Leon Rosselson Interview

Throughout his 50-year musical career Leon Rosselson has been lauded by critics as one of England‘s most talented songwriters.  "His songs are fierce, funny, outraged, blasphemous, challenging and anarchic", the Guardian has raved; "Some of the most literate and well-made topical songs now being written", praised the New York Times.  And from the Star: "Rosselson writes songs [that] have to be listened to because they aim to change opinions."


However, this critical acclaim has not led to celebrity status or commercial success.  So while Morrissey is surely miserable in his Los Angeles mansion and Paul McCartney lives in his £4 million London abode, 73-year old Rosselson resides in a modest house on a leafy suburban street within spitting distance of the new Wembley Stadium.


After welcoming me in to his front room, Rosselson explains that while he received lots of press in the 1960s, today he can’t get a review in any of the national papers (with the exception of the Daily Telegraph bizarrely).  "It’s very market driven.  If you are not in the market place it’s difficult to get media coverage."


"I don’t think anybody writes songs quite the way I write songs", he continues.  "In a way they don’t fit into any known category – which is a bit of a problem from the marketing point of view".  Influenced by both the English folk revival and French songwriters like Jacques Brel and Georges Bressens, Rosselson’s wry, clever acoustic songs are certainly out of step with the mainstream, offering radical critiques of, among other things, our ‘free’ press, the English class system, the institution of marriage and UK foreign policy.


Unlike, poetry or novels, Rosselson – who has also published over twenty children’s books – laments that songs are not "given serious consideration as an art form." However, he believes "the craftsmanship and the technique involved in writing songs are as complex, difficult and challenging as any other art form."


Of the more than 300 satirical, topical and political songs Rosselson has written, two will surely outlive him and be sung for generations to come.


Popularised in the 1980s by Billy Bragg and folkie Dick Gaughan, World Turned Upside Down is a rousing anthem about the seventeenth century proto-socialist Digger movement, who believed, as the song says, "no man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain". Led by Gerald Winstanley – whose writings the song is based upon – the Diggers believed the earth should be a "common treasury for all" and proceeded to dig up the common land on St Georges Hill in Surrey to provide for everyone.  Not surprisingly the powers that be quickly nipped the nascent revolt in the bud, dispatching soldiers to destroy the Digger’s encampment.  "In a way it’s the most simple song I’ve written." says Rosselson, noting the song has been sung by "anti-road protestors, in America it’s sung by anti-logging campaigns, and in Australia the land-rights for Aborigines campaigns."


More controversial is the Christian-baiting Stand Up For Judas, which Rosselson says he wrote because he was "getting tired of Christian hymns."  He conducted a considerable amount of research for the song, reading Hyam Maccoby’s influential book Revolution in Judea and re-reading the New Testament.  "What I did was put the gospel Jesus in to his historical time.  The gospel Jesus is not a historical figure.   It’s a creation of the gospel writers who were writing 40-70 years after he was supposedly crucified.  They are very contradictory stories."  Although Judas is the song’s hero, Rosselson is quick to point out "the message of the song is you shouldn’t follow any heroes really".


While Rosselson describes his upbringing as close to the Communist Party – "we always read the Daily Worker" – today he describes himself as "libertarian left".  Never "a joiner of organisations" he is currently involved with CND and the Israel-Palestine conflict, through organisations such as Independent Jewish Voices and Jewish Socialists.


"I’m opposed to a Jewish state", he says.  "I think the whole idea of a Jewish state is very suspect – is basically racist.  Because if you are not Jewish in a Jewish state then you are not a full citizen."  Having lived in Israel for a year and visited the West Bank recently he is pessimistic about a resolution.  "I don’t see a two state solution as feasible and I don’t see a one state solution as being acceptable at this time.  Perhaps in the next generation."  The problem is "the only country that could bring about a resolution is the United States, but they are totally committed to backing Israel."  How does he feel about Tony Blair’s appointment as a Middle East peace envoy?  "It’s ridiculous", he replies, comparing it to Henry Kissinger receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  For Rosselson the ex-Prime Minister is "a fantasist and a liar and a war criminal."


Returning to his career, Rosselson says he is working on a new album which he expects to release early next year.  Does he ever wish his music was more popular?  "I don’t think it is ‘popular’ I want to be.  I think I would like a bit more recognition, because I think songs are generally not valued for their creativity or imagination, they are valued for their saleability.  Songs are those things you hear on the radio while you are doing something else."


While Rosselson’s new album is unlikely to be heard on the radio, you can be sure it will be full of what he calls "adult, literate, intelligent songs" that you won’t be able to ignore.


Leon Rosselson is touring in October.  Visit http://www.leonrosselson.co.uk for more details.  Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected].

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