Playsongs People ~ No.2 Leon Rosselson
Way back in the 1970s, I was a music publishing assistant, sent out to find songs for a new project. Scouring the music sections of bookshops around Tottenham Court Road, I found a little book of fifty or so songs, printed in 1968 in starkly black and white graphics, and called Look Here: Songs by Leon Rosselson. The lyrics were powerful and intelligent, the melodies sometimes minimal, as though only there on which to rest the outpouring of lyric, sometimes taking a few words and soaring them on air. That was my introduction to Leon.
Leon has written and performed his songs across the UK, across the world, and across six decades. He is one of the great songwriters. His songs contain sorrow, anger, happiness, hope and a kind of heart-filling strength, which comes from their deep humanity.
Often referred to as a political songwriter, Leon says he only accepts the term 'if I can define its meaning. First of all, I don't believe that speaking directly to the listener - this is what I think, this is what I feel, this what you should do - is a very fruitful use of the song form. At its best, song is a form of theatre with the invention of characters and stories as its proper material. To create, to invent, to make things up - that, it seems to me, is the task of the songwriter. People, not arguments or ideas or issues, should be at the centre of song. The politics lies, not in rhyming statements or chanting slogans or delivering musical messages but in trying to make connections between the individual life, the personal life, and the public world in which that life is lived and by which it may be pressured; making a general truth from an individual drama..... not a narrowing of the focus but a deeper representation of reality.'*
Some of Leon's songs are for children and they, also, are full of the invention of character and story. Two of the songs in Look Here were for little children: Kangaroos like to hop, and Why does it have to be me? Both of them gems of fun. I used Kangaroos like to hop from day one of my baby music groups ~ we hopped the babies around the circle, trotted them, leapt them in the air, and plonked down on the floor together on the last line: 'I like to fall in a heap.'
A few years later, Leon, together with Sandra Kerr, was recording my first under-fives songbook, Playsongs, in a West London studio. It felt both wonderful and unreal to be meeting Leon in person for the first time, and at the same time to be asking him to sing 'Two little dickie birds'! I think he was quietly pleased when we got on to recording his own songs: the lovely circle dance, One two three and Kangaroos like to hop. (I was mortified when Leon told me I'd got the animals in Kangaroos like to hop in the wrong order ~ he put that right.)
Our next collaboration came in the making of Livelytime and Sleepytime Playsongs. Months before, I'd asked Leon if he would write a song for a bathtime section. Months passed and we were getting anxiously close to the recording day.
Timidly, I asked Leon about the song. Two days into the recording in a primary school in Northumberland, during a tea break, I noticed that Leon was sitting in a far corner of the classroom, head down, guitar gently exploring. We resumed, and out from Leon came the first ever performance of: Splish Splash Splosh, fresh out of the creative stream, all shiny and new and patted dry.
It remains my favourite baby bathing song. In fewer than thirty words and in a perfectly formed melody, we've gone on a picture-full journey down our street, to the top of a tree, explored the park and climbed a hill ~ and the whole baby has been washed from top to toe ~ in a song composed in almost as little time as it took Leon to perform it.
In the years that followed, I'd be sitting at my work desk, when a phone call would come through from Leon. 'I need to come into town for a haircut, do you want to meet for lunch?'.
Thanks to Leon's hair continuing to grow strongly, we had several haircut lunches. Some were occasions for a new song to be commissioned. One was for a songbook about animals. 'Can you come up with something on migration, Leon?' The lovely, swooping melody of 'Flying high, flying free' was the answer. It begins with these words:
The red sun is sinking, the sky is on fire.
The swallows line up on the telegraph wire.
I think they’ve decided it’s time to be gone.
For the days are now shrinking. The summer’s moved on.
Swallow, oh swallow I wish I could follow you,
Over the deserts, the mountains, the seas.
South to the colours and sunshine of Africa.
Flying high, flying free.
Along with the lyrical and serious comes the wonderfully absurd. Both Five Purple Elephants, and The Mystery Bus Ride just make me chuckle with pleasure each time I hear them. They are on Five Little Frogs, and Five Little Owls, respectively. Those are for a later blog, and instead I'll leapfrog us over to Playsongs Grand Exercise and a song I asked Leon to write for it. 'Leon, can you write me something about... ' and then I listed about five different possible grandparenting subjects. All of which he completely ignored.
My Great Gran's a Dancer arrived in the nick of time to slip into the end of Playsongs Grand Exercise and for artist, Rachel, to make the very last illustration for the book ~ that of Leon's radiant great gran as 'she whirls and she swirls and she twirls like a top', dancing in the kitchen with her delighted great grandchildren.
I asked him if he had anyone in particular in mind when he wrote the lyric. He thought for a while then pondered, yes, maybe Emma Goldman. Indeed, Leon's twirling great gran and her swirling melody are beautiful and radiant, just as expressed by Emma Goldman: 'I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.'
But let's give the last words to Leon himself:
For all life is holy the poet once said, And all that is different is part of the dance And the web of life's colours needs each single thread For the dance to continue unbroken.**
Leon's website: https://leonrosselson.co.uk
Leon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLT-oY8ZllEZLPPoZEvhwXlHoUGkHLS0PT
Leon's Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Rosselson
* Turning Silence into Song, Introduction, Leon Rosselson, 2003
**All that is different is part of the dance, Leon Rosselson, included in Turning Silence into Song