May 2021 update: Ralph McTell’s second most famous song. I have been an admirer of his music for decades. I first saw him at the Sunderland Empire, taking the stage a little nervously after a pulsating support set from Lindisfarne, so good that all us Mackems forgot they were a bunch of Mags.
Ralph quickly settled and delighted the audience with a flawlessly engaging performance. This would have been around 1969 or 1970.
From Clare to Here came later, in the mid-1970s. It is an exceptional song, one of his finest in my view, and recalls his time working on a London building site with a gang of Irish navvies
When I first included it in my Cover Story series four years ago, I noticed that lot of the visits to Salut! Live it prompted came via a Facebook link. I asked whether anyone could tell me which Facebook page was generating such interest. There was no response to the question but having recently joined Ralph McTell's Facebook fan group, I will get around to digging into its archives to see whether that was the source ... and thanks again, Ralph, for your much appreciated contribution to our collection of 80th birthday tributes to Bob Dylan.
In the fifth article in my series Cover Story, looking at different versions of the same songs, I consider three of the many interpretations of Ralph McTell's From Clare to Here , "my second most covered song "as he has put it himself ...
Ralph McTell: attributed at Wikipedia to Notthesameasyouremail, no less
Call it the folly or delusion of the man who is old know to know better.
But since I bought a guitar, coincidentally on the day Leonard Cohen's death was announced and my first new guitar for more than 30 years, I have spent more time on Ralph McTell songs than any others.
It is open to respectable doubt whether anyone other than unfortunate family members and friends will ever hear my version of From Clare to Here, a poignant tale of the work-booze-fighting-yearning London existence of an Irish navvy far from his home and love in the west of Ireland. The same applies to Streets of London and Last Train and Ride.
All the same, it's a great song - all three are and even then they constitute only a fraction of McTell's wonderful output - and even my tortured efforts to do it any kind of justice give me pleasure.
But in which more professional hands does the From Clare to Here make the greatest impact?
As with all instalments in this series, it is ultimately a matter of individual taste. Partisan listeners will always make strident, absolutist claims on behalf of this or that performance and you see evidence of that in the comments that often follow YouTube clips of the song.
No rebuke is intended; I have been a partisan listener often enough. McTell himself starts with an advantage in that for many, the original is invariably the best. I see the case for that view but dismiss it (if I did not, this series would have no real purpose).
So I shall declare here and now that no one, for me, touches Box Fox's combination of warm, accomplished vocal delivery, the perfection of his guitar accompaniment and the flash of inspiration that led to the song running into the mournful air Women of Ireland, exquisitely played by Deidre Ruane, Chris Leslie and Norman Holmes.
If I allow myself one pedantic gripe, I do not believe an Irishman would talk of his "mum" craving a letter home from her exiled son; "mam" or "ma" feels more authentic.
Fox recorded From Clare to Here on his album Dreams Never Leave You, which as The Daily Telegraph's folk critic at the time I chose as my album of 2000. Bob has often ribbed me because my initial review, while positive, suggested no such accolade was forthcoming; the album simply grew and grew on me and I still frequently play it in the car.
I cannot fault McTell's version of his own fine song, or I should say versions since I have come across a few and seen him perform it live, as I have Box Fox.
The one I chose for this article, from RTE's programme The Late Late Show, includes lush embellishment provided by the Irish broadcaster's Concert Orchestra.
Many readers may prefer it and the arrangement does not jar as did the orchestral strings added for chart-climbing purposes to Streets of London.
Nanci Griffith removes our hero's long-lost Clare love, Josephine, so that it's "family" he misses, not the girl he promised to return to.
But it is a gorgeous rendition and I am not remotely surprised that so many people have "liked" it at YouTube and/or left admiring comments.
And of course, many more people have recorded it, tribute itself to the quality of the song. I am thinking of Jim McCann, Paddy Reilly and the Fureys but you will locate other examples with a simple search and may wish to commend one of them to our readers.
This is not a competition, more an excuse to share the music I love with the larger numbers of people visiting Salut! Live these days. Feel free to add your comments - or just to appreciate the clips I have posted and feel a spot of gratitude that I have resisted any temptation to make and include my own.
* With thanks to my friend Joan Dawson for suggesting this among other songs that might be mentioned in the Cover Story series
All or any of those featured here can be bought from Salut! Live's Amazon link - just click on the record title:
Ralph McTell, on his album Right Side Up
Nanci Griffith: it is on her album Emigrant, which I cannot locate at Amazon but also appeared as a single, From Clare to Here which does pop up on searching the site.
Bob Fox: on his album Dreams Never Leave You