Perhaps the greatest ballad singer of the last century, Liam Clancy’s rendition of The Streets of London remains his most popular song. Originally written by Ralph McTell, the song has been covered by many different artists. Each are echoes of the same universal sorrows every person fears to wade through. The Streets of London, like any great poetry, brings this fundamentally human experience to life. How then does it yield a sort of transcendence? Simply spoken, it warns of the dangers and pitfalls of life in a way as powerful as any literature. It highlights our privileges, exposes our fears, and knocks us back into reality with a greater understanding of ourselves. It’s a bit like the old saying, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Mirroring this, the chorus goes as follows:
And then how can you tell me you’re lonely
Or say that for you the sun won’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and
Lead you through the streets of London
I will show you something to make you change your mind.
The chorus welcomes the reader into the story, and figuratively taken by the hand, we are led through portraits of people embodying the many dimensions of sadness. In a way, the speaker feels like a gentler version of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, guiding us through a gloomy vision, foreshadowing what we fear to eventually be.
Following this comparison, it’s fitting that each portrait tells the story of someone weathered into age. McTell’s first image poignantly portrays an old man who has lost his purpose in life; a man who has become as valued as the outdated newspaper he holds. His second is of an old woman, “Carrying her home in two carrier bags,” too long adrift to engage with the world around her. His third portrait plays like a still life image.
In the all night cafe at quarter past eleven
Same old man sitting there on his own.
Looking at the world over the rim of his teacup.
Each tea lasts an hour and he wanders home alone.
McTell’s language describes a life lived over and over again, each day the same as the last, and each ending just as lonely. His final portrait hints at the end these people will meet.
Have you seen the old man outside the seaman’s mission,
his memory fading like the ribbons that he wears?
And in this winter city the rain cries a little pity
for one more forgotten hero in a world that doesn’t care.
Tragically, this last old man forgets himself in a world that has already forgotten him.
By this point, our Dickens ghost has shown us who we may fear to become, but also who we are not yet. Like Scrooge’s grave, a grim future where we find ourselves purposeless, impoverished, forgotten and alone is possible, and like Tiny Tim’s grave, it may also happen to others. This may be frightening, but it is also comforting. We, like Scrooge, are still endowed with the time and power to make our own decisions, shape the course of our lives, and ultimately lead it somewhere better. Likewise, we must also feel pity for Tiny Tim. The broken people around us are really not much different from ourselves, and we could easily become them. Consider, is it not a triumph of literature that Dickens could reveal these truths to us? It is the same with this song. It’s The Streets of London‘s ability to convey this message in much fewer words that earns it its distinction as poetry. Yes, McTell’s lines rhyme with rhythm. His stanzas realize themselves in repetition. But it is his ability to resonate so soundly with something profoundly human, to uplift and restore fragile spirits, that makes this song a timeless masterpiece.