Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ralph McTell: Streets of London

I am a little late with today’s traditional feature, as I used the time last night to catch up on some sleep. In a traditional vein, but not a traditional song, is Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London.” This song, my favorite Ralph McTell composition, is a journey past the homeless in London.

While the song illustrates the plight of the homeless and forgotten in Britain’s capital city, McTell actually wrote the lyrics about scenes he witnessed in Paris. He thought that London sounded better and used it instead. Over 200 artists have recorded this tune.

I first heard “Streets of London” in 1974 through a promotional copy of an album originally sent to WGOH radio in Grayson, KY. If I remember correctly, GO Radio played a variety that included country in the morning, gospel in the midday, bluegrass in the early afternoon with Carmel Stevens (a local police dispatcher), Top-40 in afternoon drive with Ken Jackson (aka Francis Nash), and a continuation in the evening with the Top-40 programming. A number of jocks over the years pulled the night shift on the AM until sundown and finished off at midnight on the FM side. In January 1979, WGOH-FM became WUGO (U-102) and featured an automated light-rock station that was no longer simulcasting with the AM side.

While I never worked at GO Radio, it was the first radio station I ever visited. This was during September 1966 and I remember riding to the station with my two brothers and two other Kentucky Christian College students and hearing the Monkees "Last Train to Clarksville" for the first time. I recall asking, if it was a new Beatles' song and someone in the car said, "No it was a new group named the Monkees."

During that month, I was staying in Grayson with my brother Chuck because my mother and step-father were on their honeymoon. Chuck was living on campus in a log cabin (one of the married students' houses) as he had returned to pursue his BTh degree after being out of school a year. My brother John was a sophomore at the time and lived in the dorm.

The occasion for these four college students to visit the studios was to record my brother Chuck's weekly radio show of sermon and song, "Shadows of Calvary" - a title inspired by a line in one of Lester Pifer's sermons. Chuck, John, and the two other students (perhaps one was Ed Burns) served as a quartet on the show. I was amazed at WGOH's entire setting: the tower, equipment, and all of the lights, buttons, and knobs.

Behind the glass, a young high school student named Francis Nash simultaneously recorded the show while manning his own controls for the evening shift. His ability to multi-task has been etched into my memory for over 33 years. Later in his career, Francis was promoted to General Manager at GO radio - a position he still holds.

Along with my brother Chuck who suggested I take the intro to broadcasting class (because I might need to fall back on it), Francis was instrumental in my even having a radio career. In 1973, he put WKCC on the air, and in 1974, I began taking broadcasting courses taught by young Mr. Nash. During that same year, I passed the FCC Third Class Permit with Broadcast Endorsement exam, featuring (as the FCC called them) Elements 1, 2, and (the dreaded) 9.

While Elements 1 & 2, dealt with a minimal amount of law and regulations as well as ship to shore communication, Element 9 required applicants to be able to read meters and compute AM wattage and FM effected radiated power. FM ERP was calculated by factoring transmitter wattage and the antenna's height above average terrain. Those with math anxiety failed Element 9 miserably. Luckily, I passed all three portions the first time, and in fall 1974, I was spinning the discs at WKCC.

In 1975, Francis personally offered me a work-study position as program director at WKCC. Even though I did not qualify for financial aid, he made it happen and I held this position until graduating with my BTh in 1978. The rest is history. Incidentally, Frances also was my faculty advisor for my BTh Thesis: "Broadcasting and the Independent Non-denominational Fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ."

GO radio broadened the musical experiences of a city boy from the Pittsburgh suburbs as well. I can remember that it was on WGOH I first heard a number of country artists such as a young singer named Dolly Partin. Thanks to Carmel Stevens, I also experienced bluegrass music for the first time.

Another young protege of Francis Nash during the 1970s was Ken Gemeinhart - one of my classmates at KCC. Ken pulled the night shift at WGOH during a portion of his college years. As luck would have it, someone at the station gave him the American release of McTell’s LP, “You Well-Meaning, Brought Me Here.” McTell's LP was not destined for airplay on many U.S. stations - not even on even the multi-formatted WGOH would play it. So, it became Ken's property.

Fortunately, the American release of the LP on the Paramount record label featured the song “Streets of London.” This song is missing from the British release of this same album, as it had been available on a previous LP in the UK.

Ken knew I was interested in English folk music at the time and he often played this album for me. In vain, I attempted to find a copy of it; however, by 1974 it was out of print in the U.S. and was not being stocked in stores as an import. Later when I attended graduate school at Marshall University in 1979, I was eventually able to secure a copy when the campus radio station, WMUL-FM, divested itself of hundreds of albums of which this was one.

Although McTell recorded “Streets of London” for his 1969 album “Spiral Staircase,” it was not released as a single in the UK until 1974, where his third recording of the song topped the charts at number 2. The version released outside the UK on the album “You – Well Meaning, Brought Me Here” was a second recording of the song and actually charted at 9 in Holland.

“Streets of London”

Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
And held loosely at his side
Yesterday's paper telling yesterday's news

So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind

Have you seen the old girl
Who walks the streets of London
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She's no time for talking,
She just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags.


In the all night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man is sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his tea-cup,
Each tea last an hour
Then he wanders home alone


And have you seen the old man
Outside the seaman's mission
Memory fading with
The medal ribbons that he wears.
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn't care


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