Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Leon Rosselson’

“And the pageantry, the panoply, the sanctified decay —
But I knew the hour was coming that would sweep it all away.
Now time has me in a corner, and I’m moth-eared from the fray,
But Her Majesty is reigning still today.”

-Leon Rosselson, “On Her Silver Jubilee

Science fiction fans joke that they are disappointed that the future has yet to produce flying cars. But my disappointment lies elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the society I expected to see when I was middle-aged is almost as distant as when I was coming of age – a fact that the recent Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II reinforces all too sharply.

The mood of the late 1970s was so different from today’s that I can barely remember it. Probably, anyone born after that time can’t conceive of it at all. But for a naïve, idealistic teenager like me, it seemed a time of infinite possibilities and constant progress.

Consider: Prosperity in North America was at an all-time high. So was income and social mobility. In recent memory, activism had helped to end the Vietnam War and to force Richard Nixon’s resignation. Based on the previous decade, it seemed self-evident that ethnic minorities were about to win their rights, and so were women and gays and lesbians. Probably, Canada would be a republic, without a monarch to remind us of a now non-functional past. Sure, problems like pollution and poverty remained, but once we focused on them a bit more, they would be solved.

In other words, we were still in the era in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could write a book called The End of History and not be ridiculed. The problems that had haunted humanity for centuries were about to be solved, and all that would remain was the question of what to do afterwards – colonize the stars, most likely, or maybe begin a cultural Renaissance.

Ever since, each year has added to the progressive disillusion. Instead of the end of history, we got the Counter-Reformation of the reactionaries, who proved to be better organized and more tenacious than the rest of us could imagine. Year by year, living standards declined. We got Ronald Reagan in the United States, and a denial of the lessons that Vietnam should have taught. In Canada, we got Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, who between them swept away any idea that politics could be about anything except pragmatism and the cold-blooded survival of career politicians. The promising beginnings for cause after cause turned out to be end points that were fiercely and – all too often — unsuccessfully defended.

Oh, not everything was reason for gloom. In Canada, abortion rights remained in legal limbo, permitting access in theory despite constant efforts to chip away at them in practice. Same sex marriage became legal. The Internet and cameras in mobile devices made organizing and calling authorities to account easy. But against the losses and the constant wallowing in the same old arguments, these gains mattered for little. If the losses didn’t outweight the gains, we believed that they did. We stopped believing that social progress was possible, although many of us kept on fighting or wistfully believing.

Against this background, the Diamond Jubilee is only a tawdry reminder of what hasn’t happened in recent decades. The occasion is not only a celebration of mediocrity, but also a celebration of how things have failed to change. For me, the fact that Leon Rosselson’s song remains as applicable today as when it was written in 1977 only adds to the irony. Seeing the media’s continuing attention to the non-story of someone whom Rosselson describes as “so commonplace a woman in her fuddy-duddy hat” makes me want to mourn, not celebrate. Do we really have nothing more to show for the last thirty-five years?

To all appearances, we don’t.

Science fiction readers have been known to cry, “Give us our flying cars!” But as I tried to avoid the coverage of the Diamond Jublilee the other week, what I wanted to do was to plead for a reason to believe in social progress – and then to go and find a quiet corner in which to mourn the unlikelihood of any answer.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Thanks to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, many members of the Occupy movement sport Guy Fawkes masks. However, while the often-repeated line about Fawkes being the only person to enter Parliament with honorable intentions is good for a laugh, Fawkes is a poor symbol for the movement. In fact, with his plans to restore a Catholic monarchy, Fawkes was a reactionary, and would probably disapprove of the movement if he were alive to see it. Instead, I wonder why no one has looked deeper into some of Fawke’s contemporaries – specifically, the Puritans.

At first, the suggestion sounds ridiculous. Puritans have been the object of ridicule for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night to H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Moreover, at least since the 1960s, to describe some as “Puritanical” has been one of the deepest insults possible. The adjective suggests someone who is humorless and repressed to the point of obsession.

Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – and that, with Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, the Puritans became the losers. The truth is, our view of the Puritans is about as accurate as an investment banker’s view of the counter-culture of four decades ago.

Yes, many Puritans fit the modern stereotype. But many others did not. Historically, all “Puritan” meant was an extreme form of Protestantism. During the seventeenth century, there were dozens of different schools of Puritanism. The Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggeltonians, the early Quakers – these are only some of the different sects of Puritanism you could find in the early to mid 1600s, and many of them disagreed strongly with each other.

What all Puritans had in common was a deep belief in the essentials of Protestantism: the idea that each person had to work out their own salvation for themselves. This belief led them to question the authorities of their day, both the religious and the secular ones. In fact, since in Anglicanism, the monarch is the head of the church, at the time, there was no real distinction between the religious and the secular (which was one of the circumstances to which many Puritans objected).

The result of much of their questioning sounds very familiar today. Universal suffrage? Votes for women? Communal responsibility for the sick, poor, and the elderly? All these ideas were first raised in the English-speaking world by the Puritans. Some sects went even further, experimenting with communal living and denouncing the evils of property and hierarchy, becoming so much of a threat that less radical Puritans like Oliver Cromwell suppressed them, and called in the troops to disperse some of their experiments with communes.

Admittedly, to the modern mind, their ideas had some strange twists. Living in a religious age in which most people believed that the civic order was ordained by heaven, they did not reject religion so much as reinterpret it. Some Puritans, like the Diggers, recast the Biblical Fall, not as the literal disobedience of Adam and Even to God’s commandment, but as a metaphor for the rise of social hierarchy. Others, like the Ranters, went even further, declaring that all humans were naturally innocent, and that sin was merely the corrupting result of conforming to the social order, which could be removed by everyone giving in to their natural inclinations. The idea that society could do without Christianity seems to have occurred to very few of them.

This religious orientation aside, most of the radical Puritan’s beliefs would sound instantly familiar to most moderns, especially the activists. You could even say with some justification that the shaping of our modern world and its values and aspirations began with movements like The Diggers and The Levellers.

Instead of choosing a figure like Guy Fawkes for a hero, today’s activists might try taking a look at people like Gerrard Winstanley, the intellectual leader of the Diggers, or Abezier Coppe, the prominent Ranter. If their original works are hard to find, you can at least read about them in the works of historians like Christopher Hill, or hear them summarized in some of the songs of English folksinger Leon Rosselson, such as “The World Turned Upside Down” or “Abezier Coppe.” In doing so, you will regain part of the English-speaking world’s heritage that anyone interested in improving society should know about — because, believe it or not, we’ve been here before.

Read Full Post »

According to English song-writer Leon Rosselson, the seventeenth century radical Abezier Coppe was arrested for blasphemy after repeatedly declaring that he didn’t believe in sin. Found guilty, he recanted, acknowledging that the sins his accusers might be prone to – “greed, tyranny, hypocrisy and pride” – really were sins after all. A neat reversal, I’ve always thought, considering the circumstances.

This week, I’m feeling about anger the same way that Abezier Coppe felt about sin. After years of carefully regulating my temper, I got angry recently. And you know what? I was right to do so.

I trace the distrust of my temper to a pickup baseball game when I was in elementary school. Another boy was cheating, and refused to admit what he was doing. He owned the bat and ball, he kept saying, so he could do what he want. Furious, I threw the ball at him, screaming he could go. I wasn’t aiming at him or anyone else, but the ball hit the girl on the catcher’s mound on the head.

She wasn’t hurt, but she left and so did the boy who owned the bat and ball. But I was so appalled at what I had done that, after half an hour of hiding, I marched over to the girl’s house and confessed to her mother what I had done. To my surprise, her mother hugged and forgave me, and nothing more came of the matter.

Except this: I told myself that I would never let myself get so blindly angry ever again. And, aside from a few sharp words, I kept that promise. I cultivated an easy-going attitude, one more prone to humor and sarcasm than anger – so successfully that the few times I did snap at someone, they were surprised. As several people told me after, they hadn’t known that I was capable of anger.

Later, I found another reason for avoiding anger. I realized that I was born moderately privileged, and that anger could be a means of invoking that privilege if I wasn’t careful.

So I told myself that a mature person resists giving way to anger. When I grew annoyed, I’d go out and do some heavy exercise, or at least some strenuous chores around the house. Almost always, I sat down calmer afterwards. Just as the only sins that Abezier Coppe acknowledged were those of the privileged, the only targets I allowed for my anger were abstract social ones and the people who defended them – and even then I felt uneasy and did my best to see more than one side to everything.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got angry for the first time in several years. I’m not going to give a play by play, but, after having someone inflict three out of the four of Abezier Coppe’s acknowledged sins on me (there was no greed that I could see), I told her what I thought of her bullying, thoroughly and in the bluntest terms I could muster.

What surprised me was that I wasn’t ashamed of my anger, and that I didn’t let it control me. Instead, I restrained it until there was no reason not to express it, and, having expressed it, felt no inclination to do anything further except mutter for a couple of days. Even more importantly, for the brief time I was angry, I felt perfectly justified.

I realize now there is a world of difference between a boy’s ability to restrain his emotions and a middle-aged man’s. Not only that, but in some circumstances, anger is the only sane response. At times, to suppress it would mean acquiescing to the unacceptable.

Does that mean that I have any right to go berserk, or to cultivate anger and keep acting on it for weeks or months? Of course not. Some limits still apply. But it does mean that a shadowy part of myself is not nearly as scary as I had long imagined, and – occasionally, at least – is justified and deserves to be expressed.

The price of this knowledge may be steep, but I suspect now that a similar incident would have come sooner or later anyway. At least in the circumstances I can say I learned something:

I’ll never be afraid of my temper ever again. Nor will I have any further doubts about my ability to control it.

Read Full Post »

For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.

OysterBand

Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

Read Full Post »

For the past seven weeks, I’ve been using a USB turntable to digitalize our old vinyl records. So far, I’ve done 41 LPs, with about another sixty to go. We haven’t played the LPs for at least fifteen years, so the process is a rediscovery for me – and proof yet again of how, when the dominant recording medium changes, some things are left behind.

Looking through the list of albums on the music player (a Sansa clip, which, incidentally, is much better buy than an equivalent iPod), I’m fascinated at the glimpse of my past. When I started, I wondered whether my tastes would have changed, and whether I would find some of the music that (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) was the aural wallpaper of my youth would now seem callow or outdated.

But, to my relief and considerable satisfaction, the fear was largely unfounded. While songs that call for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, or refer to Solidarity in Poland obvious refer to specific time periods, on the whole the musical choices of my youth manage not to embarrass me, although I do think that my taste has broadened and expanded since I listened to this music regularly.

Part of the secret of its longevity is that intelligent lyrics tend to weather the years better than trendy musical styles. But the main reason, I think, was that when I was a young man, the folk music that formed the bulk of my listening was in the middle of a renaissance full of passion and the fusion of traditional and contemporary that produced innovative and exciting music.

In fact, far from being embarrassed, I wonder how I could ever have stopped listening to some of these albums. For instance, my music player is currently loaded with the last studio album by the Scottish super group Silly Wizard, Michelle Shocked’s “If love was a train” EP, two albums of klezmer music by Klezmorim, an album by Breton harp genius Alan Stivell, another by the Scottish harp duo Sileas, another by the Quebecois group Barde, Malcolm’s Interview’s great punk folk album “Breakfast in Bedlam,” early works by OysterBand, Pete Morton, live albums by the Corries and Steeleye Span – I could go on and on, but I think I already have. Treasures, all of them, although some are considered modern classics and others are entirely forgot.

But by sheer number, my greatest rediscovery has to be Leon Rosselson, a sort of farther-left version of Tom Lehrer, and his sometime fellow traveler Roy Bailey. Eleven of their albums, seven of them made together, are now on my music player, and I can still see why. Bailey, a gay leftist with a strong sense of activism and tradition has one of the great voices of British music, and his covers of songs like “The Hard Times of Old English” or “If They Come in the Morning” resonate in my memory with the least encouragement.

However, if anything, I appreciate Leon Rosselson’s savage wit even more (if that is possible). Even now, I can’t resist Rosselson in the persona of a British tabloid journalist who prides himself on decency and moderation, working himself up into a satirical frenzy ending with:
What we say is hang the muggers,
Deport the blacks, castrate the buggers,
Press the button, drop the bomb on
Peace campers at Greenham Common.

Similarly, after looking in the first person at the various people who would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons passing the buck, Rosselson concludes: “So if the end to all creation is global suicide / There’ll be no one who is responsible, ‘cuz no one will decide.” Or look at his parody of the British Labour Party’s song, written in the Sixties, but still appropriate today:
We will not cease from mental strife till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted;
We are sure if we persist, to make the New Years’ Honours List,
Then every loyal Labour Peer will sing “The Red Flag” once a year.

But I think I like best “The World Turned Upside Down,” his history of the Diggers of the English Revolution and their declaration of freedom:
We work, we eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords,
Still we are free, though we are poor,
You Diggers all stand up for glory, stand up now.

I remember the time when that song was an anthem for me, and, hearing it again in the original after enjoying covers by Billy Bragg and the Oysterband, I find that it becomes so again.

I know, I know. You haven’t heard of half these names, and most of the other half are mostly obscure to you. But that is my whole point. Just because something is old doesn’t make it worthless and justifiably discarded. Sometimes, things that are old are classics, or deserve to be.

Read Full Post »