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Come Write Me Down
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
S.R. Was he that much better than everybody else?
W.J. Oh of course, yes, nobody could get anywhere near him. After he left, I remember Malcolm Price buying a guitar and learning to do that flat-picking style. He was the first that I ever met in London that could do it – he did it in a few weeks, sat and practised all night, and he was our absolute champion. We used to take him around from place to place, put a guitar in his hands and say “Look, this guy can do it!” But Jack was streets ahead. There were the odd people around – Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were playing – but not a mass of people.
S.R. Looking back through the Melody Maker columns from those days, there seemed to be two very different streams emerging. On the one hand, places like the Blues & Barrelhouse, the clubs Jack and Derroll were playing, and on the other hand Ewan MacColl’s circle which eventually evolved into the Singers Club.
W.J. Well, the Blues & Barrelhouse side was an offshoot from the jazz scene, whereas the MacColl thing was an offshoot from the Joan Littlewood Theatre group scene, that kind of Arts Council angle – a more scholastic, academic side. The two rarely met. Of course, when you’re young you have these exaggerated feelings, don’t you? It’s fashionable and trendy. I’d go to a MacColl club to see people like Jack and Derroll, they did play there, and you’d be faced with this academic approach. It was anti the trip we were on, a more relaxed thing. But it has to be said that it was Ewan MacColl who actually said to me “Come back to my house because Big Bill Broonzy’s staying there.” I never did go – I met him on a train, I was on my way from Croydon up to Soho to go to a jazz club and I met Ewan on the train. I’d seen him at the club and it emerged that he was into all the blues thing as well. And those Radio Ballads were a real blueprint for the whole scene. They’re still absolute masterpieces. I used to have all those on a little reel-to-reel tape recorder. Although I’ve never played traditional music much because I figured I didn’t have a good enough voice to sing it, so I veered in the direction of the skiffle and blues things.
Wizz Jones & Clive Palmer, Paris 1960
S.R. How much of it was that Jack and Derroll were these larger-than-life cowboy figures? Did that have as much effect as the music?
W.J. Of course it did, on me and my crowd. I’ll always remember the day Jack said to his wife June that he wanted to go and buy a new Stetson, and we all went down – there were fifteen of us had to go with him down to Dunns in Piccadilly Circus. It was the whole image of it. There were these crazy guys shambling around London – l didn’t understand the music that well, l came to it on image first. I heard Jack play San Francisco Bay Blues and the very next day had to get a guitar just to learn to play that song. The same way that years later kids would knock on my door and ask for guitar lessons and say “I only want to learn one thing, I can’t play any chords or anything, all I want to do is be able to play Angi.” That was my attitude to wanting to learn Frisco Bay Blues. I think everybody has that one song that first impresses them, and you say “I’ve got to be able to do that.”
S.R. One is always hearing lots of references from that time about the street music scene in Paris, which seemed to be quite important to the people who later became the “contemporary songwriter” movement.
W.J. I was with a bunch of kids that were just following, really. As far as I know, that scene was opened up by people like Pete Watson and the Bennett brothers – three of them – and they were all on that skiffle scene. I remember we had this trip across the channel on one of those boats and seeing all these skiffle groups; there was Adam Faith in the East Side Skiffle Group – I was following all that, it was all glamorous to me. It was inevitable that I’d just go to Paris in the steps of everyone else. Alex Campbell used to come back and go down the Gyre & Gimble, not that I knew him that well.
But it was just a way of getting away from your background. I had this crummy job that I couldn’t face any more, I’d got my call-up papers for the RAF so I gave my free ticket to Colyers to a girlfriend – and two days later I was back because they chucked me out. And there I was without a job, so I thought I’d go to Cornwall and then I went to France. It was a way to be free for working class people, to get away from your roots. You could arrive in Paris with no money, hitch from the ferry, get a small crummy backstreet hotel, give them your passport as security and just go out and busk. It was quite unusual to see young musicians making interesting music on the streets in those days. People like the Bennett brothers were infamous, they used to give this marathon show on the banks of the Seine every Sunday afternoon and they’d make fortunes. So it was a short cut, a way out.
There was a night club that was being run by this guy, an American who was managing it for his ladyfriend, and he was a bit of a folk freak. Among all the cabaret artistes that he’d employ, he’d veer towards folk people. When Jack and Derroll hit Paris, they got a stint there, and that led to more folk people that were in town playing there, Alex Campbell had a regular thing there. The Contrascarpe was one of those places where you’d wind up about three in the morning watching people play. I did a floor spot, as you’d call it now, once or twice, but never actually got an engagement there.
S.R. There was a great quote in the Melody Maker folk column at that time, I think from Shirley Hart who’d just come back from Paris, saying “The place is full of imitation Jack Elliotts, there are fifty of them on the streets, all trying to be like him.” Would you have been one of them?
W.J. Well, I wasn’t trying to look like Jack Elliott! There was a guy called Les Weston, and he looked a bit like Jack so he cut a hole in his guitar to try and make it look like a Gretsch and wore all the same clothes! I wasn’t into that; after I’d learned San Francisco Bay, I discovered this vast wealth of material and I was soon doing my own thing. There was one American guy came to Paris, the first day he was there with his Stetson and Levis, guys were coming up in the streets and saying “Hello Alex”, “How’re you doing Alex?” because Alex Campbell was the big hero of the Left Bank. I remember Shirley Hart being in Paris, she was bottling for Clive Palmer – they came and stole our queue! But I could go on for hours about those days, there are so many stories.
From Southern Rag 6, October 1980
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down