HOME   UP

 

 WHERE ARE THE ELEPHANTS?

Leon Rosselson

ISBN 978-1-62963-973-4

PM Press US $16.95

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

The title is of one of Rosselsonís songs, a redundant phrase learnt from Lesson 3 of a BBC Kontakte course (somewhat reminiscent of Ionesco), and applied when he needed inspiration to write about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three years before, heíd sung at a festival in East Berlin and had found the formulation coming into his head. This is recounted in the long first chapter, more than fifty pages of a hundred and sixty-two, about Rosselsonís relation to communism. Millions were bitterly disillusioned, something they might have avoided by reading Bakunin. Long before the Soviet experiment and its transparent false prophets, the anarchists had worked out the essence: replacing capitalists by the State was a mere switch of tyrannies. Bakunin was dead before the significant extension of the franchise. Though there were many experiments across the globe, it wasnít until into the twentieth century that most countries had granted the vote to all adults. Kropotkin too was dead before most countries had implemented, though he lived to see the UKís 1918 Act. Had they lived to see it, they might well have concluded capitalism with the vote is better than ďcommunismĒ without it. What was wrongly termed ďcommunismĒ, however, was State capitalism. Bakunin was prescient: autonomous, worker-owned and controlled enterprises and self-government were the way to avoid new forms of exploitation and control.  

Like many millions, Rosselson was attracted by the promise of communism. Itís probable the attraction for most people was primarily emotional. How many communists ploughed through Capital from start to finish? There might have been disastrous mistake in there, but the vision of the Communist Manifesto was enough: no more classes, no more exploitation, no more poverty side by side with lavish wealth, no more war. Who wouldnít rally to it except the rich? Yet feeling something is right doesnít imply intellectual coherence. The Christian injunction to love your neighbour as yourself may appeal, but is doesnít imply there is a god or and after-life or that the gospels are to trusted. The vision of a classless democracy doesnít imply Marxís theory is watertight. His call to violent revolution was scuppered by universal suffrage. Only a fool will risk their life on the barricades when can they oust the government by going to a polling booth. It may be not much more than Űte-toi que je míy mette, but people will always try to make the best of their circumstances and small secure gains in the present tend to have greater pull than promises of thoroughgoing change which might come to nothing. Maybe Bevanís comment that those who want to do everything at once end up doing nothing at all (or worse) is pertinent. He distrusted parliamentary democracy but managed to use it to realise the NHS, arguably the greatest achievement of socialism. 

Rosselson was born on 22nd June 1934. His parents were Jewish communists who took the Daily Worker. He read Geoffrey Trease ( a pity todayís youngsters donít ). When he was sixteen his school held a mock election in which he tried to stand as the communist candidate but was banned by the Head. He calls this his first lesson in democracy. Of course, as soon as the vote was granted, a propaganda system was elaborated to ensure it didnít deliver the wrong result. By and large, it has been an astonishing success. The conundrum we are left with is how to bring about radical change by democratic means; democratic, not necessarily  parliamentary.  

In 1954 he was part of a delegation to the Soviet Union and resolved to defend it against the obvious criticisms. He visited members of his fatherís family. In the 1980s one of them emigrated to the USA where Rosselson once again paid a visit when on tour in the 1990ís. he discovered the emigrantís teenage daughters were staunch for Reagan. Perhaps a nice example of how advantageous circumstances can restrict peopleís vision and diminish their moral responses.  

Rosselson is an anti-capitalist, like many more. What makes him worth particular attention is his song-writing. As a teenager he was sent for piano lessons under protest because they clashed with his chance to play football for his school. No doubt he later thanked his parents (he was never likely to play for Arsenal). In 1953 he joined the London Youth Choir which sang radical songs culled from Sing. He played accordion on the 1958 Aldermaston march. In 1960 he sang with the Galliards at the Daily Worker rally in the Albert Hall. In 1968 he recorded an LP with Adrian Mitchell. In 1989 he was a founder of the Political Song Network and the Red and Green Umbrella Club. His song-writing and his radicalism have always melded. In a sense, his songs are seldom about anything other than the need to transform the way we live. He has written love songs such as Let Your Hair Hang Down (not at all like the saccharine products that fill the airwaves), but his focus has been the potential for social change.  

The folk tradition is to sing about the way the world is; that is, it isnít a form of escapism, which rock and pop essentially are. If you were a folkie in the twentieth century, you were bound to sing about capitalism and the workersí movement because they have defined our shared life for the past two centuries. Are there any right-wing folk singers, people, that is, who sing in praise of capitalism? The form doesnít lend itself. Pop music is the reactionary form. It directs peopleís attention from the public, political realm and focuses it, narcissistically, on their own emotions; an essentially neurotic procedure. Its message is, if only you can get your intimate life adjusted, all will be blissful. Of course, erotic love is no small matter, but the notion happiness can be found in the intensely personal in spite of poverty, exploitation, prejudice, violence, absence of liberty is vacuous. Interestingly, most marriages in the UK founder because of money problems. When did you last hear a pop song about that?  

Rosselsonís orientation is healthy, a robust opposition to the sickly nature of what he calls ďmashed-potato musicĒ. In a society divided by property and power what could be more natural than for the common folk to sing about their condition? Itís because that is natural, the pop world had to be created. Rosselsonís songs are genuine responses to outrage at injustice; pop music is a phoney product and part of the propaganda system. When The Beatles sang ďI donít care too much for moneyĒ they were lying.  

Rosselson mentions Tariq Aliís interview with John Lennon in Black Dwarf in connection to the events of 1968 in Paris. Ali was of the view that when the French government was paralysed, the workers should have seized power. Easy to say, remarks the songwriter. Quite. Which workers, the real ones or those of Aliís imagination? Lennon was a multi-millionaire pop icon who made himself rich by peddling pap to children (the link between pop and paedophilia is more obvious than people recognise) and Ali has made a handsome career by claiming to stand for the working people he has never lived or worked amongst. Why did Ali interview Lennon and not Rosselson, or Martin Carthy or Pete Seeger? Rosselson is right that the 1960s produced some genuine radicalism (Abbie Hoffman for example, though Peter Coyote is right about his mistakes), but also plenty of flummery. Lennon and Ali were both attention-seekers. The Haight-Ashbury Diggers were right about authenticity and compulsive pursuit of the limelight isnít part of it.  

The Wobblies sang as they organised. Rosselson regrets that the English left hasnít made song part of its basic culture: song makes people feel less alone, tells stories and should be full of wit, verve and irreverence. He mentions Aunt Molly Jackson and her relatives Sarah Ogan Gunning and Jim Garland (who co-wrote the excellent The Death of Harry Simms with Aunt Molly). Hardly household names, but not even names know and cherished by the labour movement in the UK. A movement that has no songs is already defeated says Rosselson, which sums up pretty well the Labour Party for most of its existence and certainly today.  

Rosselson is serious about song. He sees it as an art form in its own right, not a poor relation of poetry. Some great poetry has been set to music, of course (think of Faurť) but heís right to tick off Simon Armitage for his view that lyrics can be clichťd and cheesy, as if poetry is the real thing and song a cheap product for consumption  by the undiscriminating masses. Armitage, of course, is a rock-pop fan, and it shows not only in his opinion of song but in his poetry. Rosselson is very good too on the pretentiousness of Leonard Cohen whose vague lyrics flow from his lack of imagination. Cohen has nothing to say and says it over and over. He was popular among students who liked to get stoned listening to his morbid melodies and whatís-this-supposed-to-mean lyrics because he tapped into a mood of fashionable but phoney disaffection. It was an indulgence to grow long hair, roll joints and listen to his stuff for a few years before donning the smart suit and entering the corporate world. Cohen fought for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a fact which belies his Iím-too-depressed-to-get-out-of-bed-and-believe-in-nothing persona.  

Dylan too rightly comes in for criticism. Rosselson praises his early songs such as Ballad of Hollis Brown, but Dylan always was inauthentic. He adopted the name of a poet who wrote a lot of fairly incomprehensible pieces and who enjoyed deliberately adding meaningless words for the sake of rhythm or resonance. From the start, Dylan was striving to be the poet he wasnít, the best efforts of Christopher Ricks notwithstanding. Dave Van Ronk, who helped him get started in Greenwich Village, criticised his senseless later lyrics. Dylan was for a time a supporter of Meir Kahane. Itís hard to imagine how anyone with a genuine sense of justice could give even a momentís comfort to such a vicious man. Neighbourhood Bully rehearses the usual myths about Israel. It might be argued Dylan was authentic in his opposition to the Vietnam War and his general support for liberal causes, but his lapse into support for oppression in the case of Israel/Palestine indicates an essential superficiality. Dylan lacked the authenticity of Brassens, who loved poetry (Kenneth Rexroth thought him the best poet of twentieth-century France) but knew he was a songwriter. Brassens has no conscious political ideology, apart from a broad orientation to anarchism. His reference is his sensibility.  

Rosselson was introduced to Brassens by Betty Knut, Scriabinís granddaughter and a Zionist who planted a bomb in the Foreign and Colonial Office in London, gratefully discovered by a cleaner. That she rallied to the Frenchmanís songs is indicative of his capacity to touch fundamental feelings. Rosselson has been compared to Brassens by more than one critic. They are both good songwriters, but slightly different. Brassens is subversive without being political, in the sense that he didnít lend his art to a political movement. His sympathies would have been with the workers, because he was anti-authoritarian, cared little for money and despised les braves gens; but he kept a distance between himself and all political movements. Le Gorille may be a protest against the death penalty, but it is without earnestness or worthiness. Rather, itís irreverent, bawdy, witty, faux-naÔf. Brassensís technique is iconoclastic. He demolishes pomposity, snobbery, les bons apŰtres, the self-regarding, tyrants, hypocrites, control-freaks; but he refuses to take on board any ready-made view of the world. 

Rosselson too has all these qualities, but he has aligned himself with the left, was for a time at least sympathetic to the Soviet Union and has written songs closely tied to political campaigns Thatís Not The Way Itís Got Be for example, a fine song, which skewers the developers who ruin our towns for lucre. Rosselson points out the danger of being too closely aligned politically: the Almanac singers, for example, so tightly bound to the Communist Party that when its line changed, songs had to be discarded.  

 Sing A Song of Politics, the fifth chapter, is a discussion of the relationship between the two. Rock music was proposed in the 1980s as the mass form which might create the right emotional tenor. Rosselson examines the ideas of David Widgery and Jesse Lemisch, who both dismiss folk as old hat and unable to connect to a mass audience. Rosseslon is thinking about song and politics but what the chapter is really about is the relationship of art to politics. They never meld because their ways of thinking and feeling are too far apart. No artist can restrict his or her vision to the narrowness of the political. If you take the point of view that everything is political, then nothing is. The political is a specific realm. Itís the product of societies divided by wealth and power. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no politics but they had dilemmas, joys, despairs, hopes, fears, confusions. The most subversive dramatist of the twentieth century is Joe Orton, but he had no politics. Heís far more radical than liberal lefties like Hare and Brenton. Like Brassens, his reference is his sensibility. The Catcher In The Rye isnít a book about politics, but it sucks the marrow out of middle-class America. The Trial isnít a political novel, but it captures the nature of modern society, its installation of guilt into everyoneís mind, the creation of a culture where, as Kundera puts it, ďthe punishment seeks the faultĒ better than any political tract. Political thinking lags way behind artists. In 1857 Flaubert published a novel in which a woman is destroyed by debt notched up by compulsive consumerism. To this day there is no political or sociological analysis which has illuminated the tragedy more vividly. 

Art has to go out on a limb which is why it is often not embraced by the masses. Those who think music, or any other art form, can do the work of politics are acting out of despair at political failure and ultimately destroy the potential of both politics and art, as in the disaster of socialist realism. Rosselson has always had enough wit to realise this, which is why his best songs stand as art, even if at the same time they carry a subversive charge (We Buy Everything for example).  

There is a chapter devoted to Stand Up For Judas in which Rosselson looks at the history of the biblical period and demystifies the Jesus of the school assembly and the routine sermon. He points out that the most obvious fact of the time and place was domination by the Roman Empire. The gospels were written long after by people who didnít witness the events and contradict one another so resolutely they can be purloined to defend any position. Jesus, of course, is presented to us as an unworldly man, belonging to another realm, a man of super-human capacities because heís the son of god. The other-worldliness assists the myths and the fuzzy thinking. The song is built round a simple point: the Romans were oppressors and needed to be resisted. Yet it has effectively been banned from the airwaves in the UK, where we enjoy, so we are told, freedom of thought, speech and expression.  

There are four chapters about Israel and anti-Semitism. Keir Starmer should read them, though it wouldnít do any good: once people are determined to deny the truth no amount of it will change them. Rosselson knows his way round the subject and cuts through the lies, manipulations, half-truths, special pleading and downright nastiness by which the policies of the State of Israel are justified. Much of what he says has been said many times  but we have to go on saying it until enough people hear it to change things. He exposes the emptiness of the IHRA non-definition and its true aim: thought control. He explores the writings of that most confused man Herzl. He considers the Labour Partyís long and sordid history of support for Israeli oppression. He rightly calls Israel ďa psychotic stateĒ. Sanely, he pleads for what every half-way democratic person supports: a single society in Israel/Palestine where all enjoy equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic affiliation. 

Chapter 11 is about his life as a song-writer, sub-titled ďHow I Failed to Become Rich and FamousĒ. The irony is well-placed. Wealth and fame are destructive. To achieve them, he would have had to renounce his artistic integrity. He has written some of the best British songs of the twentieth century, yet how many have heard them ? Heís played to fair-sized audiences in folk clubs and concert halls, but the Establishment has ensured he has been kept from the majority.  His art may be entertaining, but itís art. All entertainment is debased art. Its aim is to make money. No one writes a pop song anticipating an audience of a thousand. Rosselson wrote a few plays and had bits of success. No one writes a TV drama in anticipation of an audience of ten thousand. If it isnít five million, itís a failure. Art can be commercially successful but commercial success isnít the measure of artistic success. Brassens was a phenomenon in France. These days, the young donít know him or if they do disdain him, but a few decades ago it was virtually impossible to meet a French person who didnít know some of his songs. He didnít compromise his art. No doubt the success was a surprise to him. It probably owed something to the relatively relaxed cultural atmosphere in post-war France. Rosselson would never have been permitted to be the British Brassens. Our Establishment is too skilled in spotting and silencing anyone who asks the wrong questions.  

One of the joys of this book is the writing. Rosselson has written for children but he is a good adult writer. Orwell would have approved of his uncluttered, clear style. As is the writing, so is the thinking; and throughout his sensibility is unobtrusively present: charming, pleasant, tolerant, democratic, thoughtful, generous, witty, self-effacing but also outraged at injustice, cruelty, greed and stupidity.  

It's perhaps a measure of the dismal state of our culture that Rosselson isnít nationally cherished. He has been side-lined in his time because his art clashes with the needs of the rich and powerful; but this book and most of all his songs will live when they have long been consigned to the disdain they deserve. In all likelihood few will read this book, but they are the lucky ones.