First Song

Small Voice Calling > The Echo > First Song

“The words are still the same.”

It was Mothering Sunday in the Spring of 1969. We were at Nan’s for tea in the Lancashire cotton town where she and Granddad had made their home after the Great War. My just-seventeen boredom was showing, so I was sent to the front parlour with the tranny from the kitchen. I twiddled the knobs and heard a man’s voice singing narrative songs about people and their circumstances. I was hooked.


Two songs Ralph McTell sang on that half-hour radio programme have remained favourites to this day: ‘Michael in the Garden’ and ‘Factory Girl’. I remember Ralph saying that he had been visiting friends, and watched their son play in the garden. There were those who said that Michael “Has something wrong with his mind”, but, Ralph says, “They cannot see what Michael sees”. That’s Ralph’s forte – picking up on reality and telling it straight.

The factory was in Brighton, where Ralph had taken a seasonal job. Or was it in Croydon? Now, whenever I listen to ‘Factory Girl’, I see a Northern landscape, as though in a Lowry painting.

As I listened then, I imagined these to be the observations of a worldly-wise, middle-aged English country gentleman, sharing his huge experience of life through his songs. To my amazement it turned out that Ralph was only 24 years old and from a working-class broken home in Croydon.

Now Ralph McTell is a worldly-wise elder statesman of the English folk music scene who continues to write and perform songs of great perception. Many of his songs are autobiographical, and I frequently find they echo my own experiences… 

Old songs lose young meanings
But new ones they gain
From changes that I’ve been through

From ‘First Song’ by Ralph McTell
Full lyrics in ‘Time’s Poems’, p 21