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…