I was astonished to discover the other day that Leon Rosselson will be 80 next year. To be fair he is still a sprightly 78, but still…)
I first saw him in the early ‘60s on TV, performing as a member of the folk group The Galliards, but it was the songs that he wrote for That was the Week That Was that really caught my ear. His Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party (to the tune of the Red Flag) is still funny and still unfortunately very relevant.
The cloth cap and the working class, as images are dated./For we are Labour’s avante-garde, and we were educated./By tax adjustments we have planned to institute the Promised Land/And just to show we’re still sincere, we sing The Red Flag once a year.
Firm principles and policies are open to objections;/And a streamlined party image is the way to win elections./So raise the umbrella high, the bowler hat, the college tie/We’ll stand united, raise a cheer. And sing The Red Flag once a year.
Much influenced by singer songwriters like Georges Brassens, Leon has always used wit and humour – often very savage wit and dark humour – to make serious political and social points, as in Don’t Get Married Girls;
Don’t get married, girls – you’ll sign away your life/You may start off as a woman but you’ll end up as ‘the Wife’/You could be a vestal virgin, take the veil and be a nun/But don’t get married, girls, for marriage isn’t fun
Despite his enormous stature as a songwriter (amongst an unfortunately much too small select band of musicians, writers and music lovers) he has never found fame nor made much money – not that that was his aim anyway. But he has managed to write wry and thoughtful – and often funny – comments on the state of the world for over 50 years, and some of his songs, especially The World Turned Upside Down, which has been recorded and popularised by, amongst others, Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg (who took it into the pop charts in 1985) and has been sung on numerous demonstrations in Britain and the USA. His Ballad of a Spycatcher, ridiculing the ban on Peter Wright’s book, went into the Indie Singles charts in 1987 in a version backed by Billy Bragg and the Oyster Band.
In 1649/ To St. George’s Hill,/A ragged band they called the Diggers/Came to show the people’s will/They defied the landlords/They defied the laws/They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs
Over the last couple of decades his humour has got darker and he has increasingly written about the ongoing tragedy of the oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli State.
If you get the chance, do go and see – and hear – him. I’m sure that he’d hate to be called a genius, but between you and me…
Excellent post. I’ve been a big fan of Leon since I came across a record of his in a student house in 1990 but I’ve never seen him live and, until a few years ago, wasn’t even aware he was still going.
Then, just this Xmas, Lisa bought me a four CD collection of his stuff- still sounds as fresh and relevant and inspiring and educational to me as it did all those years ago!
Sorry I’m a bit late, comrade, but I didn’t see this till recently, otherwise I would have thrashed it out with you at the Harringay Arms. Fine stuff from old Leon but, as usual, you unfortunately give implied credibility to the view, widely expressed amongst both the politically sophisticated and the merely cretinous, that ‘music’ and the ‘song’ are the same thing. I blame the punks – about whom the Left (my Left as well, by the way, in case the readers are in any doubt) were, and are, extraordinarily sentimental. Fuck me, they did so much damage – “Here’s a chord. Here’s another chord – go and start a band” (A headline in the obscure magazine, ‘Sniffing Glue’). A whole generation of kids (mostly working-class kids) intellectually crippled and lead to believe that music (art?) was nothing to do with sweat, toil, education, complexity – fill in your own nouns, abstract or otherwise. That to be ‘in’ a band was part of the Class Struggle. (But not to learn how to play an instrument, of course). And what followed from all of that? Indie music, that’s what – Indie music and collective amnesia. Most of ‘the youth’, political or not, seem to have been robbed of any sense of cultural history whatsoever. They seem to think that ‘music’ is The Song. And ‘The Song’ is …… “The Words”. Well, no it fucking isn’t.
Throughout the 20th century (The century of The Song, I would claim, and , since this is on-line, IMHO) there have been great songs (great music, that is) with great lyrics – Brecht/Weill, Rodgers/Hart, Cole Porter, Lennon/McCartney Joni Mitchell, to take random examples. Then there have been great lyrics with OK music – Bob Dylan – can’t think of anyone else. There have also been great lyrics with infantile music – Leon Rosselson, for example. But the one everyone forgets (well, they do on the Left, of course), is great music with mediocre lyrics. (Bacharach/David) and let’s not forget any music with non-political lyrics. because the Left will forgive almost any atrocity committed against the art of music as long as the words are politically sound.
Sean knows as well as I do that great art does not always, not even frequently, serve the cause of political progress. We all know that (I think) but we must constantly remind ourselves of that fact. Leon Rosselson (and many others) might well write great poetry or great polemic or great politics but not, as an inevitable consequence, great music. A previous comment refers to Rosselson being “fresh and relevant and inspiring and educational” – surely not his nursery-rhyme tunes? Surely not?
Then again, there’s Paul Weller – don’t get me started………