in conversation with Mike Raven
Bill Caddick, at Jackfield, March 2000. Photograph: Mike Raven
Bill Caddick is one of our most highly respected singer-songwriters. He has had a long and varied career, both as a solo artiste and as a member of several groups, including The Albion Band and Home Service. Many of his songs have been covered by artistes of the first rank, including June Tabor and Christie Moore. In March 2000 I spoke to Bill at his home in Shropshire and he was very forthcoming about the way he writes and composes.
MR: When were you born, Bill?
BC: 27th June 1944, the day that Cherbourg fell to the Allies.
MR: And where were you born?
BC: A place called Hurst Hill, Coseley, just on the outskirts of Bilston in the Black Country. It was really good – a sort of industrial slum, but a hundred yards away was a farm. It was great: a wonderful childhood.
MR: And what did your parents do?
BC: My father worked in a factory, practically the same factory shop all his life. I think it was 57 years he worked at Thompson’s, a heavy engineering place. My mum did all sorts of things, cleaning and waitressing, all sorts.
MR: Where did you go to school?
BC: I went first of all to Sedgeley, to a Catholic school there – my mother was a Catholic – and then I went to Tipton Grammar School, a wonderful place. It was like Bleak House. There was a factory over the road, on one side, a cemetery on the other, the canal at the bottom and a gas board waste ground next to it. They were wonderful surroundings – very picturesque.
MR: I know, I lived in Wolverhampton until I was about 25 when I escaped. There is a kind of romanticism about these grim industrial areas – certainly when you’ve left and come back to visit. I’m not so sure whether people who live there all their lives feel the same, though.
BC: When they demolished our house they moved us to the council flats at the side of Sedgeley Beacon, and I used to go up on to the Beacon and look down over Bilston. You would just see the brown smog across the top of it. I remember driving home from places and you would suddenly see the air change and think: “Here we are; we’re back again; we’re home”. If you grow up in that environment, you accept it.
MR: I live near Stoke on Trent now and there are these derelict areas along the canal, and it’s with an air of wistfulness you look at them.
BC: I think it’s really sad. If you get the train from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, you pass Monmore Green Greyhound Stadium, and where the steel works used to be is one huge flat area. I remember the steel works: a lot of my friends went to work there, and it practically shut Bilston down when they closed it, and they didn’t just close it – they flattened it within months. You think, I remember that place. You would sit on the Beacon and could see the molten metal going along the rolling mill. At night you would see the glow of it; it’s all gone. It seems a bit sad.
Site of the Bilston Steelworks, 1991. Photograph: Mike Raven
MR: I know; I went there when I was doing my Black Country Towns and Villages book. I thought I’ll get a picture of at least the site of Bilston Steel Works, but, as you say, it’s totally flat, and all I could get was a picture of two gypsy lads playing on the edge of it. In fact, it’s rather a nice photograph because they are really cheeky. When did you become interested in music?
BC: Well, my father was well into opera – tenors especially. He had lots of 78’s of tenors, which he played all the time, and the radio was always on. I remember my mother saying she wasn’t surprised when I went into music because he always put me in a cot next to the radio. It’s very odd, but I still know the words of the strangest songs. My father-in-law plays piano. He will play all night without pausing, and I know all the words to these songs which were popular before I was grown up. They just seem to have filtered in somehow. Then, when the skiffle boom started, I got a guitar and had three lessons, and at the end of it there was a mutual decision that there was no future in it for me, so I stopped. For the same reason, they wouldn’t let me in the school choir because I couldn’t sing. Now I’m a doddering old fool singing and playing guitar for a living. I took up the guitar again when I went to college and suddenly found I could play it.
MR: Which college was that?
BC: In those days it was Lanchester College of Technology, in Coventry. Now it is part of the University of Warwick. I did a degree in languages and business studies.
MR: So you did get a degree? I always thought that was a joke.
BC: No, no, it was a business degree with special reference to modern languages – French, German and Russian – as well as economics, statistics, marketing, advertising and law. By the time I had finished college I realised that was not what I wanted to do, and I was seriously into guitar playing and folk music by then.
MR: What did you do after you left college?
BC: I got a job after a while. I had bought my 12-string guitar and my main preoccupation was learning how to play like Leadbelly. Eventually my parents said: “You will have to get a job, doing something”, so I got a job selling aluminium foil – not on the road; it was from an office. I was in export sales first and then home sales. I was there for seven years, at Star Aluminium in Wolverhampton. In the end they wanted me to weld the two departments
together. I was doing a lot of gigs at that point, doing a lot of travelling at night and coming back and doing my job in the day. Then Taffy Thomas said: “Do you want to join Magic Lantern puppet theatre?” so I did, and have never looked forward since. Star Aluminium offered me a lot of money to do the selling job but I turned it down and did Lantern for thirty quid a week.
MR: You were doing a lot of gigs. What sort of material were you doing?
BC: I was already writing. I started off doing Dylan and Leadbelly and Paxton, all sorts of things.
MR: So you were doing a mixture of mostly contemporary, a bit of blues and some of your own?
BC: Yes, the strange thing was that I was really interested in traditional music. I used to buy all the Topic compilations that Bert Lloyd did, and I used to love listening to them, but I never actually sang any of them. I was more-or-less strictly contemporary or blues. It’s only recently that I’ve started doing traditional stuff. I don’t do many because people book me as a songwriter. I think the first time I performed traditional music in public was with the Albion Band. You join a folk-rock band and you end up doing traditional music.
MR: How long were you with Ashley Hutchings?
BC: Just over two years, I think, and then The Home Service grew out of the Albion Band. It was ironic really. Albion Band were rooted in the National Theatre by that time, and a lot of us wanted to get out on the road, so we more-or-less all left the Albion Band. Actually, there were several Albion Bands going at that time but we were the main one. We formed the Home Service with a view to going on the road and, immediately, we were offered jobs in the theatre doing the Passion Mysteries and Don Quixote and things like that; and we stayed there whilst the Albion band haven’t stopped touring since, strangely enough.
MR: You were living in London now, were you?
BC: Well, not permanently. When the runs were at the theatre I was living there five or six days a week, and rushing back to Wolverhampton for some sensible beer at the weekends. It was much later I moved down to London for a bit, to actually live there. I quite enjoyed being in London when I was working in the theatre and able to come back to Wolverhampton – Sunday and Monday usually – but when we actually moved down there I never went into the West End, or walked round, which I used to do all the time when I was working there. I just didn’t like being there at all. I was very happy to move back up here.
MR: When did you come back – you came back to Shropshire? Why?
BC: Well, Katherine, my wife, is from this area.
Bill Caddick and his wife, Katherine, at Much Wenlock, 1994. Photograph: Mike Raven
MR: When did you meet Katherine?
BC: It was after the theatre and after the Mysteries finished. It was very hard work. It was all of the Bible, from Genesis right the way through to Doomsday, Revelations, the lot. On Saturdays we did all three plays. We were there all day; matinees several days a week and most nights. It’s very physical work. You are running around in three costumes and changing and doing all sorts of things. I think everybody – the band and the company – were all drained at the end of it. I had a bit of an altercation with the other guys in Home Service and said: “I’ve had enough. I just don’t want to do this any more”. I came back to Wolverhampton and got myself an allotment, and that’s basically all I did, and then got myself a part-time job at New Cross Hospital in the psychiatric department. Katherine was running an art room there and I was helping her out, and that’s where we met.
MR: When did you get married?
BC: Three and a half years ago. We’ve been together about 10 years now.
MR: How old is your son, Tam, now ?
BC: He’s nine this year. He’s a smashing kid – he’s got really nice values, but if you see him out at festivals he will be racing around, unless his attention’s actually being drawn to something like a children’s activity thing, and then he’ll be there, in the middle of it, doing something quietly. I wish I had half his energy.
MR: Now, writing of songs. I’ve got your Winter Flowers CD in our internet Folk Shop and I wrote this little note against the record: “Let Bill Caddick ride the highways and byways of your mind.” To a degree that is what you do,
because, although it is your mind, people will relate to it through their own minds.
BC: That is the idea.
MR: Because that is more-or-less what you do, isn’t it? It might be a global subject, but you do it from a personal point of view.
BC: I think the songs have got more that way as I have got older. On the record Sunny Memories, which became a show, I wanted to reflect aspects of Edwardian life, mainly using people’s diaries and recollections and using the styles of music that were around at that time. In that sense there was nothing personally of mine, but obviously the things that impressed me would be reflected back. As well as getting the bigger aspects of it all, you have to make it personal. So, obviously you use your own feelings. I suppose any writer would do that really, and I’ve used that sort of technique in most songs. These days the songs have become more personal. There are quite a few songs now in which I’m talking about me. I’m saying “I did this; I feel this”. I don’t really want to go too far in that direction because there comes a point where it just becomes boring for people listening.
MR: I know Harvey Andrews quite well and he has become very introspective these last few years.
BC: I think he always was. Some people do like that and some songwriters are in that style, and O.K. there’s a place for it. It’s just that I’m quite a private sort of person, anyway. I don’t want to reveal that much. At the same time, people probably wouldn’t find it very interesting, so a) why should I? People have no right to expect to know all about me just because I’m standing up there singing a song to them; and b) they might not find it very
interesting anyway, and that would be devastating, if you banked your whole career on that.
MR: I know you’ve got a thing about not reading the words to a song by themselves, haven’t you? You feel you should only read them if the song is to be sung.
BC: Well, you can, I suppose. If I’m writing I try to get the words exactly right and try to have an element of poetry in them. Ira Gershwin said: “You should never read the words of a song in isolation”.
MR: Which probably means he was a good songwriter but a bad poet.
BC: Could be. They don’t go together.
MR: They can do, of course.
BC: Well yes, you can set poems to music, and the words of a song can be poetic, but songs and poems are two different fields.
MR: Now you say that but A. E. Housman utterly refused to have his poems recited on BBC radio. He said: “You can only broadcast them if they are set to music and sung”.
BC: Oh, really? That’s interesting.
MR: Although his poems sound very well indeed when recited.
BC: Which is not that common. You hear a lot of poets on the radio reading their stuff and most of them are rubbish. They really put you off. You think: “I’m not going to buy that book.” They sort of declaim it or a different voice comes in. I hear storytellers do that as well. You can be speaking to them one minute and then they get on the stage and a different voice comes out.
MR: Yes, I remember discussing this with the late Richard Walker, the story teller. I said: “My idea of a storyteller is an old man with a beard, a wise man, a keeper the tribe’s history in aural form, sitting in a chair and telling you a story as though it is true – as though he really believed it, and was gathering you into it, transporting you if you like. When people do this declaiming stuff to large audiences, standing up waving their arms, it’s not drawing you in at all. They talk to adult audiences as though they are children, and when they make deliberate eye contact, well, I find that quite discomforting – embarrassing, even. In the Hebrides the traditional epic ballad singers turned to face a corner of the room so that the words of the story spoke with as little dramatic interference from themselves as possible.
BC: It doesn’t work with me, anyway.
MR: No, it’s like watching an actor, but that’s the way it seems to have gone.
BC: It does, to a large extent. I agree. You sometimes see a person like Packie Byrne telling a story and don’t know that a story’s started.
MR: No, you don’t know until the end almost.
BC: It’s like the best joke tellers in pubs. If you are telling a joke in a pub you don’t say: “Right, I’m going to tell a joke now – this bloke walked into a pub.” You just sort of say: “I was driving back tonight and I heard on the radio that they’d caught this bloke nicking battery acid, and another bloke was done for nicking fireworks, and the police charged one but let the other one off”, and you think that was a joke. And that’s the way I like it.
MR: (Laughs) Yes, it kind of hits you afterwards.
BC: I think songs have got to be insidious. If you go back to the Sunny Memories thing, quite a lot of them really sneak in. You can get people singing something, especially with a chorus in it, and on the way home they are thinking: “What am I singing about. Oh, that’s what it’s about, is it?” That’s nicer. This is what I was saying about the element of communication, especially in the chorus. If people can hum something or find what they call
the hook in a song, they can’t get it out of their heads and you have got them then. Once you’ve got a good song with all those elements in it, you can say what you like then, and they’ll sing it: “I’ll give you all my money!”
MR: That’s right because it’s a communication. You don’t have to understand the exact words. A good song doesn’t have to have a wonderful tune and fantastic words and a marvellous arrangement and a great singer, does it?
BC: It does help though!
MR: Of course it all helps, but it doesn’t have to have that. You can get the most banal things, such as Let’s face it, a lot of 12-bar blues. Many of these old blues singers were singing a load of old cods: “My baby done gone left me”, or something, and they’re not even singing it as though they really mean it half the time. It was just a kind of feel-good-type thing, but it worked. All it’s got to do in the end is work, isn’t it, no matter how it does it?
BC: Yes, that’s true.
MR: What are you doing theses days, Bill?
BC: Well, I keep on trying to record a ‘best of’ album. Only The Path and Winter with Flowers are still available. Everything else has been deleted, and people keep asking me where they can buy John o’ Dreams or Unicorns with me singing it, and they can’t. I thought I’ll just sit in a studio and do it. I keep swapping between two ideas – whether I get people in to help me do it or whether I just do it and sing it on my own
MR: Can I just interrupt there. That is a growing trend and one I’ve always supported – people doing on CD how they do it live. Ian Bruce will tell you his best-selling album is just him and his guitar. Show of Hands say that their next recording will be ‘as live’. Then there are two old-stagers – Tony Rose and Chris Foster – who have made comeback CD’s with them playing entirely solo, as they do in the clubs.
BC: There’s a place for both. It’s just that I wanted to do these as my definitive version. How I do it. If I do it with a band it’s going to be different.
MR: Yes exactly, and the reason I would try and persuade people to go in a solo direction is that it’s forever. It’s once and forever. That was you singing your song. Backings can be very of-the-moment things and can become dated very quickly. Anyway, unless you can afford the very best musicians, band accompaniments can be rather lacklustre creatures.
BC: Actually, I’ve done quite a lot of studio tracks and I’ve got three CD’s worth of doing it ‘as live’. The problem is that I don’t like listening to myself by myself, so I’ve got these three CD’s and I don’t know what to do with them basically. I don’t know whether they are any good even. I’ve not played all the way through any of them, so basically I think I’ll just carry on doing a bit more of that. I’ve done some of the tracks in the studio and live, and I’ll just
shovel them over to somebody and say: “Just make an album of this, will you?”
MR: I know, because I’ve always done this with Joan. I play guitar and she sings. When we started off we had so much material that we filled the 80 minutes up in order to archive it. However, people were complaining that our CD’s were too long, and, whilst I am very glad that we did that, I have come to think that if you can’t beat them, join them. If you are doing it ‘as live’, as you would in a folk club, you have to keep it to LP length, about 45 minutes,
and you have to carefully choose the order in which the tracks go, and you may do a little instrumental or even a bit of talking just to break up the endless flow of one guy singing.
BC: The other project which I have got on at the moment, which is taking me a while, is an album of new stuff and a lot of it I want to be orchestrated. The basic idea behind Winter with Flowers was to use a lot of English traditional dance musicians – basically a band called All Blacked Up, a local band who all lived in Broseley, and a few others – but to push them a little bit and put in some slide guitar and 12-string guitar, so that you got an English feel but
with American influences. This time, for part of the album, I want to go a bit more Ry Cooder meets Vaughan Williams, so there will be a lot of slide guitar in it but with orchestral instruments as well. At the same time have some voices, so it’s a big, complicated thing. I really haven’t had the time to sit down and work at it. I probably need a fortnight of not sleeping or eating much, and
nobody coming near me, to get it done. As well as that, I’ll be doing a lot of research into the song Peat Bog Soldiers. There’s a fascinating story behind it, which is not at all what people thing the background to the song is. I would like to do a dramatisation of that on record, and perhaps even do it live as well. The
trouble is it was done by prisoners first of all, and finding 16 thin people who can sing is difficult these days! Everybody is obese. I’m working on five or six different things from this album and there’s got to be some sort of cohesion, some sort of flow in the whole thing, even though it may not be apparent to anybody else. For me there’s got to be some reasoning behind it. I think Colin Irwin said I’m a devious constructor of albums, and I do always think that way. If I’m doing a performance there are little sets of songs that go together, and,
though it may not be apparent to anybody else, it’s important to me that there’s some logic behind the whole thing, which is quite at variance with my character because I’m not really a logical person.
MR: A lot of poets say they can’t sit down to write a poem to order, that’s why you get some very bad poetry from poet laureates when they have to write a poem on the death of so and so, or to celebrate the day the Queen sneezed in public for the first time. The muse has to strike them. Obviously anyone can sit down and write a song or a poem, but will it be a good one – does it work?
BC: You have to work. There’s lots and lots of days when you come to the end of the day and you haven’t really got anything.
MR: Do you keep notebooks at all.
BC: Yes, tons of stuff. I never throw anything away – words or tunes.
MR: You can read and write music now, can’t you?
BC: Yes, not with great facility. If somebody presented me with a new piece of music I’d have trouble playing it straight off with any fluency, but I can jot down a tune. I used to rely on cassette recorders or my memory, or just writing guitar chords, but I’ve got a music programme on my computer and I’ve started playing with that. It’s actually taught me a lot about music and now I do write it out. I can transfer it on to the computer and it will tell me if I’ve written it out correctly, which is great and has enabled me to do all sorts of things like arranging orchestral stuff, although I’ve got a lot to learn about that yet.
MR: What’s your dog called?
MR: Why do you call her Bess?
BC: Because she’s black and it’s a short name, and dogs love short names. She’s called Bess after Black Bess.
MR: Oh, I see – Dick Turpin’s horse, Black Bess. I’ve always been intrigued by him, I must admit. There’s a song about him, collected near here, in Broseley from May Bradley.
BC: Oh, really. I didn’t know that.
MR: Yes, she did a song called Turpin’s Farewell to Black Bess. She only had the chorus and the tune, so I wrote some verses for it. We did it at the Remembrance Concert for Richard Walker.
BC: Oh yes, I remember now.
MR: It’s a very weepy sort of thing, but lovely. It’s about him having to shoot her to put her out of her pain. That’s a thought, you know, because I’ve got this big, black dog called Bruno, a cross between a Rottweiler and a great Dane. He is a brute, and he is ugly, and he is vicious and aggressive and he nips people.
BC: They say owners start to look like their dogs, don’t they!
MR: And he has afflictions. He tends to get eczema and his eyes go funny occasionally. He’s a total mess, this dog.
BC: But you love him dearly.
MR: You stole the words right out of my mouth. A couple of times we’ve been to the vet and the vet has looked at me, half in wonder and half in disgust, as if to say: “What are you bothering with this horrible, snarling thing for, which has to be muzzled and goes berserk when I stick a thermometer up his backside. And I think, “He just does not understand, this vet.” This dog loves me beyond all imagining, and I love him beyond all measure. He can’t understand that. He just wants to put the creature down. I think there are songs like that. Some pop songs stick in your head, and you think “Why is this going round and round in my head; it’s a load of meaningless old cods?” Anyway, you’re living at Jackfield now, and you take your dog for a walk every morning.
BC: Yes, it’s the best part of the day. Usually I do the school run and then come back and go off with the Bess. It can be half an hour or so, or we can do the long walk, which is far as Coalport Bridge, over the river there, and back over the new bridge, which is about four miles.
Bill Caddick at Jackfield, 2000.
Photograph: Mike Raven
MR: I must say, it’s very nice round here – very rural. You’ve got the woods and the River Severn, and the whole gorge is quite dramatic.
BC: It’s beautiful. I love it. We just walk across the road there, and you’re into the old railway line that used run all the way up to Shrewsbury.
MR: However, this neck of the woods was notorious in the last century, wasn’t it?.
BC: It was the brothel area for Ironbridge. Someone said the other day, there were 87 pubs at one point in this area, but when most of the village started collapsing into the river in the 50.s a lot of them went, leaving the Robin Hood, the Half Moon and The Boat.
MR: A lot of there customers were bowhauliers. Anywhere between five and fifteen pulled Severn trows upstream from Gloucester. They used to steal anything not nailed down, slept rough, killed sheep, and must have been a very tough lot. How old are you now, Bill?
BC: Fifty five.
MR: I’ve got seven years on you.
BC: You must be one of the few people who has. There’s you and Martin Carthy, and Harvey Andrews, of course.
MR: I said in an article of mine. I’m one of the few people who is older than Carthy, and that’s pretty ancient.
BC: He’s about 112, or something like that, isn’t he?
MR: In his head he is.
BC: I think he’s from the Planet Zog, though, Martin. He’s not of this world. I once took him round Wolverhampton and he wanted to buy some white shoes. He’d got some white shoes on but he wanted another pair. We went to literally every shoe shop in Wolverhampton – and there’s quite a few – trying on every pair of white shoes they’d got, but he didn’t buy any. I’ve got a load of time for him, though. I think he’s a brilliant bloke. I love his individuality and his eccentricity. I also like the way – no matter what else he’s involved in – he always insisted on doing folk clubs, which I think is great because I love the immediacy of folk clubs. I know they are not popular these days but I like the fact that you can get up in a room and just sing and say what you like, and get an instant reaction from people. I can’t understand how people can think they are stars of the folk scene, because it is just not like that. It’s in the back room of a pub that may not have been cleaned for ages but there’s always some little gem that comes out. You can sit through all the average floor singers and
then somebody will get up and sing a song – possibly that they have written themselves – and it’s brilliant. And you think: that’s it; that’s why I’m here.
MR: I totally agree with that. You get those little magic moments, when something just works. And what people forget is that it’s very hard, especially for residents and, equally for floor singers. If they are getting up and doing one or two songs every week, they cannot keep repeating themselves and so, often, they are doing completely new stuff. They can’t trudge round like the professionals can, doing the same 15 songs every night.
BC: I’ve been involved in running, and being resident at three or four clubs, and it isn’t easy. To do it properly isn’t, anyway.
MR: Perhaps we can talk a little bit more about songs. You didn’t answer my question about sitting down and writing songs.
BC: I do, yes.
MR: Generally speaking, do you find they are successful compared with ones that jump out of the air?
BC: I don’t really believe in songs that jump out of the air, though I must admit that Unicorns and John o’ Dreams were like that and they have been very successful. I’m a worker, though I get a limited amount time some days by the time I’ve walked the dog, taken Tam to school and done whatever jobs have to be done. I suppose it’s my office training, but I do try and get to work by a certain time and only stop for half an hour an lunchtime, and then work again.
MR: That’s what you do most days – sit down and write songs?
BC: Yes, although some days I just play guitar. I’m learning to play the fiddle, and practise that for an hour or so. I don’t regard that as work. Playing the guitar is different, because something usually does come of it. Even if you don’t come up with anything you can quote to somebody, you are always working towards something. I like to take a long time over a song and get it absolutely right, which is why I don’t trust the song which just pops into your
Bill Caddick and his son, Tam, at the Festival on the Edge, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 1994.
Photograph: Mike Raven
head. I’m always a bit suspicious about that. I like to get the words exactly right. I could turn out a song a day; wouldn’t be any problem. When I was working in the theatre you had to do that. The director would say: “I want a song.” I’d say: “How long?” and he’d hold his hands up. “When do you want it?” “Well, now”. So we’d say: “Can we have half an hour?” and the whole band would rush into another room, the actors would go to the bar – very galling – and myself and John Tams, the only ones who didn’t have any proper musical training, would work out a song. At the same time, the guitar player would be writing out the brass section parts, and other people would be learning it, and we’d go back after half an hour with a song. It might not be finished but there would be enough to see what it was like. Some of the actors would say: “Musos, it’s nothing”, and we would say: “O.K., come back in three weeks time able to play an instrument to professional standard and write us some songs, and we’ll come back in three weeks time having learnt your script and your movements, and we’ll see who can do it best.” Today, all the time I spend working is well spent. Even if I haven’t got anything at the end of the day to show for it, something has been logged on at the back of my brain; so when you actually get down to doing it, it’s easy at that point. If you know what the song is going to be about, all you have got to do is decide the style, the key and what it’s going to be like at the end. You’ve got to hear it in your head before you actually write it, I think. You do the words and music together. It’s fatal to try and do one to the other. I find that very difficult. I know you’ve done a lot of setting poems to music. I find that quite difficult, and I’d rather have the two come together, and bend them and twist them until they’re exactly right.
MR: I know what you mean. I have a little book called The Land of Lost Content, in which a lot of the songs are poems set to music, and I said in the introduction to that that it’s often easier to write a new tune than to try and get a traditional tune to fit, which is a similar thing to what you are saying.
BC: When we started to do Winter with Flowers, the lads from All Blacked Up would come round to the house and I could hear the things in my head that I wanted, but I didn’t know whether it would actually work in practical terms.
MR: That was a nice CD.
BC: There were some very nice bits in it. There is a euphonium in the middle of it, and instead of a bass guitar I used that as a bass instrument most of the time. They said: “What’s the rest of it like?” I said: “I haven’t written that yet”. I know what it’s going to be and could tell you practically all the words, but I haven’t written them down on paper yet. The whole album was written in about a month, but that was working evenings and weekends.
MR: You wrote most of the songs in that condensed period?
BC: Yes, which is a great way to work but a lot of work had been done beforehand. I had got notes and ideas in my head, so I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know if it would actually work in that way. Basically, all I had to do was open the tap and let it all come out. It’s a good way of working. I work well under pressure like that.
MR: Which other song writers do you particularly admire?
BC: All sorts of people. Early Dylan stuff is wonderful. All the words tumble out of him in a quite anarchic way. On the other hand, Tom Paxton, in the old days, was a quite simple wordsmith. These days I listen a lot to a lady called Lucinda Williams, who has come out of the folk, blues and country scene. John Tams is a phenomenal songwriter, when you actually get him to sit down and do it. Apparently, he has just done an album. I’m looking forward to listening to that, and he’s really good to work with.
MR: Somebody reviewing one of your albums said you wrote American road songs but set in England.
BC: Interesting. There is an element of that, I suppose. I basically started playing American stuff and it was a long time before I sang any traditional songs, but at one point my mother, who comes from Upper Gornal, told me about the salt sellers who used to go round in covered wagons and used to park up in the winter in Upper Gornal. She knew all of them – Joey Jiggy and John Toe and Moonshine. I tell you, I could hear the chorus of the song. It was just poetic, and that was the first English traditional-type of song I wrote. All the rest had been sub-Dylan, fake Tom Paxton, or fake blues, and I switched to doing fake traditional songs. I had to make a big jump in the way I played guitar because I’ve always played 12-string, so I had to make that fit and work out a way of bending the way Leadbelly played 12-string, to something approximating the way Carthy played. But I had to adapt it a lot to get an English style, which it isn’t, of course, because there’s no such thing as a traditional English style.
MR: If there is, it is probably more to do with Renaissance lute playing, or simple chord, arpeggios, Elton Hayes style. I’ll probably be laughed at for saying it, but Elton Hayes was a real troubadour and probably brought folk material to a greater audience than anyone else, with the exception of Burl Ives.
BC: For a few years now, I have realised that what I had essentially been doing was writing fake folk songs, and I had to stop that because it is a pointless exercise really. They’re there already. You don’t need me to add to them. What is great fun is working with the Jackfield Riverbillies, a country-ish sort of band. I just play slide guitar with them, and writing songs with them means I can go back and just do American-style things, although we try all sorts of bits and dabs. I can sit down and write Country and Western songs – great fun. We used to play at the Tontine once a month but we stopped that a couple of years ago. That’s a totally different sort of discipline. I’ve always liked changing, like playing with the Home Service or with Pete Bond and Pete Laycock. We did some good stuff there. I’ve started doing a couple of things with storytellers. I’ve worked with Amy Douglas. I like to ring the changes.
MR: What sort of things did you do with her, for example:
BC: Mainly traditional stuff. We did a thing up in Llanrhaeadr a couple of weeks ago. She has done a lot of research into stories from that area. There was nothing much I could do in terms of songs from there, although there were a few things I found. But there are songs such as Tam Lin and The Two Magicians, which are shape-changing songs, a concept which appears in a lot of the stories Amy tells. We did Tam Lin as a combined story and ballad.
MR: Richard Walker booked me once at a Wilderhope Manor storytelling weekend with Hugh Lupton and others. My brief was to play a guitar solo after each story. I had no idea what they were going to do and I had to think pretty quickly of something that related to the story they had told.
BC: I’ve done two things like that at the Festival of the Edge with Dan Kedding, where they put us on for an hour and a half and we were thinking, “What are we going to do,” and you come to the end and you think, “Is it over already?” And it does happen. Somebody is telling a story and you think, I know what I can do to tie in with that; or you can just say, that’s over now and it’s my turn to give you a cue now.
MR: It’s a wonderful exercise. Travelling back from gigs I used to say to Joan: “You name any two things and I’ll find a connection between them in some way”. Like if she introduced a song and then I’d have to link it to a guitar solo and have a justification as to why it was linked. It’s a bit like that. Another way to accompany a storyteller is to play quietly in the background. It makes a difference – makes it more complete in a way.
BC: More of a performance.
MR: Short of becoming something like the old silent black and white movies with the piano heightening everything. You have got to avoid that like the plague, because it just becomes burlesque. Well, I think that’s about it. That’s great; thank you very much Bill.
BC: I hate to tell you this, Mike, but your tape stopped ages ago! Only joking. Anyway, it’s time for the dog’s afternoon walk.
Bill Caddick Discography
1976 Rough Music
1977 Sunny Memories
1979 Reasons briefly set down…
Larkrise at Candleford
1980 A Duck on his Head (Bond, Caddick, Laycock
1981 Doing the English
1984 Home Service (Home Service)
The Mysteries (Home Service)
1985 The Mysteries (EP, Home Service)
1986 The Wild West Show
1991 Urban Legend
1995 Winter with Flowers
1996 Early Transmissions (Home Service)
Wild Life (Home Service)
1999 Cherokee (Jackfield Hillbillies)
Dark Designs (Lorna Bryant CD)
Unicorns (Best of Bill Caddick)
Bill has also done session work on albums by the following artistes:
John Kirkpatrick, Richard and Linda Thompson, Peter Bond, Tim Laycock,
Ashley Hutchins, Jan Davies and Les Barker.