Leon Rosselson and the Art of Radical Songwriting

“I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started,” Leon Rosselson explains in the liner notes of his new collection The World Turned Upside Down: Rosselsongs 1960-2010 (PM Press / Fuse Records). “Although I don’t blame myself entirely for that.”

Let’s not blame him either, because Rosselson certainly tries, and has been trying for over half a century. Since he wrote his first song in 1956, Rosselson has kept a keen eye on the state of the world, picking out its contradictions, its absurdities and tragedies, and weaving them into his lyrics. In the process he’s produced an exceptional catalog of subversive, inspiring music.

So if Rosselson is not to blame for the political nosedive of the last few decades, what happened? The early 60s, he explained to me, was a more optimistic time, at least for a young songwriter living in the United Kingdom. Economic growth and strong trade unions kept the welfare state running; people, especially women, were challenging old assumptions and oppressions; decolonization movements were inspiring political activity at home. It seemed like the world could be transformed through a bit of hard struggle—particularly if you were young and willing to try.

Today, Rosselson sees things quite differently. “Hope seems in short supply at the moment,” he told me, citing widespread inequality, the diminished power of organized labor, a general sense of political disillusionment (“because whoever you vote for, the market wins”), the looming threat of climate change, and perpetual warfare. “It is not ‘bliss’ to be alive at this time,” he said, “nor is it ‘very heaven’ to be young.”

But a world gone wrong is a world ready to be turned upside down. That’s exactly the sentiment that ignited the Occupy movement on both sides of the Atlantic, and the sentiment that brought Rosselson, at the age of 77, out to the barricades once more to sing for Occupy London last year. (Shortly after, he launched the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, a collective of like-minded singers and songwriters.) It’s also the reason why now is a wonderful time to get acquainted with the work of this tremendous songwriter.

Thankfully, the radical publishing operation PM Press, in cooperation with Fuse Records, has released this collection of “Rosselsongs,” covering the fifty year span from 1960 to 2010. It contains nearly five hours of music on four discs and a seventy page booklet. The booklet, perhaps surprisingly, contains no printed lyrics. But, in Rosselson’s case, printed lyrics aren’t necessary. His vocal style is such that every word is enunciated, because every word counts—because the message of the song counts. “My songs don’t work as background music,” he told me. “They do demand to be listened to.”

Listen close, and you’ll hear lyrics that examine what it’s like to live in a society where “money must be free to make money / that’s all there is in the end,” as he puts it in “Who Reaps the Profits? Who Pays the Price?” (a song whose title gets to the very heart of all left politics).

Indeed, the circuits of capital accumulation—money being free to make money—shape and transform our behavior, our relationships, our thoughts and belief systems in countless ways, and Rosselson approaches this situation from nearly as many angles. His songs are often character sketches that portray or speak in the voice of people at different levels of power—some who lack it, who some wield it, some who resist or subvert the powerful forces ranged against them. At other times Rosselson scrutinizes some aspect of the dominant ideology, turns it inside out and reveals the hubris and hypocrisy of class society. These are protest songs, broadly understood, even though they aren’t the kind of sing-alongs you expect to hear at a rally (although there are a few of those, too).

In lieu of printed lyrics, that seventy-page booklet contains Rosselson’s commentary on the songs. He provides context historical and personal, reflects on the origins of songs, interprets them in light of more recent events, and muses over the meaning of his work as a songwriter. (He also interweaves his thoughts with fragments from plays and articles he’s written, as well as quotations from newspaper articles, liner notes, testimonials from asylum seekers and Palestinian farmers, books like The Air War in Vietnam and Through the Looking Glass, and writers like Tom Paine.) Rosselson is a sharp observer, and his commentary—however more or less related to the song at hand—is a pleasure to read.

Examples abound, but the story behind one song in particular is worth mentioning. In 1987, backed by Billy Bragg and the Oyster Band, Rosselson recorded “Ballad of a Spycatcher.” In some respects it was typical Leon Rosselson with its rousing folk tune, sardonic wit, and subversive content. But something about this song was special, aside from the presence of Billy Bragg—it was illegal. “Ballad of a Spycatcher” described and quoted from Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, an exposé of MI5 that was banned in the UK by the Thatcher government. Not only was the book illegal, but so was quoting from it or referring to the events that it described. Rosselson wrote the song at the urging of investigative journalist Duncan Campbell and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. They hoped to provoke a prosecution and thereby reveal the absurdity of Thatcher’s censorship. (“For Nanny, God bless Nanny, thinks it wouldn’t do for you / To know about the naughty things that grown-up people do,” goes the refrain.)

The song—adapted from a copy of Spycatcher that was smuggled in from Australia and delivered to Rosselson in a brown paper bag—was written and its lyrics published in the New Statesmen, then recorded as a single with Billy Bragg and the Oyster Band. The BBC World Service played a bit before fading out the music; Capital Radio permitted its listeners to hear a verse and a chorus. But the Thatcher government didn’t bite, and there was no prosecution. Instead, the buzz around the controversial single lead to increased sales, and it landed on the indie charts. As Rosselson puts it, “I was actually, for the first time in my life, rushing out to buy the New Musical Express to see how high in the charts it had risen. But wait a minute,” he goes on. “This wasn’t what was intended. This was supposed to cause political embarrassment for the government. Eventually, it rose to number 5. So much for subversive intentions.”

Looking back, Rosselson deems the song a success, since it raised awareness of the ban and galvanized a segment of the public against the censorship (even if the government was wise enough not to be goaded into legal action). But it also shows how effortlessly a piece of subversive art is co-opted by the system it’s meant to subvert; how, whatever the content, the insistence of the commodity form takes hold and plugs itself back into the process of capital accumulation. This incident, I believe, gets to the heart of the predicament faced by all radical songwriters: namely, how do you deal with the contradictions of commodified anti-capitalist art? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to reach a mass audience without selling out? And is the question even relevant?

Rosselson approaches the matter judiciously. It’s a point he’s considered (and written about) more than once during his career. He described to me a debate in the UK, mirrored to some degree in other western countries, over whether rock music or folk music was the more effective music for leading the masses to revolutionary action. Rosselson found the conversation absurd: “I thought the idea of music in the market place revolutionizing the masses was a fantasy of terminally frustrated revolutionaries.”

But let’s take this idea seriously for a moment. Rosselson will allow that “the music industry is quite happy to market (i.e. neuter) anything that sells, including revolution—or the sound of revolution.” But that doesn’t mean what’s being commodified and sold at the mass level can retain its revolutionary character. For one thing, “being part of the music industry inevitably means you lose control of your songs,” he told me, and, furthermore, pop music doesn’t rely on the “power of the content and the intensity of the words” (in the way that a radical—and effective—political song must).  Instead, pop music “communicates through sounds, volume, repetition, presentation . . . words are just part of the packaging.”

It’s an impossible battle, and, in any case, Rosselson believes the question is irrelevant. “Songs don’t convert people,” he told me. “That’s not what they’re for.” (Choosing one example, he described the efforts of Billy Bragg and Red Wedge to go “round the country before the 1992 election to sing to the youth and persuade them to vote Labour,” a campaign Rosselson deems “an ill-judged failure.”)

So what are they for? Some songs, the ones we usually think of as protest songs and rally songs, do “fulfill a vital function,” as Rosselson describes it in his commentary on “The Power of Song,” which closes the collection. “They rally the faithful, give heart and hope to the believers on picket lines, demonstrations, sit-ins . . . they make people feel less alone. They make a community of the already converted.”

But these songs have their limitations, Rosselson points out, and they’re not the type of song he’s much interested in writing. So instead of composing anthems for the barricades, and instead of wringing his hands over whether he can break into the top 40 and still call himself a revolutionary, Rosselson takes a sensible—and, it must be said, increasingly rare—approach. He focuses on the quality of his art. Flip through the booklet and you’ll realize how much of it is dedicated to the craft of songwriting, and how seriously Rosselson takes his craft. Here is a man who has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to shape a perspective, about how a fictional narrative is superior to confessional or introspective lyrics, about the importance of tight rhymes and key changes, about why a good song isn’t just “poetry set to a tune” but an art form all its own (and one, Rosselson argues, that is more demanding of its creator than poetry).

Most of all, he’s thought about what it means to be a radical songwriter, someone who accepts the foolish challenge of channeling their critical perspective on society through their artistic impulses. I say “foolish” because we’ve all seen the sort of aesthetic train wrecks that often result from the best-intentioned “political” art. It’s a risky thing to be a serious, radical artist—but I think Leon Rosselson pretty much nailed it.

“We—radical songwriters included—don’t have any answers and I don’t think it’s the job of the songwriter to offer any,” he told me. “What songs can do, perhaps, is provoke thought, subvert what is, ‘fan the flames of discontent’ as the Wobblies put it.” These are songs that ask questions, that get you thinking about why things are the way they are—and how they might be different. Because in the end, “songs can’t change society. Social movements do that.”

So it is left for the radical songwriter to be like William Morris, the 19th-century English designer, writer, and socialist, as Rosselson describes him in “Bringing the News from Nowhere”—an apt description of this particular songwriter himself:

He rages at the wealthy with their mutilated vision

Making money the measure for everything they do

And the ugliness that kills and the lives that are broken

On the wheels that turn for the profits of the few

Some bring the news in the sermon on the mountain

Some bring the news in the blueprint or a bulletin

But I like those who come with the passion of a vision

Like a child with a gift

Like a friend with a question

Leon Rosselson is one such artist. Take this collection, charged with the passion of a vision and asking all the right questions, even when it refuses to give you the answers, and listen. And maybe those flames of discontent will grow a little brighter, a little bolder. Who knows what they’ll illuminate?

Scott Borchert is a writer and musician from New Jersey. He works for Monthly Review Press. All Rosselson’s quotations are from the liner notes to The World Turned Upside Down, or, where indicated, from private correspondence with the writer.