Book Review: Nick Awde, Singer-Songwriters Vol.1

Featuring David Cousins, Arlo Guthrie, Iain Matthews, Ralph McTell, Al Stewart, and Richard Thompson

Fans of singer-songwriters throughout history will love this first volume of an ambitious project from UK author Nick Awde. The book shows a unique interview style highlighting singer-songwriters with impressive histories and reputations. Whether you know all of these names or not, the stories they tell are worth your time. This is an intriguing book as a stand alone, but if you open your favorite music app and listen to some of the songs mentioned along the way, it is an informative and delightfully entertaining experience.

As I began reading this book, I came to the realization that the trans-Atlantic connection was (and is) a lot stronger than a lot of folks might realize. In fact, Awde argues that New York and London were “parallel hubs” for the 60s folk revival (14). The references from all of the songwriters in this collection were big names and small, big hits and songs that never quite took off. The common interest in good storytelling and guitar playing remains the focus of the art while the stories around these artists (and their songs) are endlessly fascinating.

Names like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie seem to appear in almost every interview. These artists were all rooted in a deep and abiding folk tradition. Awde’s historical framework is as follows – First English Folk Revival 1890-1920, American Folk Revival 1940-1960, and Second English Folk Revival 1945-1969. Having these dates in mind as a framework helps to situate the artists that are a part of this volume and music history overall.

In the words of Al Stewart, “once I heard Bob Dylan, I couldn’t go back.” That statement could be a theme for this entire book. These were artists fundamentally influenced by the folk revivals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s amazing how many artists and even songs (like Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”) were present in the lives of these different artists. Folk standards from Guthrie and later Pete Seeger ended up in the repetoire of many of the artists in the folk revivals.

Part of the reason the folk revival took shape the way it did was because of the rise of radio as Woody Guthrie came to prominence. Awde’s insights about the way history meets music is immensely helpful throughout the book. There’s a conscious engagement between popular culture and the music scene. These artists were connected with the larger entertainment industry and served to narrate a lot of the social changes happening in the 1960s especially.

The chapter on Arlo Guthrie was particularly interesting (and relevant to our US-based site). There are some intriguing details about growing up the “son of Woody Guthrie,” including how disorganized the iconic songwriter was. But what really surprised was Arlo’s down to earth advice applicable to everyone. As a youngster, Arlo did not plan to make music as a profession, but “playing” was always a part of his life and identity. It was Arlo Guthrie’s emphasis on the “fun of playing music” that informed his deeply satirical and bright lyrics. There are dozens of short stories about iconic moments in his career, such as his album Alice’s Restaurant, but it was a short explanation of preparing a show that stood out. He explained that he writes a full show and does not change it for his audience. The sense of theatricality and performance comes from Arlo’s mother, who was an entertainer as well. This is just one example of the many gems that help readers better understand the songwriters in the book.

Ralph McTell’s life connecting with US-based acts while growing up in England is another good example of the parallels at the heart of the book. Al Stewart talked about the significance of hearing Bob Dylan at Albert Hall shaping his future as well. These trans-Atlantic moments from sharing music to sharing stages helped to form a sound and consciousness that largely defined an era of social change.

The questions from Awde to these artists were sometimes quite detailed. The depth of analysis in this book shows a lot of careful self reflection from the artists and a clever bit of inquiry from Awde. Coming in at a generous 300 pages, the book gives considerable detail for each of the artists featured. They read like miniature autobiographies. The focus on the artist’s own words as a retrospective on their careers makes for an entertaining and engaging read.

I recommend this book for fans of folk music in the United Kingdom as well as the United States. Even if readers are not familiar with all of the artists in the book, it is worth learning their stories of how they discovered folk, blues, and rock music that informed a revival. I would recommend it for serious music fans as well as musicologists of the 20th century folk revivals.

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