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Leon Rosselson (born 22 June 1934, Harrow, Middlesex) is an English songwriter and writer of children's books. After his early involvement in the folk music revival in Britain, he came to prominence, singing his own satirical songs, in the BBC's topical TV programme of the early 1960s, That Was The Week That Was. He toured Britain and abroad, singing mainly his own songs and accompanying himself with complex arrangements for acoustic guitar.
In later years, he has published 17 children's books, the first of which, Rosa's Singing Grandfather, was shortlisted in 1991 for the Carnegie Medal.
He continues to write and perform his own songs, and to collaborate with other musicians and performers. Most of his material includes some sort of satirical content or elements of radical politics.
- 1 The folk years
- 2 That Was The Week That Was
- 3 Folk club singer
- 4 With Roy Bailey
- 5 Big Red Songs
- 6 Spycatcher
- 7 Later collaborations
- 8 A children's writer
- 9 Discography
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
The folk years
Leon Rosselson was born and brought up in North London, lived in Tufnell Park and attended school in Highgate Road, adjacent to Parliament Hill Fields. His Jewish parents came to England as refugees from Tsarist Russia.
He joined the London Youth Choir, formed by John Hasted and Eric Winter, which went to a number of World Youth Festivals in the 1950s. At the end of that decade, two Scotsmen, Robin Hall (1936–1998) and Jimmie MacGregor (b. 1930), came to London and performed in folk clubs and then on prime time television. They teamed up with Shirley Bland (Jimmie's wife) and Leon Rosselson to form a quartet called The Galliards. Rosselson played 5 string banjo and guitar and did most of the arrangements. Their repertoire consisted of folk songs from the British Isles and from around the world. They were regulars on BBC radio programmes and made an EP and two LPs for Decca ('Scottish Choice' and 'A-Roving') and one LP for the American label, Monitor. They also made a single for Topic of the Dave Arkin/Earl Robinson song 'The Ink Is Black'. The group broke up in 1963 though Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor continued to perform as a duo into the 1970s. In 1964 Rosselson joined Marian Mackenzie, Ralph Trainer and Martin Carthy (later replaced by Roy Bailey) in a group called The Three City Four. They concentrated on contemporary songs, including some of Rosselson's own, and made two LPs for Decca and for CBS.
That Was The Week That Was
Britain's satire boom began on 24 November 1962 with the debut of a late-night Saturday television series called That Was The Week That Was, hosted by David Frost. It had a huge cast of writers and featured some of Rosselson's early satirical songs. The Profumo scandal had just broken and establishment figures were fair game. The programme ran until 1963.
Folk club singer
In the 1960s, Rosselson travelled widely in Britain, appearing in folk clubs and concert venues, singing his own songs, some satirical, others showing the influence of French realist song. It was a period of prolific song-writing, and some of the best songs from this period appeared on the album 'Songs for Sceptical Circles' and on 'A Laugh, a Song and a Hand Grenade', which was a live recording of Rosselson's songs interspersed with the poems of Adrian Mitchell.
His song 'Tim McGuire' (who loved to play with fire), written during this period, became very popular and was the subject of a complaint from the Chairman of Staffordshire Fire Brigades when it was played a number of times on BBC radio. The BBC, however, refused to ban the song, despite the protests, because (they said) the pyromaniac does get caught in the end. An earlier recording, though, the Topic EP 'Songs for City Squares', was banned (or rather labelled 'for restricted listening only') by the BBC.
His experience of the folk club circuit is captured light-heartedly in the 1966 song 'A View from the One-Night Stands', about which Rosselson said: 'I enjoy singing in folk clubs (most of them). The audiences are alive (most of them) which is more than can be said of the towns. But somebody really ought to launch a campaign to improve pub lavatories.'
With Roy Bailey
'Hugga Mugga' was released on the Leader label in 1971. Roy Bailey and Rosselson recorded 'That's Not The Way It's Got To Be' in 1975, including one of Rosselson's best-known songs 'The World Turned Upside Down'. Two other collaborations followed, 'Love, Loneliness and Laundry' (1977) and 'If I Knew Who the Enemy Was' (1979). Rosselson also scripted two shows for performance with Roy Bailey and Frankie Armstrong: the anti-nuclear 'No Cause for Alarm' and 'Love Loneliness and Laundry', about personal politics. Rosselson and Bailey performed two other shows during the 1980s, one about Tom Paine, the other about the Spanish Civil War.
Big Red Songs
The original Big Red Songbook, a collection of socialist songs, came out in 1977, compiled by Mal Collins, David Harker and Geoff White. Leon Rosselson produced a new collection The New Big Red Songbook in 2003.
In 1987 three Law Lords declared that Peter Wright's book 'Spycatcher' could not be published in Britain nor could any of it be quoted in the media. Taking his defiance to the limit, Rosselson set out to break the law. He spent two days reading it, then encapsulated it and quoted from it in a specially written song, Ballad of a Spycatcher which was published in the British weekly New Statesman. A single of it, with backing from Billy Bragg and the Oyster Band, was released and started to get radio play, including by Simon Bates on the BBC pop music channel Radio 1. He appeared to expect a police raid or court order. In the event, nothing happened. In Rosselson's words: "So much for subversive intentions..." It even reached number 7 in the NME indie singles charts.
Frequent collaborators on his later albums included Martin Carthy, Robb Johnson, Liz Mansfield and Fiz Shapur. The box set Carthy Chronicles included 4 songs by Rosselson, including Palaces of Gold which originally appeared on Carthy's Crown of Horn (1976).
Rosselson has also performed two shows with socialist magician Ian Saville: A Dinosaur in My Shoe, for children, and Look at it This Way, for adults (the Independent on Sunday reviewer who attended the premiere at the Edinburgh Festival described this as "an evening of gently dialectical delights offered by two lovely gentlemen with the worst haircuts in Scotland").
A children's writer
Rosselson has published 17 children's books. His first book, Rosa's Singing Grandfather, published by Puffin, was shortlisted in 1991 for the Carnegie Medal. A cassette version of the book was also published.
In his most recent novel, Home is a Place Called Nowhere (OUP), Rosselson writes with feeling about the experience of being a refugee. His story The Greatest Drummer in the World was adapted for the stage by Elizabeth Mansfield, premiered at The Drill Hall, London in 2002 and subsequently toured the country.
- The Galliards (EP) (1960)
- Scottish Choice (1961)
- A-Rovin' (1961)
- Galliards (1962)
The Three City Four
- The Three City Four (1965)
- Smoke and Dust (1967)
- Smoke and Dust (CD) (Compilation of tracks from above two albums, released 2010)
- Songs for City Squares (EP) (1962)
- Songs for Sceptical Circles (1967)
- A Laugh, a Song and a Hand Grenade (with Adrian Mitchell) (1968)
- Word Is Hugga Mugga Chugga Lugga Hum Bugga Boom Chit (1971)
- Palaces of Gold (1975) FUSE CF 249
- That's Not the Way It's got to Be (with Roy Bailey) (1975) FUSE CF 251
- Love Loneliness and Laundry (with Roy Bailey) (1977) FUSE CF 271
- If I Knew Who the Enemy Was (with Roy Bailey) (1979) FUSE CF 284
- For the Good of the Nation (Live, 1981) FUSE CF 381
- Temporary Loss of Vision (1983) FUSE CF 384
- Bringing the News from Nowhere (1986) FUSE CF 390
- "Ballad Of A Spycatcher"/"Song Of The Free Press" (single with Billy Bragg and The Oyster Band) (1987)
- I Didn't Mean It (1988)
- Wo Sind Die Elefanten? (Where Are The Elephants?) (1991)
- Intruders (1995)
- Harry's Gone Fishing (1999)
- The Last Chance (EP: 4 song CD) (2002)
- A Proper State (2008)
- The Liberty Tree (with Robb Johnson) (2010)
- Rosselsongs (1990)
- Guess What They're Selling at the Happiness Counter (1992)
- Perspectives (1997)
- Turning Silence into Song (2004)
- The Last Chance (extended edition of the 2002 EP of the same name) (2010)
- The World Turned Upside Down - Rosselsongs 1960-2010 (2011)
- Questions: Songs and Stories for Children (1994) (Cassette only. Reissued on CD, 2006)
- Five Little Frogs (with Sandra Kerr, Nancy Kerr and Kevin Graal)
- Five Little Owls (with Sandra Kerr, Nancy Kerr and Kevin Graal)
- The Greatest Drummer In The World
- Vote For Us (with numerous other) (1964)
- Nuclear Power No Thanks (with numerous others) (1981)
- And They All Sang Rosselsongs (sung by 15 other performers) (2005)
Some children's books
- Rosa's Singing Grandfather, Puffin (1991). ISBN 0-14-034587-6
- Rosa's Grandfather Sings Again, Viking Children's Books (1991). ISBN 0-670-83599-4
- Where's My Mum?, Walker Books (1994). ISBN 0-7445-4377-0
- I Thought I Heard a Goldfish Singing, Longman (1994). ISBN 0-582-12960-5
- Emma's Talking Rabbit, Collins (1996). ISBN 0-00-675206-3
- Pumpkin's Downfall, Collins (2000). ISBN 0-00-675472-4
- Home is a Place Called Nowhere, OUP (2002). ISBN 0-19-272586-6
- Look Here (1968)
- That's Not The Way It's Got To Be (1974)
- For the Good of the Nation (1981)
- Bringing the News from Nowhere (125 selected songs) (1993)
- Turning Silence into Song (2003)
- Leon Rosselson Official Website
- Songs of Life from a Dying British Empire Album Details at Smithsonian Folkways
- Detailed discography