Homegrown singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson is currently celebrating fifty years of songs with a conscience. Sean McGhee leads the tributes
I first became aware of the name Leon Rosselson back in the summer of 1986 when a friend put together a compilation cassette tape of, in his words, 'radical folk singers' for me. On the tape, amongst names like Peter Nardini, Dick Gaughan and Alex Glasgow were recordings of a duo, Leon Rosselson & Roy Bailey, performing evocatively titled songs such as 'Whoever Invented The Fishfinger', 'Barney's Epic Homer', 'The Ugly Ones' and 'The Diggers' Song'. I was particularly taken with Rosselson & Bailey.
At the time I was absorbing as much of this type of music as I could, alongside a steady musical diet of Christy Moore, Billy Bragg and The Pogues. In my mind's eye I'd imagined Leon Rosselson (the songwriter of the duo) as some radical young folk singer, for the timelessness of his songs and the sentiments seemed perfectly suited to the period. A bit of library research (pre-Internet) and asking around revealed that Rosselson was in his early fifties and had, as I discovered, been writing, recording and performing since the late 1950s.
When I decided to set out on my youthful musical evangelical journey with Rock'n'Reel (now R2) back in early 1988, Leon Rosselson seemed a perfect interview subject for the launch issue. I managed to obtain his address via a letter to the press and publicity person at Topic Records (a certain John Crosby, these days a contributor to R2) and duly sent off my hand-typed questions to Leon on a page of A4 paper.
Consequently, Rosselson became one of the first-ever artists to be interviewed, albeit in my own idiosyncratic way, in the pages of a fledgling Rock'n'Reel. Since then, the magazine and its editor consistently kept abreast of developments at Rosselson HQ as he continued to record, perform and occasionally participate with our old friend (and sometime R2 contributor) Robb Johnson.
This year celebrating his fiftieth year of recording, PM Press in America (whose Ramsey Kanaan discovered Leon Rosselson through our pages) and Rosselson's own label, Fuse Records, have combined to produce an ambitious boxed set, The World Turned Upside Down. Comprising four CDs and a lavishly illustrated eighty-page booklet, the collection contains seventy-two songs that span the years 1960-2010.
The release of the boxed set gave me an excuse to speak again to the man The Guardian described thus: "His songs are fierce, funny, cynical, outraged, blasphemous, challenging and anarchic. And the tunes are good, too." In the extensive booklet notes that accompany The World Turned Upside Down Rosselson alludes to fame and fortune several times, albeit in tongue in cheek manner. I wondered whether there was a little bit of pride at play … disappointment that he hasn't (yet) become more widely known.
"Fame and fortune were certainly not what motivated me to write songs, though I guess that in the folk/protest boom of the 1960s, when I was assigning songs to publishers and recording for major record companies, the idea of fame might have been at the back of my mind. But it's not so much that I want to be better known as that I would like some recognition of what I have achieved in the world of songwriting. But that's not going to happen in a culture where song is not taken seriously as an art form and where the media's assessment of songs is based on commercial success. Song in this country is not really valued as on the same level as, say, poetry. So why should taking songwriting seriously garner any popularity? I think that, with better access to the media, my songs could have reached and touched more people. And that's a regret."
While recording in the 60s for major labels CBS and Decca, neither seemed too concerned about his more overtly 'political' songs of the period and in fact it's likely they simply considered that the 'protest song' was the latest fashion amongst songwriters. Rosselson tends to agree with such a conclusion. "All that [major] record companies are interested in is making money. And if 'political/protest song' seems like it might sell, as it did for a time in the 60s, they're happy to market it. Revolution – or the sound of revolution – also turned out to be quite a saleable product in the 60s for a time. They might have balked at 'Stand Up For Judas' or 'On Her Silver Jubilee' but I hadn't yet written them then."
Rosselson has never sat comfortably within any genre: folk singer, singer-songwriter, political songwriter, musical satirist or even, as Ewan MacColl famously labelled him, 'cabaret'. Where does Rosselson feel is his natural musical home?
"There's been an attempt to invent an English equivalent to the French category of chanson but it hasn't exactly caught on. So, like some other songwriters, I'm given labels, because the media need labels, which I think are misleading. I'm a songwriter. I write songs. That's it. Poets write poems. Nobody thinks to sort them into different categories."
As a socialist songwriter there are lots of references to work and employment in Rosselson's songs. In the 60s, and for a time into the 70s, Leon Rosselson taught 'O'- and 'A'-Level English three days a week in a tutorial college in Earls Court. "It was pretty flexible so didn't interfere much with gigs and writing. I'm sure there was some input from it in my writing. Since then, my only job has been writing – plays as well as songs for a time in the 1970s, children's books in recent years – and performing."
Rosselson is dismissive of any suggestions that, either from frustration or otherwise, he perhaps could have attempted to pen a pop song or suchlike that might secure radio airplay, in the hope of reaching out to more people.
"Reaching out to more people for what purpose? What can you say in the pop song form? You have to ask yourself how song in the marketplace communicates with its audience. Not surely through the power of the content and the intensity of the words. Words in pop songs are just part of the packaging, part of the overall sound. Having said that, in the folk boom of the mid-60s, when I was with The 3 City 4 and Gerry Bron of Bron Music came looking for songs that might sell, always ready to oblige, I wrote a kind of pop-folk song called 'Coming Home Again To You'. It was, unlike most pop songs, not entirely unrelated to reality. Gerry Bron was not impressed. Nor were The 3 City 4. I recorded it on The Word Is Hugga Mugga Chugga Lugga Humbugga Boom Chit LP and it's now preserved on the boxed set."
As a songwriter with over five decades of composing behind him, he's not averse to revisiting his recorded canon and occasionally listens to some of his songs after a long absence from them, primarily he says, "to see how they've stood the test of time", although ""favourites change over the years": 'Harry's Gone Fishing', 'Postcards From Cuba', 'Who Reaps the Profits, Who Pays The Price?', 'Not Quite But Nearly', 'Bringing The News From Nowhere', and 'Barney's Epic Homer' come to mind as recordings that still get favourable reviews from the man himself.
As a songwriter who cares so much about the construction, composition and delivery of his songs, unsurprisingly he's not too forthcoming with compliments when asked about other people's versions of his songs (of which there have been many). "I like some and not others. Don't ask me which. I like an interpretation in which the singer re-creates the song to suit his or her own personality and voice."
Rosselson began his recording career way back in 1958 with two releases, Zimra Ornatt's Israeli Songs ten-inch album and Stan Kelly's Liverpool Packet seven-inch EP (both Topic Records, playing guitar on the former and guitar, banjo and accordion on the latter). He has had a prolific recording and writing career that continues today, fifty years after his debut solo record from 1962, the Songs For City Squares EP (Topic). He's been oblivious in the main to the changing fads and fashions of the music industry, as he explains.
"I've never really been in the mainstream … not in the folk world, nor in the commercial world. I've never been particularly fashionable, which means I've never entirely gone out of fashion. At times – in the 60s, when I was involved with publishers and major record companies, and then in the 80s, the era of punk rock and Billy Bragg – 'political' song was said to be in tune with the times and there was a spurt of interest in my work. But mostly I've done what I do, which is write songs and sing them, without regard to changing tastes in the music business or in the folk world."
As a songwriter who has existed chiefly beyond the gaze of the mass media and under the radar of the vast majority of music fans, releasing material many miles away from formulaic commercialism, it makes sense that he founded his own label, Fuse Records, back in the very late 70s, and continues to run it today. "On one level, it's a time-consuming nuisance since it means doing stuff I don't really want to do. But it's essential if you want to keep control of your songs and your recordings. No one can tell me to delete a CD because it's not paying for the space it's taking."
As a songwriter of biting social comment and concise lyricism, perhaps it doesn't seem such a natural next step to writing children's books. I was interested to hear how he ended up as a children's author, and how that differs from songwriting.
"A friend who was working for a children's book publisher at the time thought, since I wrote children's songs, I might like to have a go at writing children's books. This seemed like an interesting challenge so I wrote ten stories about Rosa and her singing grandfather, who was loosely based on my father with his embarrassing habit of singing anywhere at the drop of a hat. I sent them to the only children's book agent I knew and, to my amazement, she sold them to Puffin. They came out in two books, the first of which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. So encouraged by that, I carried on for another fifteen years or so, having about twenty books published as well as many stories in anthologies. Then it more or less petered out. I blame Harry Potter.
"At the beginning, I found writing children's stories a relief after songwriting. Song is such a restricted form, such a tight condensed form, which is why it's so powerful and children's stories seemed, certainly at the beginning, to offer more space, greater freedom to say what I wanted to say. And it was fun creating an imaginary world for children. Of course, I soon found there were restrictions, many based on the demands of publishers and on what, it was assumed, children of this or that age could or should read."
Rosselson has worked with a wide array of performers: Dominic Behan, Martin Carthy, Sandra Kerr, Roy Bailey, Robb Johnson, Frankie Armstrong, Oysterband and many others.
"Dominic Behan? Oh, yes. I accompanied him on a Topic LP [Down By The Liffeyside: Irish Street Ballads, 1959] in the distant past when I was known mainly as an accompanist on my old nylon-strung Kessler guitar. 'Thunder and lightning is no lark/When Dublin City is in the dark'. I remember it well. I also worked, futilely as it turned out, on a single with Vanessa Redgrave once upon a time. I bet you didn't know that.
"But to be accurate, I've collaborated long-term, as opposed to collaborating just on studio recordings, with Roy Bailey and Frankie Armstrong, with Sandra Kerr, with Martin Carthy in The 3 City 4 and on pretty well every record I've ever made, and in recent years with Robb Johnson. And with Liz Mansfield on a children's play with songs adapted from one of my children's stories. And before any of that, with Robin Hall, Jimmie MacGregor and Shirley Bland in The Galliards. They've all been, give or take the odd tension, fruitful and enjoyable. More than that, they've been essential in keeping my brain active, working on projects, scripting shows, arranging songs for different voices. Performing solo and singing with a group are different. I don't have a preference."
Rosselson rarely listens to other performers. "Radio 3 when I'm shaving, and I'll play the occasional CD." But asked to recommend any contemporary songwriters or performers, he humbly suggests: "I don't think anyone needs them [recommendations] from me. I bought Stephen Sondheim's book of lyrics, Finishing The Hat, which also contains criticisms of many dead songwriters but not, on principle, any living ones. Interestingly, he is hard on song/lyric writers that I like – Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart, WS Gilbert – and praises highly Cole Porter who I think is basically dishonest. He also berates sloppy rhymesters. I have a long note on that in the booklet that comes with the boxed set."
It should be no surprise to anyone au fait with Rosselson's songs and his Jewish heritage that he opposes the criminal acts of the state of Israel, although it may surprise them to know of his youthful interest in Zionism.
"I've written seven songs, as well as a number of articles about Israel/Palestine, so anyone who wants to know my views should listen to the CD and read the notes to The Last Chance [subtitled Eight Songs On Israel/Palestine]. This isn't the place to go into Zionist history. All I will say is that I'm anti-Zionist, because Zionism says that Diaspora Jews live abnormal lives and should all go to Israel and because Zionism is a colonising project predicated on the dispossession and oppression of the indigenous people.
"I'm also against a Jewish state – though I'm not sure what exactly is meant by that – in the same way that I'm against a Christian state and an Islamic state, because it casts a section of its population into second-class citizenship. As you may know, there is no such thing as Israeli nationality, only Israeli citizenship. This is because the nationality is defined as Druze, Arab, Jewish … not Israeli, and the Jewish state is not for its citizens but for all the Jews in the world.
"I was in a Zionist youth movement in the 1950s and spent a year in Israel in 1958-59. The turning point for me was the Six Day War in 1967. I might also add that if you're confused about the rights and wrongs of this particular conflict, it's probably because you've been listening to the BBC. Try Al Jazeera. Or read Noam Chomsky. Or Israeli journalists like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy and Uri Avnery."
"Leon Rosselson is something rare and marvellous, a British performer with stylistic links to the European traditions of leidermacher and chanson. He may not display the emotional intensity associated with such performers, but he certainly shares their gift for making the political personal."
- Billy Bragg
"Leon is a still small voice among the general cacophony. Someone who rages against people 'filling their ears with music so they can't hear the screams' may not sound much like an optimist, but that in fact is what he is. I think that he believes that people are born with the potential to be heroic. I also think that this might make him laugh."
- Martin Carthy
"A writer and performer who has unwaveringly stuck to his principles and beliefs. His writing cuts through all the crap and brings clarity in a time of very muddied waters. He has been a much greater influence on me than he would ever suspect."
- Dick Gaughan
"Discovering Leon's albums in the early 1980s was possibly the first time I understood that contemporary protest music didn't have to be rock'n'roll, loud guitars, and barked vocals. I used to get his albums from an anarchist bookshop in Nottingham – I couldn't find them on sale in any of the normal record shops we had in Leeds. It was powerful stuff … wordy, literate, clever, thought provoking. And he was funny, too – something there wasn't much of in the protest side of punk.
When we covered one of Leon's songs, 'The World Turned Upside Down', in 1993, we heard that he wasn't happy with our version because we changed the line 'we need no swords' to a decidedly un-pacifist 'we take up swords'. That was probably typical of us, switching a tiny but important part to serve our own ends. We didn't want to be dishonest about our support for armed struggle. Still, we've met Leon a few times since then and we've always got along. He's an amazing character and great songwriter."
- Boff Whalley, Chumbawamba
"My foremost response is that he has given me intelligent and powerful songs to sing! Leon and I met some forty-seven years ago when he invited me to join his group, The 3 City 4. For the next twenty-five years we worked together in various formats, as a duo – or a trio when Frankie Armstrong joined us and, occasionally, with Sandra Kerr. We toured in various countries, including the UK, Sweden, Canada and the USA. We managed to record three LPs together: That's Not The Way It's Got To Be (1974); Love, Loneliness, Laundry (1977) and If I Knew Who The Enemy Was (1978).
In all the years I have known Leon his songwriting has been extraordinary. Perhaps one of the outstanding qualities of his writing is his consistency over all these years. After fifty years he continues to write great songs that make you laugh or make you angry yet always encourage you to retain the spirit of that 'voice that lives inside you'. I know of no other writer who can match his enduring ability to give us songs that entertain and educate us."
- Roy Bailey