By Robin Densely
The cover photo of Chronicling the Times shows Leon Rosselson playing guitar and singing in the street, the classic image of an angry protest singer. Rosselson is certainly a musical activist who has enliven many rallies and demonstrations, but he is also one of the finest, bravest and most original singer-songwriters that the British folk scene has produced. His work rarely gets heard on the radio, which is why he is not as well known as he should be, but he has had a hit song. In 1985 Billy Bragg included Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down’ on his Between the Wars EP, and the story of the 17th century radical idealists, the Diggers, made it to #15 in the charts. For Bragg, Rosselson is ‘the embodiment of the original ideals of punk rock — using fearless wit and political integrity to highlight the hypocrisies of those in power.’
He has enjoyed a lengthy career. In the 60s he was part of the popular folk group The Galliards, joined Martin Carthy in The Three City Four and toured with the poet Adrian Mitchell. As a soloist he has moved from witty topical songs to thoughtful or bravely outspoken pieces that tackle an extraordinary array of topics. This 17-song retrospective — personally chosen by Rosselson — shows his range, musical skill (often in the company of Martin Carthy) and his fascination with history, politics and ideas. There are songs about the search for a better world, from ‘Bringing the News from Nowhere’, about the ideals of William Morris, through to the sad and thoughtful ‘Songs of the Old Communist’, whose dreams of a glorious new world have never materialized. ‘Postcards from Cuba’ updates the same theme, evocatively examining how dollars and tourism have taken over from revolution, but ‘if you down enough mojitos, you’ll believe that dreams come true.’
Elsewhere, there’s a witty and bitter attack on the Iraq war on ‘General Lockjaw Briefs His Troops (As Recorded by a Skeptical Soldier)’, a furious reaction to the 2008 financial crisis in ‘Where are the Barricades?’, and topical folks-rock from the 80s, featuring Billy Bragg and members of The Oyster Band, on ‘Ballad of a Spycatcher’. Lyrics for all the songs are included, but it’s worth also checkout out Rosselson’s new book Where are the Elephants? Which provides a background to the songs as part of a free-wheeling autobiography that includes his thoughts on anything from communism to Christianity, Israel, political songs and his admiration for the French singer-songwriter who is the subject of the song ‘The Ghost of Georges Brassens’. And he devotes a chapter to the ideas behind one of his most controversial songs, ‘Stand Up for Judas’, in which he argues that Jesus ‘betrayed the poor’ and that Judas is the true hero. Rosselson has never cared if he causes offense.