Born in north London in 1934, British singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson recently celebrated the 50th year of his performing career. From his left-wing anthem The World Turned Upside Down to the Christian-baiting Stand Up For Judas and 1986’s law-breaking Ballad of a Spycatcher Rosselson has consistently written unapologetically intelligent and topical songs that have nearly always been ignored by the mainstream music culture.
Still going strong, he recently teamed up with fellow aural agitator Robb Johnson to record The Liberty Tree, an astonishing double album celebrating the life and writings of the radical thinker Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Rosselson talked to Ian Sinclair about the ideas behind the record.
Why celebrate the life of Thomas Paine?
This project came about in 1987 when the Labour Party in Thetford asked me to write something for performance at an event to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth. At that time I knew very little about Tom Paine. I started reading The Age of Reason and was shocked, not just by his merciless dissection of revealed religion but by his – I suppose somewhat arrogant – assertion that, as he puts it, "My own mind is my own church". Here was someone who believed in no creed professed by any church, who would take nothing on trust, who would examine the evidence and think for himself, who was unafraid to challenge received opinion; a troublemaker, in short, well worth celebrating.
I was struck by the relevance of his attacks on the powerful who wage war for profit, on monarchical government and the hereditary principle, on a system of government that creates injustice, inequality and poverty; his belief in civil liberties and freedom of thought and speech; his internationalism – "My country is the world, my religion is to do good". His practical measures for creating a fairer, more just society have a contemporary ring also. He proposed a citizen’s income (isn’t that in the Green Party programme?), an inheritance tax, pension rights for the elderly and the rooting out of the causes of crime rather than just punishing.
I was struck, too, by the power of his writing style – blunt, direct, vigorous, no ornate literary flourishes but carefully crafted to appeal to a mass audience.
And then there’s the man’s life which reads like a scarcely credible adventure story. A half-educated son of a Quaker stay-maker in a small town in Norfolk goes to America, becomes a crucial influence on the course of the American Revolution, returns to England and writes one of history’s best sellers, The Rights of Man ("the foundation text of the English working-class movement" according to E.P. Thompson), is accused of sedition, flees to France and is sentenced to death in absentia, is elected to the National Convention and becomes an active participant in the French Revolution, is imprisoned and escapes the guillotine by a whisker, returns to America and dies broke, alone and totally unrepentant. No wonder Richard Attenborough and Trevor Griffiths wanted to make a film of his life.
Finally, Paine is a link to a radical strand of English history that is often forgotten and includes those other visionaries about whom I’ve written songs – the Diggers, the Ranters and William Morris.
The album makes extensive use of quotes from Paine’s work aswell as newspaper reports, letters and diaries. How did you go about collecting all this information?
After the first performance with Roy Bailey and with Michael Foot standing in for Paine, I began to read more widely. John Keane’s authoritative biography came out in the 1990s and was a valuable source. I found a bizarre book in the TUC library called Tom Paine’s Joke Book. Authentic? Who knows. But it added a dash of humour to the proceedings. So over 20 years The Liberty Tree grew, was adapted, changed, worked on with Robb Johnson, until it became the show now on this double CD.
Which writers and thinkers do you think best “water the roots of the Liberty Tree” today?
There have been many over the decades. Currently, I’d say Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, John Berger and Naomi Klein. But let’s go back to Paine’s dictum “My own mind is my own church”. In the end, the lesson to take from Paine is that you must think for yourself.
The Liberty Tree is released in the United States by PM Press. To purchase a copy in the UK visit www.leonrosselson.co.uk or contact Fuse Records, 28 Park Chase, Wembley, Middlesex HA9 8EH.