By David Hintz
As a part-time collector of Leon Rosselson, I am pleased to see this comprehensive dour CD set spanning a full half-century of original folk music. Like Dominic Behan and others, he actually started playing well before some of the more famous acoustic guitarists in the UK. In fact he was twenty-five years old in 1961 where this collection starts. His work with vocalist Roy Bailey in the 1970s is some of the strongest folk material from the UK in that era. There is plenty of bite in the lyrics of his songs, yet the delivery is comfortable and welcoming. His guitar work is excellent in a classic style, lacking the audacity in Davy Graham’s style making him more of a fitting partner for Martin Carthy. There is an intelligence and wit to his music that seems to set the stage for an artist luke Robyn Hitchcock). Although his hard left protestations are more prevalent and less ambiguous, reminding me more of Phil Ochs.
The first CD covers the sixties and begins in 1961 with good topical folk music. Martin Carthy and Liz Mansfield assist on the gorgeous “Across the Hills” with Carthy present in several songs including full folk band cuts The 3 City 4. There is a nice mix of songs and even some jazz piano and bass that sneaks in. The second CD moves into the 1970s with Roy Bailey joining in on many of the vocals. The themes are still sharp edged and topical. There are some nice nearly experimental vocal moves on “Plan” which features John Kirkpatrick and songs stretch to five and seven minutes. CD Number Three heads to the 80s with Martin Carthy still assisting at times. Frankie Armstrong joins in on vocals with a piano also featuring in several songs. The synthesizer is odd, but the Oyster Band electrifying things on one song is a nice touch. Finally, the fourth disc covers the past twenty years. The style and lyrical bite is similar, but there is a more forceful message sung politely, but by a crusty older man. “It’s Just the Song” is directed my way (as a critic) to tell me that he does not need me to tell me his songs are good and that we have it all wrong anyway.
Even if I do have it all wrong, this is a compelling set of songs. If you are not politically hard to the left, some of the lyrics will push you more than you like. Of course, any perspective over four discs will get a little tiring. But each song is strong in its own right and most are thought provoking. The sound quality is uniformly excellent and the booklet with lengthy explanations of the songs is interesting even by itself. Hopefully this release will help elevate Rosselson’s status around the world, as he does not seem quite as well known as some of the other famous UK guitarist singer/songwriters.