On stage you seem to deliberately toggle between the traditional and the modern, the real-world and the mythic. Is this important to you or am I overanalyzing?
I’m not really trying to do that, exactly. What I am trying to do is to ring change between emotions. I like to go from happy to sad and sad to happy. I like the transition from something that’s really moving to something that’s dowright stupid or silly. I like emotion contrasted with humor.
Also striking in your shows is how you’ll be singing a song with verses and choruses and so on, then step sideways without warning into a poem or recitation, and then snap back into the song again.
I always thought of myself basically as a poet who writes music. Unfortunately, that’s really a difficult category, because it’s always been a rather blurred definition. I sent off a book once to Faber & Faber. They said, "We can’t take this. It’s got too much music in it." The book was in the form of a cassette, you know. It’s always seemed to me that a book should be musical and that poetry should be lyrical, and these things aren’t that concrete. But it is true that the media does tend to pigeon-hole things. So if you want to write a book now, you’ve got to say not "What book am I going to write?" but "What genre am I going to write it in?"
There are those who make a distinction between songwriting and poetry. You seem to make no such distinction when you perform.
No. Well, I consider myself as kind of a poet. I started out trying to be like Jack Kerouac long ago. But stories are a kind of song, especially the way I do them, because there’s music throughout. And the songs that have the most staying power are the ones that tell some kind of story, even if it isn’t a straight, linear narrative.
And you have no problem being a poet, even if your audience prefers to think of you as a songwriter?
Leonard Cohen is, I would say, a poet who’s classed as a songwriter. And Joni Mitchell is pretty much a poet who’s classed as a songwriter, too. But, say, Little Eva singing "Locomotion"—that’s clearly a singer who sings a song. Though the words aren’t the most important thing in "Locomotion," are they? Great song, but the virtue of the song is not contained in the words. I think if the virtue is contained in the words, that makes it sung poetry.
Was there a point when the balance of your stage show noticeably started relying more on the stories?
When I began working on my own, after the end of the Merry Band in 1980. I added more spoken word in amongst the songs to give the show more variety.
Because it was just you on stage?
Yes. Instead of the Merry Band or, before that, the String Band, which varied between two and six in number.
But you maintained a musical element to the stories, using the harp to keep things rolling. Was this a new idea or something traditional?
The notion of putting music with the stories is traditional but I was the first person to have a go at it in the revival, as far as I know.
Speaking of traditional, how much do you feel is fair to mess around with a traditional song?
You can do whatever you like, I think. Whatever you can get away with, or whatever seems good. People have gone to the extent of playing traditional Scottish songs with reggae bands. Some of these crossovers work and some of them clearly don’t.
Your stories all share your distinctive voice. How much of the stories are yours and how much are taken straight from traditional sources?
The traditional story, the wonder tale, it’s a do-it-yourself construction kit. You can take the beginning of one story, you can sloosh it onto the end of another, and you can mix it up with the facts of your own life and what your mother told you one day, and it doesn’t matter much at all. You can take liberties with the folk tales. You can put in bits from your own life, jokes, and whatnot, but once you get into the sacred material, I tend to leave that pretty much alone and just tell it.