He is the same age as Tees landmark, Newport Bridge and yet Leon Rosselson the Godfather of English protest song played his very first Middlesbrough gig on Sunday. The man whose songs have influenced generations of performers, audiences and agitators was invited to The Studio, Little Theatre Club on Sunday and welcomed with open arms for a superb night that was educational as well as entertaining.
Ably supporting were the superb Wilson Family of Billingham whose rich and very Teesside folk harmonies set the night off in fine style. Or maybe I should say fine fettle. Industrial songs about such subjects as Sea Coal from Hartlepool mined the proud industrial history of the area and were accompanied by often humorous anecdotes. In fact at times the Wilson struggled to get started as each of the lads in turn chipped in with his own witticisms. And out of turn as well. The Wilson Family should be returning to The Studio at a later date, I’ll definitely make sure I an there.
Leon Rosselson’s songs are sung in folk clubs up and down the land and resonate well beyond the traditional circuit. Chumbawamba and Brilly Bragg have covered him in more recent times, Billy Bragg even recording a hit with the incredible Diggers anthem but more of that later.
As the Studio is attached to the Middlesbrough (Little) Theatre Leon decided rather than playing a straight gig he would put on a life story show. Although starting out very contemporary with a song about mobile phones and the lack of real communication he soon dropped back to the start of his singer songwriting career in the 1950s. He pulled out a song or two for every decade whilst setting it all in context with some of the big happenings and influences of the times. The seated audience settled in for a wonderfully intimate night in the company of a song writing genius with a fascinating story to tell.
Firstly Leon described how Ewan McColl was at the vanguard of those that changed English folk music forever. At this time folk became a living music, songs were no longer exclusively museum pieces but you were now able to write new folk pieces. That is what Leon Rosselson set out to do ever since with incredible aptitude and a unquenchable appetite.
I loved the anecdotes from being refused a USA Visa when asked if he had a political record and he replied about a dozen. Or being knocked back by at the start of the 60s by Ned Sherin, producerof satirical show That Was The Week That Was despite Leon being seemingly ideal for the show. Ned preferred musicals.
A couple of Leon’s songs did make it onto this highly influential and well-watched show. Another political ditty was played on the fledgling Radio One, and not banned despite protests because the arsonist got his comeuppance in the final verse. Talking of political songs, Leon clutched a copy of an early single on the Topic label and suggested his was probably the only topical record ever released on the label.
There are an unbelievable amount of lyrics in Leon Rosselson’s songs and so cleverly crafted, rhymed and sung. And remembered. Some humour, German humour at that with Wo Sind Die Elefanten? The only German phrase Leon remembered from school, maybe not too useful or appropriate when he sang it in East Berlin at the time the wall was being ripped down.
There were so many more stories and songs told, writing a song about cultural Jewish heritage or a Jewish man visiting Palestine moved to song about by the uprooting of communities and olive trees in the West Bank by illegal Jewish settlers.
The show ended with the rousing Diggers anthem, The World Turned Upside Down. Billy Bragg sang this at Teesside University six months ago and now we were all joining in heartily with the original songwriter in the homely Studio in leafy Linthorpe.
A memorable evening and fantastic value for money from the cheap drink to a gig that lasted with two short breaks and through two acts from quarter to eight to quarter to eleven. The best way I can think of spending a Sunday night in Middlesbrough.
We’ve waited 50 years + to see Leon Rosselson in Middlesbrough and must thank Leigh Sayers for bringing him here for a night that will be remembered for many years into the future.
Do get along and support the Studio – Attila The Stockbroker is playing with Rory Ellis on Friday May 18th.
The Studio, Middlesbrough Little Theatre Club, Toft House, The Avenue, Linthorpe, TS5 6SA Tickets tel 01642 828715; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.shipyardsongwriters.com/tickets