Mick Softley was a legendary folk-rock singer/songwriter of the 1960s who developed a cult following. Born in the early '40s, he was raised in Essex, adjacent to Epping Forest, and came of age just as skiffle and rock & roll started sweeping across the British Isles. Softley was oriented a little more intellectually than most of the teenagers around him, however -- reading and writing, not listening to and playing music, were his pleasures. Writing also became his initial career goal, and his heroes (if that's what they were) tended more toward Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg than Elvis Presley or Bill Haley. He headed for Paris rather than Hamburg, seeking out the literati of the era, became disillusioned with the beats and most of the writers he encountered. It was then that he fell into music, gravitating toward that circle of serious folkies embodied by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Derroll Adams, and Davy Graham. He returned to England and became part of the burgeoning folk music revival, and later ran a club, named the Spinning Wheel, whose younger habitués included a young Maddy Prior.
He might have remained unknown to a broader public longer, but for the intervention of a younger friend, Donovan Leitch, who was enjoying some considerable success of his own -- in that he had actually started recording music and selling records, and acquired professional management -- and decided to share the good fortune. According to biographer Nigel Cross, it was Donovan -- who'd recorded Softley's "Goldwatch Blues" on his debut album -- who persuaded his managers to make an album with Softley; a contract with EMI's Columbia imprint followed in 1965, and the result was Songs for Swingin' Survivors, itself a clever play on the name of a familiar Frank Sinatra album of the previous decade (which, perhaps not coincidentally, had also been issued in England by EMI). The album was one of the best topical folk-based albums of its period, with a bold, distinctive individual voice that ranks alongside the work of Bob Dylan and Jackson C. Frank -- the jumping-off point was Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but Softley had leaped past emulating either of them and into something unique, in his own literary voice and with his own sound and point of view, and it was also filled with virtuoso-level playing. The record was fertile enough ground to provide Donovan with a few more songs for his repertory and subsequent records, and even British soul singer Dave Berry covered a couple of them.
His debut album proved a false start, however, as it languished in sales, gaining Softley a wider cult following -- and one that could grow as it circulated across the years -- but that was all. He drifted in and out of music over the next few years, after some time off for a stint in wine-making -- a duo effort with his colleague and contemporary Mac MacLeod followed, and then came another solo stint at the end of the 1960s. A single for CBS late in the decade anticipated a much more lucrative and successful contract in the 1970s, at which time Softley finally found something like a mass audience, through those sides and broadcasts on the BBC. He left CBS in mid-decade and, in the late '70s, delivered three more albums to Doll Records, the release of which was missed even by many dedicated fans. Finally, at the close of the 1970s, Softley seemed to have run out his string -- or, perhaps, proven everything he'd ever needed to -- as a musician. He turned back toward writing, and at last report was a published poet with a considerable body of work behind him. In 2003, Hux Records re-released Songs for Swingin' Survivors for the first time since its original issue in 1965. ~ Bruce Eder