Ralph McTell calls Streets of London the “blip in his graph”. It’s by far his most successful, best-known and loved song, one that has inspired hundreds of cover versions around the world.
Half a century on, the song still feels as relevant today as when it was first written. Why does it have such long-lasting appeal?
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Streets of London could just have easily been called Streets of Paris. It was in part inspired by the clochards (homeless) who lay on the hot air grates of the French capital’s metro to keep warm, placing their boots under their head so they wouldn’t be stolen as they slept. The tune came first to McTell, and then the subject matter. “I tried to fit the people I’d seen on the Paris streets to this tune,” he recalls. Once the song developed, McTell drew on his own experiences growing up in England and changed the location of the title.
It reflects some fundamental human truths
But this isn’t an ode to England’s capital city. The “closed down market” where the old man is nonchalantly “kicking up the papers/ with his worn-out shoes” to find leftover fruit from packed away stalls was actually a market in Croydon, London, near where McTell grew up.
The reason the song has such wide appeal is that it reflects some fundamental human truths. Namely, the fear of ending up alone, like the heartbreaking tale of the old man in the all-night café, sipping tea slowly and then wandering home alone. McTell believes that “everyone, deep down, is scared of that emptiness and loneliness and that alienation... by singing the chorus, it makes it all go away.”
The song is undoubtedly heart-stirring and resonates with people in a number of ways, from the parents who hear it for the first time when their children sing it in choir to the German schoolchildren who study its lyrics as poetry to learn about those less fortunate than themselves. It provokes strong emotion. For me personally, it conjures up fond childhood memories of my dad playing it on the guitar. Others have more poignant and visceral associations.
One person for whom the song is memorable is Jerry Playle, a music producer. He told BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music that as a young guitarist it was “irresistible”, and posed an enticing challenge with its chords, harmonies and words. He recalls a nerve-wracking audition for a folk club when he performed Streets of London. He had spent hours practising the guitar playing, but only realised when he opened his mouth to sing that he was far from word perfect. He thought he would have to make his apologies and slope off stage. But his audience, sensing he was floundering, joined in one by one, until everyone was singing along. He remembers feeling “utterly lifted by it. They rescued me.”
For Playle, there is a connection between the “encouragement and the kindness of strangers” in the audience saving his audition, and the words of the song itself. He says, “It could have been any song, but it was that song and that's a very profound experience.”
The association with the song has come full circle as he has since met McTell and become a trustee for the Streets of London charity, which supports people who are homeless in London.
Streets of London should be a marker of a time that's gone past, but it's not – Gwen Ever
Gwen Ever, a DJ who became homeless in the 1980s, is reminded of that era when he listens to a powerful punk version of Streets of London by the Anti-Nowhere League. The song had an anger that chimed with the time: activism had taken off and homelessness was an issue people were incensed about. But, says Ever: “I had no idea that before the decade would have ended, that I would be one of those people in the song.”
His personal world came crashing down following a split with his pregnant girlfriend and losing loved ones in the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. When he ended up sleeping in doorways he developed mental health issues, deciding: “I wasn't going to carry on; I’d had enough.” But after surviving an overdose he turned his life around – he says: “it sounds cliché, but I’ve got my spirit back.”
But he’s still angry about the problem of homelessness. “Streets of London should be a marker of a time that’s gone past,” he says, “but it’s not.” Today there are more people living on the streets – including children – than when he was.
He was taking me on my walk with my mum; our last walk, together – Maria Bentley-Dingwall
The song also resonates with Maria Bentley-Dingwall, the niece of Derek Bentley, who was convicted of murder and hanged in 1953. Derek’s sister Iris Bentley, Maria’s mother, had promised she would always fight to clear his name.
McTell became involved in Iris’s campaign and wrote a song called the Ballad of Bentley and Craig, because he felt deeply about the injustice of Derek’s execution. When Iris died in 1997, Maria promised to carry on her campaign, and McTell himself sang Streets of London at Iris’s funeral. “It reminded me of her; mum was a Londoner, born and bred,” Bentley-Dingwall says. She recalls: "When Ralph started playing, my spine just went completely tingly. He was taking me on my walk with my mum; our last walk, together.” In 1998 Derek’s sentence was finally quashed – a year after Iris’s death.
For McTell, the song is about alienation. It was specifically directed at a friend who had cut himself off by using heroin. But more broadly it’s about the characters he describes as “within our society and yet outside it”. That it has such an important theme at its core may be the fundamental reason that people from around the world connect with the song in their own individual, and personal, ways.
You can hear more stories of how Streets of London by Ralph McTell affected people’s lives on BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music.
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