Leon Rosselson Sings For Palestine

The Last Chance: Eight Songs on Israel/Palestine, a new compilation CD from Leon Rosselson, is a powerful personal statement from a distinguished British folksinger who continues to be one of the finest progressive songwriters working in the English language. Rosselson’s songs draw from a deep well of musical traditions: English music hall, labour anthems, French realist song, Jewish folk and European classical. His great accomplishment is his consistent ability to integrate his fine melodies with acutely observant lyrics and wordplay.

Rosselson, now 75, comes from a communist party background. Once a member of a socialist-zionist youth movement, today he’s an active supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. In the revealing notes accompanying this CD, he describes spending a year in Israel at the end of the fifties “where the word ‘Palestine’ was never mentioned” and admits that he has “argued the rights and wrongs on both sides” over the years.

Now he acknowledges that critics of the 1993 Oslo Accords were right. Israel’s goal for Palestine, he writes, is “a patchwork of disconnected Bantustans.” A two-state solution – “if it ever was desirable or realizable” – is now “almost impossible to envision.”

Readers of this publication may know Leon Rosselson as the composer of “The World Turned Upside Down”, a much-covered song about the Diggers, the agrarian communists who represented the left-wing of England’s bourgeois revolution in the mid-17th century. His topical and satirical songs first gained notice on the influential BBC-TV show “That Was the Week That Was” in the early sixties. Since then he’s released some 20 albums and written 17 children’s books. Storytelling is, indeed, a strong feature of Rosselson’s art.

“The Song of Martin Fontasch” tells the tale of a folksinging Jewish partisan during World War II who manages to convince his German captor to let him write one last song before he is shot. Adapted from a story by the Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi, this effective opening track links Jewish resistance to the genocidal Hitler regime with the contemporary Palestinian liberation struggle. The connection is suggested by the use of contrasting musical forms. The verses narrating the grim story of the Jewish partisan and his German captor are sung in march time while the chorus breaks out into a yearning waltz of freedom:

This song is for those who are cast out by history
The banned and abandoned, the spurned and ignored
Whose homes have been taken, whose dreams have been broken
Who huddled on hillsides, demand to be heard.

Palestine is not named, but if anyone hasn’t yet got the analogy, Rosselson drives it home in the last verse:

Then let not our sufferings turn our souls to ice
So that we do to strangers what was done to us.

Rosselson’s “Song of the Olive Tree,” convincingly performed here by English folksinger Janet Russell, is a song of classical simplicity. Its melody alternates between minor and major tonalities as it contrasts the destruction and theft of Palestinian olive trees by the occupying regime with the deep inter-generational meanings that they hold for the Palestinians:

The settlers came, they beat us black and blue.
They said, Next time we shoot you. Understand?
But still we dared to come, we had no choice
We came at night like thieves to our own land.

The most unusual track on the album is “The Last Chance,” a story narrated and sung by Rosselson, who accompanies himself on the piano. It’s set in the late fifties in a nightclub in Beersheva, a city on the edge of the Negev desert in southern Israel The protagonists, Meier and Sam, are engaged in an increasingly acrimonious debate. Meier, a butcher and holocaust survivor, esposes militant Zionism and despises not only Arabs, but also “donkey riding Yemenis” and other non-European Jews. The mournful, pacifist-leaning dancer Sam mischievously questions the newly victorious ideology. Their debate climaxes when, in a fit of rage, Meier flings a stone in the dancing Sam’s direction. In response Sam puts his arms around his head and says, “I want to go home.” Elegaic in its tone, “The Last Chance” appears to be a metaphor for the broken dream of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine:

They came from nowhere

The lost, the broken, and the mad

They blundered in like blind invaders

There’s not a weak track on the album, but in the interests of brevity I shall restrict myself to brief comments on two other songs.

“They Said” examines the guilt and denial surrounding the notorious massacre of Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, an atrocity that many historians believe precipitated the the flight of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland called the Nakbah. Rosselson sang this song in 2005 at a commemorative meeting near the the site where Deir Yassin had once stood, organized by a group of Israelis called Zochrot (Remembrance).

“Yafa! (Jaffa!)” introduces Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. She performs the only non-Rosselson piece on the album. It’s a keening qasidah (vocal improvisation) based on an Arabic poem by the Jaffa-born Palestinian writer Mahmoud Salim al-Hout (1917-1998) who was driven into exile in 1948 and lost all of his manuscripts in the process. The anguish of the uprooted poet is powerfully conveyed and transcends language.

This album is highly recommended. It can be ordered directly from the artist (with PayPal) at http://www.leonrosselson.co.uk or from www.fourdogsmusic.co.uk. They`re your best bet if you want the hard copy with Rosselson’s notes. If you’re satisfied with just the music it can be downloaded from iTunes.

Profits from the sale of The Last Chance: Eight Songs on Israel/Palestine will go to Medical Aid for Palestinians (www.map.org.uk).

Wally Brooker

From People’s Voice – Sept 16-30, 2010

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