Three bars of decisive acoustic guitar. Then the lyrics to 'The Word Market' start, the words now leading the music. A North London voice, speaking as much as singing.
'I went down to the word market, to the word market in the vaults of the City because I wanted to buy a pre-packed frozen slab of a ready-mixed democracy.' Where are we heading? I fasten my belt. I'm in.
Leon's songs are intravenous. They cut through the cloth, skin and sinew of organised thought hitting into my blood.
Some ballads are factual, Billy Bragg thrashed a scorching cover of 'The World Turned Upside Down', better known as 'The Diggers' Song.'
'In 1649 to St George's Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people's will
They defied the landlords, they defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.'
Did he guess this would become his best known song? No; audience reaction is a lottery, balloons sent into orbit.
Was home an influence? I am in his Wembley sitting room, 20 minutes walk from my parent's home. He has made us mugs of tea. Historically our parents are from the same part of the world; his were Russian Jews escaping Cossack thuggery, mine came from Poland and the Czech Republic.
His father, whose only learning in Russia was religious and whose first language was Yiddish discovered the Workers Circle when he moved to London's East End. Discussion with like-minded people, radical activism, Communism; these were lifetime lessons, experience he handed down to his son. The father's unswerving beliefs gave rise to 'The Song of Old Communist' and 'My Father's Jewish World'. The man also becomes 'Rosa's Singing Grandfather in Leon's book of that title, shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. A small girl in a family photo on the wall looks a little like Rosa on the cover of the book.
Communism; it's strong stuff. 'When you grew up', I ask, 'did you find the Labour Party too wishy-washy?'
'I vote Labour to keep out the Tories.' We can listen and learn more from 'Talking Democracy Blues which was writtten during Blair's term of office. Leon savages Tony with such ferocity that I pitied the poor PM. Momentarily.
Leon once wrote a ballad of stunning lyrical beauty. Golden-red firey imagery, a love story, a jaunty lilting melody. He was surprised that the Chairman of Staffordshire Fire Brigade wanted 'Little Tim Macguire'banned. It's about an arsonist.
Does he love trouble or does trouble love him? Irrelevant question, Leon is himself.
His songs don't box neatly into genre although many can be called 'ballads of attitude.' He also composes love songs and children's tunes. To me he seems deeply serious; quiet not loud. How did he create the weird oddballs that people his lyrics, 'Susie bites policemen', 'She was crazy he was mad', Barney on the supermarket workfare scheme' building his burger and fishfinger sculpture? And did Mozart in 'Whatever happened to Nannerl' really call the Archbishop 'a prick?.' Leon explains:
' I had a choice. I could write songs to rally the faithful, to preach to the converted, or I could tell stories. Storytelling is unpredictable because the audience's response is uncertain.'
Music and words. Leon started with piano lessons, picking up the guitar in his teens and taking music A-level. He studied English at Cambridge, continued playing and in 1959 joined The Galliards, from then on he never stopped playing, developing, innovating, pushing the boundaries of his ballads his 'chansons' (Georges Brassens is a role model).The words came first,then the tune,his aim always to fit his fingers to his ideas and weld the two into a piece of performable work.
'You worked with many artists; the poet Adrian Mitchell, Scottish guitarist Dick Gaughan, socialist magician(!) Ian Saville. Was it easy to find fellow-travellers?'
'Yes. Sometimes I work with people once. I worked most often with folksingers Martin Carthy, Roy Bailey and Frankie Armstrong. They became friends.'
Leon is very informative, I learn a lot of the history and politics of the last century and how the music connects. He tells me the Communist Party loved Folk, called it the People's music. Fifties America didn't like radical artists, tried to ban them. This was the MaCarthy era where the fear of all things 'un-American' prevailed. Pete Seeger, radical musician and brother of the equally fire-raising Peggy Seeger, squeezed in, got away with it by the seat of his pants.In the UK the Communist MPs Willie Gallagher and Phil Piratin, British Communist MP's wanted to fight Nazi Germany in 1941 after Hitler invaded Russia. Russia not Britain was where their loyalties were. They raised 'The red flag', but it was too late for a lot of Jews, gays, gypsies, people with disabilities and other people who stood in Hitler's way.
In 'The World Turned Upside Down', Leon uses Winstanley's words 'Freedom is the man who would turn the world upside down.'
Final questions now; favourite venues; big, small theatres, outdoor festivals? He's played at all the big ones.Festival Hall, Albert Hall, Wigmore. He says Cecil Sharp House, the main folk hall in London 'feels dead' He is more popular across the pond than here. Berkeley and Vancouver often invite him to play. The main stage at Vancouver Folk Festival has around 10,000 listeners, he prefers the smaller solo stage. London's Tricycle Theatre has good acoustics.
Have any family followed him into music? Yes, daughter Daniela directs the London Lucumi Afro-Cuban Choir.
It's been a memorable meeting; not precisely what I anticipated. Leon gave me countless facts, illustrated living icons of radical history. I had planned to probe other places. From where in his head, for example did he get his characters? And how did it feel to be the son of the 'Old Communist?'
Authenticity, a refusal to compromise and sell out, a willingness to share his views and his life; Leon's dead father, looking down on us all from that rosy twilight limbo where the struggle never ends must be proud.
Leon Rosselson's website is easy to find and some of his songs are on YouTube