FIRST THING Illinois-born singer-songwriter David Ackles did when he arrived in Britain last week was to arrange to hear Julie Driscoll’s next single, ‘Road To Cairo’. He wrote it.
“It was really freaky hearing a chick sing the song,” he told me. “It’s about a bum trying to summon up the courage to go home to his wife and family, but not quite making it. To hear a woman sing it — implying that she has left her kids — gives the song a whole new dimension. A whole new impact. It’s a fantastic record.”
There have been songs from the new songwriters about bums before, of course, following in the well-trod footsteps of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin”. But Ackles is different. He has really travelled. And hard.
“The glamour and the romance falls away after you’ve been on the road a few days,” he recalls. “Then you begin to realise you’re fighting for survival. It can be really rugged.”
This recognition of the unglamorous realities of life on the road is what gives his song conviction, probably.
He started in vaudeville routines with his family at the age of four, has done everything from writing ballet choreography to putting up circus big tops, has been married and divorced, and originally came to Elektra Records as a writer. But when Elektra boss Jac Holzman heard a demo tape that had been prepared by David Anderle and Russ Miller, he ordered a single release of David’s song, ‘Down River’ — with David singing it. The single blossomed out into an album.
Ackles is different from the usual run of guitar-toting songwriters in two respects. His age: he is 31, almost past it by current standards. And his instrument: piano. He was classically trained.
“But I realised I would never make it in the concert hall when I finished my training. Now what I do on the records with piano is pretty simple stuff, but it’s simple because that’s the way I want it to be.
“If I was playing guitar it would be simple because that was the best I could do.”
David has played guitar, when he and his then wife toured as a folk-singing duo. “She had some songs from Missouri and had some songs from Illinois, but we never really made it.
“In fact, most of the time I’ve been concentrating on doing other things besides writing, because I knew if I started too soon I’d get all used up before I’d worked out what I wanted to say. But I’ve always been heading for something in music or the theatre.
“Then when the racial riots started, I knew I had to write. The result was ‘Blue Ribbons’.”
There, David really startled me. I hadn’t seen the song as being about racial prejudice, despite its lines about “lovers loving and only loving others of their kind.” It’s not a freedom song in the conventional mould, though the affirmation is there: “I am a man and men are all one kind.”
“I don’t hate the supporters of George Wallace. They know what they think they know and no one will change them. But there are a lot of others who haven’t made up their minds yet.
“I never was in that protest thing,” he explains. “I admire Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds, but the great danger about a lot of protest songs is that they only hit the converted. That’s OK, I suppose, but there are a lot of good people those songs don’t reach, who might see things straighter if it was explained to them more gently.”
© Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, 5 October 1968