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Books Asking the right questions

Mahir Ali appreciates the memoir spanning the career of a great political singer-songwriter

Where Are the Elephants?
by Leon Rosselson, PM Press, £15.99

LIKE many of his more complex songs, Leon Rosselson’s eminently readable memoir consists of discrete — and sometimes seemingly disparate — sections, yet coheres as a fascinating, deeply thoughtful whole. 

It deserves to be read by more than those familiar with Rosselson’s unprecedented oeuvre, which stretches from the early 1960s to the first couple of decades of the 21st century, and it would be extremely useful if PM Press were to issue a disc or two featuring the songs peppered throughout the book.

The first section entertainingly recounts his trajectory from war child in the 1940s to locked-down octogenarian rather more recently.

It’s an incredible journey that takes in the cold war and its aftermath, the vagaries of the Labour Party and the crimes of the Tories.

He does not say much about The Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party, which was composed in the early 1960s, but still rings true with its excoriating verses about knighted leaders and being “just as true to Nato” as the Tories. 

Rosselson doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that he never expected to change the world with his songs, and insists that the songwriter’s job is not to provide answers, but to ask the right questions.

That’s a task he has performed magnificently over the decades, without troubling the charts he rightly disdains. 

Perhaps the only exception was the Ballad of a Spycatcher in the mid-80s, recorded with Billy Bragg and the Oyster Band, which took him to No 5 in the indie top 20, although the idea was to provoke a prosecution rather than score a hit. 

Bragg also took The World Turned Upside Down into the charts with the inadvertent result that many listeners presume either that Bragg wrote it, or that it’s a traditional folk song.

Although the words come from Gerard Winstanley, it was Rosselson who turned them into song. And they took wing, as is recalled by Robb Johnson in an uplifting anecdote that concludes this book. 

Before that, Rosselson gives voice to a range of issues, from songwriting techniques to why he considers zionism an affront to Jewishness.

Rosselson has been familiar with the topic since he first visited the Holy Land in his teens — where he met his future wife — but started writing about it only after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

It eventually led to an entire album, titled The Last Chance, after the oddly situated nightclub that offered him one of his first stages.

Not surprisingly, Rosselson was repelled by the witch-hunt against Jeremy Corbyn and his allies, including innumerable activists who dared to question the ridiculous “anti-semitism” charge, as reflected in his 2017-21 blogs on medium.com.

While this theme is reflected in songs across at least the previous 40 years, in the British context it has acquired a special resonance in the past decade. 

But Rosselson doesn’t believe in didactic verse. What’s more, he is keen to distinguish between poetry and song. It’s not that he disdains poetry — he just sees well-constructed songs as something completely different, and his unmatched oeuvre proves that. 

Rosselson gratefully acknowledges that he has been blessed with the best accompanists he could have hoped for, from Martin Carthy, Frankie Armstrong and the inimitable Roy Bailey to Reem Keelani, Fiz Shapur and Sandra and Nancy Kerr, among several others.

If anything, I wish the book was considerably longer. Its songwriting critique reflects chiefly on Bob Dylan’s lapse into “gibberish” after he decided he was actually a poet, and the inadequacies of Leonard Cohen.

But there are only peripheral references to Tom Lehrer, and none to Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or Robert Wyatt.

Rosselson defines his own work as a 60-year conspiracy of hope, and this book should be seen as an essential extension of his endearing refusal to accept the status quo — now, or in decades past — as the only alternative. 

It’s a late reminder that it’s absurd to see Leon Rosselson as anything other than as a national treasure.

Enjoy him while you can by reading this book and absorbing the songs that are both a lesson in life and a pathway to the future humanity deserves.

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