For the first time in ages, I’ve had the chance to choose something from our shelves as the basis for a post. The Library of Birmingham is gradually coming back to life. While it’s been great exploring all kinds of other musical topics, what our stock has to offer remains the backbone of this blog. (Information about the current services Birmingham’s libraries offer may be found on the library catalogue page.)
As is often the case, what I’ve chosen comes from our Folk section. It’s also led me on another fascinating journey.
Look here – songs by Leon Rosselson (publ. 1968)
Part of the volume’s dedication reads like this:
For those who have listened to them [the songs]
For those who have sung them
For those who would rather not be
machines, serfs, consumers, solid citizens or model soldiers.
That’s enough to make you discover more. The cartoons on the front and back covers mean I’m not surprised to learn Leon Rosselson joined the BBC satirical programme That Was The Week That Was, after earlier being part of the British folk revival. The songs in this book come from the same biting, no-holds-barred satire that Ned Sherrin employed in the early 60s TV series. John Profumo, the Establishment, the class system, and machines over people are only some the subjects Rosselson writes about.
He also had a fairly scathing opinion of popular music and the songs current in the 1960s. Here’s part of his introduction:
If there is one thing that the folk song revival has taught us, it is that songs can be an essential part of people’s lives, not just a background noise. Folk songs… use words in a precise yet allusive way to carry meaning rather than to give the illusion of meaning. They can be moving without being sentimental or self-pitying. They have the pride and dignity of people who refuse to accept the inferior status allotted to them…
Invisible Married Breakfast Blues
Although this song describes the lack of communication (on all levels) at a late 1960s breakfast table, it could easily be now. Substitute the newspaper for a device of your choice, add in fascination for other people’s lives rather than involvement in your own family life, and you have the song.
Here’s a snatch of the refrain:
Without looking at me, without looking at me. Alone with my own invisibility.
Brass Band Music
In the introduction to the section that includes this song, Rosselson has a scathing thing or two to say about Birmingham in the late 1960s:
But there is more than one kind of ugliness, and the theme of these songs is not only the older ugliness of a city’s squalor, but also the more modern ugliness of its streamlined hostility. Rows of factory chimneys have a certain atmosphere, viewed from a distance. Birmingham Bull Ring, for example, hasn’t.
As you might expect from this songwriter, the ‘Brass’ of the title refers more to money (and the making of it), rather than musical instruments. Rosselson notes this song has affinities with Louis MaNeice’s poem, Bagpipe Music. Some of the verses in the song make my eyes widen – the satire verges on crude and blunt.
Here’s a less problematical snippet:
Turn the parks to office blocks, Earn yourself a profit, Learn the way to make it pay, Burn the guy who’d stop it.
The Rules of the Game
The first rule is to look after yourself. Rossleson’s thought is to split yourself down the middle. Compartmentalised, you can let one side deal with all the suspect stuff while the other enjoys the fruits of your actions without consequences. Maybe.
Here’s one verse:
Is the one who’s always sober And sleeps through the other’s dreams, Who stuffs his ears with music, So he can’t hear the screams.
These songs from fifty years ago are still provoking. Their relevance makes you think.