by Colin Irwin
Oddly enough, Leon Rosselson always seems to get overlooked whenever they dish out those lifetime achievement awards. Odd that, given he’s been writing and singing with consistent potency for over fifty years now, with a CV that contains several songs that have been adopted and adpted and made a fierce dent on the wider scene:”Don’t Get Married Girls,” “Time McGuire,” “Palaces of Gold,” “Invisible Married Breakfast Blues,” “The Man Who Puffs the Big Cigar” and—most celebrated—the vivid, evocative account of the Digger Uprising of 1649, most famously covered by Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, Blowzabella, Oysterband and Karan Casey.
Surely it can’t be anything to do with those jagged lyrics and the fearlessly contentious subject matter with the capacity to offend almost every strand of society with the twist of an acidic couplet . . . the Christians with “Stand Up For Judas,” “Zionists with “Song of the Olive Tree,” royalists with “On Her Silver Jubilee” and capitalists with . . . well, with mostly everything he pens.
Sitting here with a four-CD boxed set, including an extensive booklet offering valuable insights into the whys and wherefores of it all (including a wry opening piece from Leon subtitled “How I Failed to Become Rich and Famous”) you not only get the full benefit of his stinging satire, you get a sharp sense of the times for which they were written. This is a remarkable achievement for any songwriter, whether it’s the Seventeenth Century stories recounted in “The World Turned Upside Down” and “Abiezer Coppe”—sung so powerfully by Roy Bailey—to modern follies depicted by helices of “They’re Going To Build A Motorway,” “Ballad of a Spycatcher,” and “The Wall That Stands Between.”
Not that it’s all political. Rosselson maintains a wry sense of humor about his own lot, revealing much about his own attitudes in the imaginary conversation captured in “The Ghost of Georges Brassens,” referencing the outraged reactions to his more extreme work on “It’s Just the Song,” while drawing acutely on personal experience to write about Judaism on the telling “My Father’s Jewish World.”
There’s more variety than you’d imagine—Janet Russell beautifully singing the painful “Song of the Olive Tree,” with the Three City Four, Roy Bailey, Marin Carthy, Frankie Armstrong, Ruth Rosselson, Christ Foster, Fiz Shapur, Liz Mansfield, Billy Bradd and the Sheffield Socialist Choir (on the wondrous The Power of Song) featured along the way, helping to complete a well-rounded picture of a remarkable artist who’s never taken his eyes off the ball, even—or especially—when that ball is bouncing in determinedly antipopular directions. A lifetime achievement award next year? Don’t hold your breath.