On Leon Rosselson’s most recent album, Where Are The Barricades?, we encounter a cluster of usual suspects, old, older and new: rotten bankers, corporate raiders, uncaring politicians, plundering national heroes (take a bow, Sir Francis Drake) and an Israeli policy towards Gaza that is not the Holocaust but brings shame and disgrace on the descendants of those who suffered in it.
And we also meet Karl Marx, Cockney equivalents of Ken Loach’s Daniel Blake and people who struggle and not always with success to stay alive, most poignantly two children killed by brutes in different uniforms, one in Nazi-occupied Vilnius, the other in Palestine.
But this is not only Rosselson's latest album, full of the clever, challenging wordplay that for many years allowed me to write approvingly of his work for, of all papers, The Daily Telegraph. It is also his last.
At 82, he no longer has the energy or, in the face of new technology, will to record any more. I am delighted to present this interview, conducted by e-mail, with an English master of political song (his own website is at http://www.leonrosselson.co.uk/index.php) ...
The album may be bought at the Salut! Live Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B018TI0UHM/salusund-21
Leon Rosselson: For one thing, songs trickle out so slowly nowadays that I doubt I'd conjure up enough decent songs for a CD before I pegged it. But even if I did, I don't have the energy. Or the belief that another recording would matter very much. And I don't enjoy recording now. I used to in the days of vinyl when I remember it as a creative process. Digital recording is super efficient but soulless. I am not in love with this new technology. And yet, if I needed to launch a new song into the world, I could use YouTube.
"Hundreds of songs", "numerous records", you say in the CD notes. Do you actually know how many?
According to my list of songs, I'm up to 317. Over 55 years or so, about five a year so not particularly prolific. A number of those were written for InterAction & the Doggs Troupe.
There were periods when I was quite prolific and other times, when I was writing children's books, for example, when songs dwindled. Looking at my list now, there are early songs of which I have no memory. When a Million Stars... What was that? Graduation Day? No idea.
According to the website lrsc.weebly.com there are 35 recordings (LPs, eps, CDs & and single. And a 4CD box set). Plus there were three LPs, an EP and a single with the Galliards. And some Topic recordings (Stan Kelly, Zimra Ornatt, Dominic Behan) as an accompanist.
And do you have a small group (say three to five songs, one album) of which you are particularly proud?
Well, I'm pleased if I succeed in making a song that works (for me as well as for the audience) by which I mean a song that is well constructed (ie no duff rhymes, padded out lines, stress on the wrong syllable etc), is inventive, tells a good story whose meaning is not necessarily on the surface with a melody that complements, points, punctuates the lyrics.
I'd include three of the songs you mention below in that category.
I'm quite fond of Tim McGuire because I think it's the first story song I wrote and it became quite popular but, as Ned Sherrin pointed out when I was trying to get him to include my songs in That Was The Week That Was, there are non-rhymes and weak lines.
I became more rigorous later on. Susie is another song I rate highly.
And The Last Chance because it breaks all the rules. Also Story Line, which has a neat circular shape that reflects the meaning of the song.
But audiences don't necessarily - as with that song - share my estimation. Also they mostly don't notice the work that has gone into making a song. My most widely popular (& recorded) song - The World Turned Upside Down - was probably the easiest song to write since the story and Winstanley's words were already there.
And I'm pleased with songs that are not great songs but make audiences laugh because it shows the songcraft has worked.
What do you think of the choices I would make in the songs category: Song of the Old Communist, , Wo Sind Die Elefanten?, Tim McGuire, My Father's Jewish World with many others jostling for the fifth place?
[See Rosselson's response to the previous question. He agrees with three of my choices. I though he had not identified the one he'd exclude but, at his prompting, have re-read his reply and realise it was Tim McGuire, to which he ascribes "technical deficiencies" that I would never have noticed.]
See more about this interview at http://www.francesalut.com/2016/12/leon-rosselson-no-stamina-for-novels-i-was-meant-to-write-songs.html
What did you set out to achieve with your music?
I'm not sure I set out with any purpose in mind. I liked words, I liked singing, playing the guitar, fell into the folk club world, found subjects for satirical songs in the politics of the 1960s and followed the songwriting path from there.
All rather serendipity. I was also a part-time tutor until the 1970s which, with my wife also working, helped keep me & the family afloat.
Mainly I wanted to write. The form it took - song - was a product of the times.
You are also a respected writer of children's books but was there any other trade or profession for which you might have been suited, or which you even tried?
As I said, I did teach but not by choice. I also wrote plays for a time in the 1970s with limited success. One play was on BBC radio's Afternoon Theatre, I sold another to BBC TV (it was never shown) and had a sprinkling performed in fringe theatres & universities.
But it wasn't a living. A couple of songs - Susie, Harry's Gone Fishing - did emerge mysteriously from plays that I wrote.
Do you look back with fondness on your "folkier" earlier career, and do you still feel part of the broader folk genre?
The folk clubs of the 1960s helped me start out on this path because they were open to "political" songs and songs that weren't in the folk tradition.
And mostly I enjoyed performing in the more intimate folk club venues where there was a close relationship with an audience which was willing to listen to songs with words that required some concentration.
Over the years, I think it's true to say, some folk clubs have been less welcoming to the sort of songs I write which are not at all in the folk genre.
Recently, although I still sing in a few folk clubs, those in and around London, for instance, I don't feel connected to the folk world at all.
The only folk festivals I've done regularly from the 1980s onwards have been in Canada. I hardly ever get booked at folk festivals in England. There's a new generation of folk performers, most of whom I know nothing about.
Which music do you listen to most for pleasure, and what are your other cultural interests?
Sadly, age has affected my hearing.
Hearing aids help but not with the sound quality of music. My guitar sounds as if the strings are buzzing. Same with the piano. Nothing sounds right. And I have difficulty in deciphering words when I'm listening to songs, even when there's only a single guitar accompaniment.
I have a collection of LPs & CDs, both folk & classical, that I don't listen to much any more. Theatregoing involves the same problem. Even with the hearing enhancement earphones, I'm straining to hear. So, if I can, I'll read the playscript first. Or go to a play that's being streamed into a cinema where I find the dialogue easier to hear.
I see a lot of films - American ones I prefer to see with subtitles for the hard of hearing. So it goes. And I'm reading more novels nowadays.
When you set out on this artistic journey, did you have idealistic thoughts of changing the world through your songs?
I think I've answered this in Just the Song.
Reading Pope's satirical poems at school, I was impressed that he could write, with some justification, "Yes, I am proud, I must be proud to see/ Men not afraid of God afraid of me."
I thought of that when I was writing satirical songs but had no illusions on that score. Songs don't change anything. I think only rock musicians believe that they can. And maybe left political parties like the Communist Party that espoused folk music & the SWP that espoused rock.
But there are limits to the power of song as Billy Bragg & the massive Red Wedge tour discovered when they failed to persuade the youth to put their trust in Kinnock. On the other hand, one thing song can do is make us feel less alone.
So song has always been used to create a sense of solidarity in social movements, to give heart & hope to, for instance, the French revolutionaries, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Wobblies, Kentucky miners in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid campaigners... And those movements can bring about change.
I don't tend to write those solidarity songs - We Shall Overcome, Which Side Are You On?, Dump the Bosses Off Your Back - although The World Turned Upside Down has become a sort of protest anthem.
Whether the answer to that was yes or no, or something in between, do you have a clear view of how you think, even now, the world should change (I realise that could take an essay to respond to properly)?
We seem to be approaching the end of an era, the crumbling of the neo-liberal agenda that has ruled supreme since the 1980s. It is not working any more.
Unfortunately, there is no clear vision as to how we get from where we are now, a society dominated by corporations, money relations, profit, the marketisation of everything and a tiny elite eating the earth's resources, to a society which cares for people, the environment, the planet. I'm in favour of a universal basic income as a pragmatic start.
Looking around the world, and trying to avoid the populist figures of the far right who have made important progress, is there anyone, any movement that gives you cause for hope, however limited (Barcelona for example - I would have said Rome but Beppe Grillo welcomed Trump so maybe not)?
This year has seen the revenge of the underclass.
Unfortunately, it's the populist right that has been able to exploit their anger. I fear that this will continue & the power of the nationalist right will grow. I don't see any progressive movement at the moment able to channel the anger of the left-behind. Podemos, maybe.
But Syriza also seemed to offer hope & they've been crushed. Corbyn's Labour Party is too divided to win an election. The 5 Star movement in Italy seems incoherent to me. I am not optimistic.
Segolene Royal, France's minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy (and mother of the president Francois Hollande's children, though they are no longer together), has just been getting into trouble for defending Fidel's human rights record. I imagine you have, like me, visited Cuba on a number of occasions and, also like me, admired not Castro's more repressive instincts but the spirit of resistance in the face of a big, belligerent and often bullying neighbour. Your thoughts?
One of my daughters is a frequent visitor to Cuba & my grandchildren are half Cuban.
I've only visited Cuba once, December/January 1999, and my song Postcards from Cuba is a pretty accurate record of that visit and of my mixed emotions about Cuba and what it has become.
Anyone who lived through the time of the Cuban revolution and saw it as the great hope for a socialism free from Stalinist repression and independent of USA hegemony will always retain, despite everything, a positive view of Cuba, partly for what it has achieved (in health and education) in the face of American aggression, hostility and blockade, but more for what it represents (as in the last section of my song).
Yes, Fidel was autocratic and not very liberal in his attitudes - to gays, for example - but, unlike most such rulers, he never used his power to amass wealth and there were no statues or posters glorifying him.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba in dire economic straits so tourism was seen as the way to survive but that, as I saw, has its dark side. And there was still, as my daughter will tell you, a lingering racism there, as there is in other Caribbean islands.
It will be interesting to see what happens now. Will Trump reinstate the blockade? Or will America's business interests prevail?
In October, when I came back from my usual half year in France, Britain felt a nastier, uglier, even hate-filled place than when I left. Do you recognise that description and, if so, should we attribute it to Brexit and polemic over immigration?
I never thought to see in Britain a political murder like that of Jo Cox. Or a racist killing and attacks on Poles. After all, they are white. And there have been a number attacks on women wearing the hijab. I guess this hatred of "the other" was always there but the Brexit result seems to have emboldened the anti-immigrant nasties.
The big question is what will those who voted leave do when they discover that Theresa May cannot deliver what they thought they voted for and that their everyday lives are becoming more of a struggle.
You have always been suspicious of the commercial press. Has it, too, and the mainstream media in general, grown nastier (as, again, I feel to be the case having for most of my 29 years on the Telegraph felt able to hold my head up high)?
Well, the Mail & the Sun & the Express have always been nasty but their nastiness became more hysterical after Brexit.
I don't read the Telegraph so can't give an opinion but The Guardian seems to me to be moving to the right under its new editor. Its attacks on Corbyn have been relentless from the outset. He wasn't given a chance.
The BBC, as a news outlet, bows the knee to the powerful. Channel 4 news is much better.
Turn back the clock 60-odd years, Would you do it again?
Yes. I think I was meant to write songs. I never had the stamina for the novel.
Tell me a little about your latest and last album. Where are the Barricades? is the title and lots of the struggles dear to your heart are covered within. (I love the Paris chanson lyrics but was mildly disappointed that Full Marks for Charlie wasn't your take on the Charlie Hebdo attack of Jan 7 2015)
I wish the songs were not so focused on the current political situation. I wish I could tell different stories. But the times decreed otherwise.
The financial crash and austerity happened. The attacks on benefit "scroungers" happened. Gaza happened. Global warming is happening. I felt strongly about these happenings. (Yes, Charlie Hebdo happened also but I didn't feel there was a song there.) Thank goodness anyway for Active Ageing and Paris in the Rain.* I was going to divide this interview into two parts but decided as I prepared to post it that it works perfectly well as a single piece.
My warm thanks to Leon Rosselson for his time (not least considering it was for a tinpot little site) but also for the immense pleasure and stimulation his work has always given me, even when - as happens - we do not see entirely eye to eye.