throw Out a Line" is also revisited ("Like a bird set free from the chains of the night/And rise from the valley floor"). In "Icarus Survived the Fall", McTell makes his broadest endorsement of optimism. He turns perhaps the most recognizable representative of human folly into a hero in the song. He gives Icarus his turn to speak, and his advice is considerable. If not leavened by humor, however, his pronouncements, and the entire song, would flop as badly as his original flight. Again, the mature McTell recognizes that an entirely earnest statement of the sort would not succeed.
The chorus is similarly witty and to the point.
Sand in Your Shoes (1995) is one of McTell’s most fully realized albums and includes a number of excellent protest songs. His disdain for the policies of Margaret Thatcher have already been noted. “The Enemy Within” (Sand in Your Shoes, 1995) takes its title from Thatcher’s characterization of striking miners in 1984 (“There was a time whenthe strike was on/I thought that we might win/Even after we’d been called/The enemy within”). McTell cleverly chooses a member of the colliery band as the song’s narrator.Numerous books have been written on the place of music in labor movements. The famous Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill once wrote: “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.” Just as important as a song’s message can be the effect it has on workers’ morale.
There was a moment as we marched back With the colliery band in front Some said we’d been defeated But it felt as if we’d won All on account of the cheering The music and the crowd
Gradually, however, the striking band member comes to realize the cause is lost. Friends are seen in grocery stores “Loading the shopping trolley/Instead of trucks with coal”: fewer and fewer members gather to play. Finally, the band room becomes “just a shell that keeps/An echo of our soul.” In an interview with John Tobler, McTell states "my intention within the song, although I never like to be too confrontational, was to lead people in the South to consider what on earth this must mean to a community." The story is set to a wonderfully plaintive melody (based on an old Baptist hymn), complete with appropriate accompaniment of brass instruments. McTell’s maturation as an artist is on full display in this wonderful piece.
Islands" has a gentler feel, but is also quite effective in its way. The song is a nicely balanced description of the battle waged between Nature and Man after the 1993 oil spill in the Shetland Islands. The first half of the song describes the natural order of animal and human life in the Shetland islandsthat will be assaulted by the oil spilling out of the wrecked ship Braer in the second. The natural colors Spring paints in the second verse are blackened by oil in the fourth. Chris Leslie's beautiful violin playing accents the gentle warning McTell sounds in the song. Nature controlled the damage this time around but will we be so lucky the next time the greed of oil companies tempts them to "sail close to the shoreline/To save both fuel and speed"?
"The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf" is based on a poem by Shmuel Huppert, an Israeli scholar who was imprisoned in
Belsenduring the war. As the song that follows "Peppers and Tomatoes" on the album it is an eerie reminder of the extent to which racial cleansing can be taken ("Pray humanity can hear/What it cannot see through tears/The cry of yesterday before tomorrow"). While we have Huppert to thank for the ingenious device of centering the piece around an inanimate suitcase (long on exhibit in a museum) we can applaud McTell's arrangement, his taste in bringing it to a new audience and salute his producer, Martin Allcock, for his appropriately haunting piano accompaniment.
“Peppers and Tomatoes” is another powerful song of protest. Though general enough to be applicable (sadly) to many civil wars, it was inspired by the unrest in
. "I was thinking of rural Yugoslavia ," McTell says in the Tobler interview cited above, "where perhaps two Christian communities were living. I'm not talking about Christians killing Moslems (or vice versa) but Christians killing Christians." The story is told by a figure in the neighborhood minority who is growing more and more wary of contemporary events. The song is constructed perfectly. As the man’s worries build, verse by verse, the chorus, demonstrating the faith he’s placed in his roots, seems of ever-diminishing consolation. Yugoslavia
Oh this little patch of dirt, oh this little pile of stones I can wash the dust from off my face and off my skin But this earth is in my bones.
Whereas in the first verse he contrasts himself with his neighbors (“I grow peppers and tomatoes . . . they grow beans and potatoes”), in the second he uses the pronoun “we” and stresses their similarities (“And later in the year we will bring wine to the table/Bring wine to the table, we will share what we have grown”). A feeling of “love thy neighbor” prevails for a short time. Soldiers enter the song in the third verse, and in the fourth the narrator's choice of wine is contrasted by the others' choice of beer. The fifth verse is pivotal. At its conclusion “some old men and young soldiers/Were humming tunes and singing words to songs that I didn’t know.” In the sixth verse we learn the source of the tension: religious differences between the two groups. By the seventh verse the man is preparing to flee, and in the eighth he states his resolve (“if someone tries to stop me/Someone tries to stop me, I am ready now to kill”). In the final verse we learn he’s left it too late. In present tense he describes how he hears the faceless soldiers utter the phrase that has become a terrifying euphemism: “You must come with us.” The song jerks to a halt powerfully.
An accomplished songwriter from the very start of his career, Ralph McTell has continued to develop his craft over the last 35 years. His songs deserve and demand repeated listenings. The best of them are both entertaining and thought provoking; a handful may one day take their place beside the works of Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, and select others as examples of the best songs the late twentieth century produced. The material on Red Sky confirms that McTell is still at the peak of his abilities. Long may his songs echo from the green hills and run through city streets the world over.
Thanks to Marianne James for proofreading. Paul O. Jenkins
, 2003 firstname.lastname@example.org Cincinnati
Works Cited Denisoff, R. Serge. “Songs of Persuasion: A Sociological Analysis of Urban Propaganda Songs.” Journal of American Folklore, 79 (1966): 581-89. Hockenhull, Chris. Streets of
: The Official Biography of Ralph McTell. Bordon, Hants : Northdown, 1997. McTell, Ralph. Angel Laughter. London Maidstone: Amber Waves, 2000. McTell, Ralph. Summer Lightning. Maidstone: Amber Waves, 2002. Tobler, John. “Sand in Your Shoes Interview” (liner notes of Sand in Your Shoes), 1995.