The Streets of London, Or, the Return of Forgotten Memories

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Good Afternoon:

The dream, a peculiar and disquieting event full of people I have not seen in decades and of people I will never see again, ended not with an image but a snatched piece of lyric floating in darkness, sung by a man with a Scottish accent.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through…

And I awoke.

What on earth was that? The most bothersome part of the dream was the invisible singer; he just felt wrong. The singer was not supposed to be a Scottish man, the singer was supposed to an American woman singing with a very quiet Irish accent. Ah, but there’s the rub; how did I know the singer had to be an American woman singing with a very quiet Irish accent?

Busker & Audience, Haight & Clayton, 19 January 2008

“Let me take you by the hand.” After a fitful day at work with that one lyric running through my head, I came home obsessed with The Mystery of the Wrong Singer. “Let me take you by the hand.” Let’s start there. Google. “Let me take you by the hand.” Only thousands upon thousands of results (and I put quotation marks around “let me take you by the hand”).

Very well then. Who is Ralph McTell? And why isn’t he Scottish? And Scottish or English, he isn’t an American woman singing with a very quiet Irish accent.

Ralph McTell is a singer-songwriter from Kent whom I can’t call a one-hit wonder because his career has lasted almost half a century. Perhaps “a one-super-ultra-monster-mega-hit” wonder would do him justice, thanks to the sudden, stunning, sensational success of one song, “Streets of London,” a song inspired by his experiences as a busker on the streets of Paris and the impoverished, lost and homeless people he saw there. Over 200 versions of the song, one that McTell didn’t want to record because it was too depressing, exist today (you can find most of them on iTunes), ranging from the quiet melancholy of Roger Whitaker to the fire-breathing rage of Anti-Nowhere League (and including McTell’s, of course).

But who was the American woman singing with a very quiet Irish accent?

Back to Google, look up the entire lyrics to “Streets of London.”

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

And there she was.

Late summer 1974, a small white 18th-Century church in a small town near New Haven, Connecticut. I don’t remember why, but I was sitting in some multi-purpose banquet/meeting room available to the public with a Swedish exchange student living with my family to attend an evening of open-mike entertainment. A series of mostly bad folksingers performed 60’s protest songs for a forgiving audience of about 20. Perhaps one of our friends was performing, I really can’t remember. Towards the end of the evening, a nervous girl of about 18 whose hair formed a halo of flaming red curls about her porcelain white face took the stage. She sat on the wooden stool provided for the performers and said she had one song to perform and asked her girlfriends in the audience to join her for the choruses, but they all chickened out and left her there. So as she grew more nervous by the second, the girl with the halo of red curls talked about the one song she would perform a cappella, called “Streets of London,” and how she discovered it on an imported LP record where side one consisted of several minutes of silence, “Streets of London,” then several more minutes of silence, whilst side two consisted of several minutes of silence, “Streets of London,” then several more minutes of silence. Having made herself even more nervous, terrified and stage-frightened by talking about the song, she finally sang.

In a very quiet Irish accent.

Have you seen the old man

In the closed down market

Kicking up the paper

With his worn out shoes?

Not one breath. Not from me. Not from our Swedish exchange student. Not from anyone in the audience.

Not one movement. Not from me. Not from our Swedish exchange student. Not from anyone in the audience.

When she finished, the woman with the halo of red curls looked down at her feet and whispered, “Thank you.”

Five, perhaps ten seconds of silence.

Followed by the longest, loudest, most raucous standing ovation by an audience of 20 in the history of live music. We didn’t have iPhones and YouTube back in the last summer of 1974, you’ll just have to take my word on this. And I had completey, totally, irretrievably and hopelessly lost all memory of this until a fragment of a lyric sung by the wrong singer floated in the darkness at the end of a dream.

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–I have seen something similar on Haight Street, a miraculous recovery of a memory courtesy of a bad version of “Funk 49” by The James Gang.

PPS–To Ralph McTell, should he ever read this: I haven’t downloaded your song. That girl sang your song better than you, Anti-Nowhere League, Sinead O’Connor, Roger Whitaker, and the hundreds of others ever have. I am sorry, and I am not sorry, and I hope you can understand.

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