An Anarchist Noel Coward? The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

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Music Review: The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

And then the ‘political songwriter’ label can mislead into the belief that I’m writing songs in order to change the world… I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started, although I don’t blame myself entirely for that. – Leon Rosselson

Why is the English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, now almost eighty years old, not a “household name”?

In the entertaining, informative and argumentative liner notes accompanying this 2011 set of four CDs he repeatedly muses on how, in his own words, he “failed to become rich and famous”. Concerning the celebrated title song, World Turned Upside Down, he writes: “Some people think it’s a folk song. Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.”

Success, he tells us, “should have happened in the 1960s… There was the folk boom, the singer-songwriter boom.” At the same time, however, “my songwriting style didn’t fit comfortably into the folk bag. Or any other bag, if it comes to that.” And anyway, “the alternative culture was big business, the musicians were bought into superstardom by lucrative record contracts, …the message ‘liberate your minds’ turned out to be both politically safe and eminently saleable… The guerrillas had simply, without their even realising it, been incorporated into the regular army of the enemy.” His songs The Ugly Ones (“the fetishizing of the beautiful people”) and Flower Power = Bread (from the fateful year 1968) savaged ‘60s values, thus ensuring that Rosselson would not be thus incorporated but also, perhaps, that stardom on 1960s terms would elude him.

Another factor that may have militated against Rosselson’s popular success is the self-confessed absence of love-songs from his output (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”). Instead, he has specialised in what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…”, here represented by Do You Remember?, Invisible Married Breakfast Blues (inspired by Brel and Prévert), Let Your Hair Hang Down, and the wonderful Not Quite, But Nearly. Jacques Brel’s example taught Rosselson that “[y]ou could write songs by pretending to be someone else, by adopting a persona.” Here the feminist principle that “the personal is political, the political personal” provided the rationale, but perhaps in an age when “letting it all hang out” was the order of the day this approach was too oblique.

Nonetheless, in at least one vital way the 1960s marked Rosselson indelibly. The 1967 Six-Day War completed the Jewish singer’s alienation from Zionism and the state of Israel: “After that, it became increasingly clear that the trajectory Israel was taking… was not an aberration from Zionism: it was Zionism…” In the 1995 Song of Martin Fontasch (based on an anecdote from Primo Levi) he “continues the argument between the Jewish values I identify with and Israel’s values as a colonising state”, concluding that “Though they [Zionist Israelis] are Jews, they do not live within my heart.” Seven years later, in My Father’s Jewish World, we hear that “[Israel] brings shame by torturing and killing in our name” (Rosselson’s parents were refugees from Czarist Russia, his father a lifelong communist).

Rosselson is not merely concerned with the contradiction between Zionism and “Jewish values”, but courageously takes an uncompromising stance on behalf of Palestinian rights. The 2005 Song of the Olive Tree, perhaps his most beautiful composition, celebrates the abiding symbol of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) while lamenting the fact that “[h]undreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted [by Israel] since the beginning of the second intifada”.

On the double CD Celebrating Subversion by the recently formed collective of singers and songwriters The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, of which Rosselson is a guiding light, the Song of the Olive Tree is magnificently sung by the English-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. On The World Upside Down it is entrusted to the Scottish folk singer Janet Russell, also a member of the Roadshow. Another of Rosselson’s most famous and controversial songs, Stand up for Judas, is sung here by Roy Bailey and is best known in a version by Dick Gaughan. The song World Turned Upside Down itself, Rosselson’s homage to the 17th century Digger pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley is (as we have seen) indelibly associated with Billy Bragg.

The version of the latter by Rosselson himself (backed by his daughter Ruth) in this collection suggests another reason why he has “failed to become rich and famous”: the lack of range and variety in his singing voice. With its vaguely Monty Pythonish quality (Eric Idle comes to mind!) it’s an instrument particularly suited to those “topical/satirical” songs most typical of his early material, but also to polemical rants like his slashing attack on Tony Blair, Talking Democracy Blues (with its wicked paraphrase of Auden: “Blair’s an amiable guy/Look, he wouldn’t harm a fly/But when he smiles children die…”).

When passion or emotional intensity are required, as in the powerful The Wall That Stands Between (about “the shameful campaign against asylum seekers waged by the gutter press” and “the inhuman policies enacted by the New Labour government”), the result can sound understated. Rosselson objects to an early reviewer’s description of him as “an anarchist Noel Coward”, but Coward was similarly deficient in vocal charisma. Coward nonetheless consolidated his reputation by piggy-backing on the atmosphere of patriotism (bordering on jingoism) understandably prevalent during World War II, an option entirely alien to Rosselson whose aim “to depict a society based on an ideology of control, order, obedience, repression, domination of nature, deterrence, leading ultimately to the death of the planet” is hardly calculated to entice the average radio DJ.

It might seem that over four CDs and 72 songs (about a quarter of Rosselson’s total output), most of them sung by Rosselson himself, such a deficiency might prove fatal. Strangely enough, however, for me at any rate the effect is the opposite. One becomes used to the voice and knows what to expect and not to expect from it. When Roy Bailey or Liz Mansfield or Dick Gaughan sings a Rosselson song, the result can be a show-stopper. When Rosselson sings, the vocal idiosyncrasies are inseparable from his intractable and endearing integrity.

This, of course, is premised on the assumption that one is well-disposed towards Rosselson’s radical perspectives. Here is a comment from a You Tube viewer who clearly is not:

‘However I later met and talked with Leon Rosselson himself, and it was kind of dismaying. He came across as a parody: a naive, stereotypical, unreconstructed socialist who understood nothing about economics, and truly believed that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a workable system of government.’

Undoubtedly there are many who would consider this a recommendation. Not alone has Leon Rosselson been writing and singing for more than half a century, but he has remained faithful to a certain concept of political, social and economic justice. For those who share that faith, he will always be a household name.

(To buy The World Turned Upside Down for stg £30 plus postage [outside the UK] see

Janet Russell’s version of Song of the Olive Tree

The World Turned Upside Down – The DIggers – Leon Rosselson

Dick Gaughan – World Turned Upside Down (BBC 1982)

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