“I’m not singing folk songs, I’m singing songs I made up in relation to the political situation today.”
So said Leon Rosselson in 1962. One of the pleasures of searching out old vinyl is honing your instinct to buy a record you’ve never heard of, and discovering it’s worth it.
“Songs For City Squares” ticked three boxes. It’s on Topic, Britain’s oldest record label, 70 years old in 2009; it’s got a great cover and it’s in good nick. I paid £7.50. It’s not featured in the Record Collector Rare Record Guide which only has EP records which are worth over £8 in mint condition. This copy plays at around “excellent” quality, definitely not mint, but it’s so obscure that really it’s impossible to set a price. None of the tracks appear on the Best of Topic 70th anniversary box set. I had certainly heard of Leon Rosselson, as a children’s book writer, but I only had vague knowledge of him as a singer.
The pleasure was in going straight back in my mind to a folk club of the early 60s with sly satire and hearty chortles. There was a lot of this sort of thing, from Cy Grant’s topical calypsos on the Tonight TV magazine programme, to Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor’s relevant folk songs then Millicent Martin on David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was, which is also where Leon Rosselson was featured. He had been a member of the folk quartet The Galliards with Hall, McGregor and Shirley Bland (aka Mrs McGregor). He was a regular on the folk club circuit in the early sixties. I may even have seen him. He later worked as a member of The Three City Four, with Martin Carthy, and later with Billy Bragg and The Oyster Band, recording The Ballad of Spycatcher in 1987. I googled, found his website and he’s playing near me in four weeks time. I’ll go.
The EP is so topical for 1962 that there’s a song called Dear, Mr Butler, satirizing the Conservative minister, R.A. Butler. By the time it came out, Butler had been replaced by Brooke, so on the rear sleeve Butler is crossed out in red, and Brooke written in. Another song is addressed to “Dear John Profumo …” The EP was banned by the BBC.
It’s a shame that tracks failed to make the Topic box set because the fun is in the lyrics, and all are well-set to his guitar accompaniment. Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party is a gem, set to the tune of the Red Flag. Then, as fifty years on, the song was sung (or rather mouthed) at Labour Party Conferences. Rosselson previewing New Labour by forty years, sings:
The cloth cap and the working class, as images are dated.
For we are Labour’s avante-garde, and we were educated.
By tax adjustments we have planned, to institute the Promised Land
And just to show we’re still sincere, we sing The Red Flag once a year.
We will not cease from mental fight till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted.
For we are sure if we persist, to make the New Year’s Honours list.
Then every loyal labour peer, will sing The Red Flag once a Year.
A web search reveals that the song is well-known.
Rosselson reminds me of a folk singer I met in 1964, on Hengistbury Head, sitting on the beach. I hope he became famous, but all I recall is that his name was Pete. We stayed with him in London, annd he took us to Eel Pie Island, and he sang at a couple of Bournemouth clubs. I wish I could find his signature piece, which was a brilliant folk version of the teen death song, called Teenage Cremation. After all these years, I remember the words:
I rode on your pillion, all up the M1
From London to Birmingham, we were having such fun
Till you put out your left hand, to turn to the right, …
Oh, baby darling, where are you tonight?