Rory McLeod, currently touring Australia, entertains not only with his skills as a guitarist, harmonica player, tap dancer, spoon player and vocalist but also with the stories told in his songs, many of which he writes himself. He has performed in many places outside the normal entertainment venues, such as on picket lines during the British miners' strike, at the London public meeting for Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and at Sydney's Long Bay jail supporting Tim Anderson. He is interviewed here by JOHN TOGNOLINI.
What are your songs based on?
I find that I have to respond very carefully to images through the media. A lot of people feel impotent from watching television. I like to make people feel a bit stronger, so I write and sing from direct experience.
You've done historical research in your music, such as the three-year school strike in East Anglia in 1911.
That was about two teachers, husband and wife, one the son of a
farm labourer. The parents they met were mostly farm labourers, so they got them organised, such as electing themselves onto the local council.
The local vicar was a bigot; the church owned the land. When the labourers started fighting for wages and conditions, the church and the big farmers tried to expel the two teachers. they were eventually framed and tarred and feathered. The school kids went on strike in support of their teachers, with their parents backing them up, and it ended up being a running battle for nearly four years.
I heard about it and went down there and researched it, checking out the records and wrote a ballad about it.
You wrote song about school and growing up, Pauline's song.
It's a song about a girl I went to school with. We had a lot of trouble at school because all the school governors were Tory businessmen. That's why the school strike interested me a lot. I got expelled from school for so-called disobedience. The song's somewhat autobiographical; there's me in that song as well Pauline.
Does your personal experience enter your political songs as well, for example "Criminals of Hunger"?
That was a lot to do with me travelling at the time, being away from London and trying to keep in touch with things that were happening there and what was happening in Central America, where I was. This is where I heard about the riots back home in Brixton.
Some of the song I'd written down beforehand. It's basically a story of internationalism, of the fate we share with other people, that we've all got the same battle and share the same fate. I suppose it's quite a long song, but I was trying to say a lot as well.
You did a song about a Turkish political activist who committed suicide when faced with deportation from Germany back to Turkey.
I lived in Hamburg some years ago. There were a lot of Turkish folks that lived in the area I lived in. There's a lot of racism against Turks. They do all the shit jobs, like moving chemical waste.
It's a song about Kemal Altun, who jumped out of a window seven floors up in the police station rather than be sent back to imprisonment and torture in Turkey. I have friends in London who are in exile from Turkey, one whose father is in prison. He was in my mind when I wrote it. So it was a song for him as well and really for all Turks.
What got you involved in the project around Woody Guthrie, Woody Lives, with other musicians in Britain?
Most of the people involved were northerners or had connections with the north, Scotland. In Scotland there's a lot more tradition for country music and cross-Atlantic fertilisation than there is in the south or in London, and it was something we all wanted to do.
A lot of Woody's song are still relevant. His deportees song is still going on: in Jersey, an island which is a bank/tax haven for rich people, they use Portuguese as labourers and send them back before they can get residential visas.
Woody's songs still mean a lot 50 years after they written. So we got together to keep the songs alive and do them our own way, Dick Gaughan and Rab Noates. It was a lot about showing respect to Woody and connecting the roots of folk or protest music.
You're able to make a living out of your music. How have you been able to survive?
I make people feel good through entertainment, which is something I don't hide. I don't just sing political songs all night, because there are ways of reaching out to people and not alienating them. I haven't always relied on record companies and have survived without them. I've had to do other jobs too, farming work and my time in the circus, painting, cooking and labouring jobs.
I've always stood by my own music. People have come back to acoustic or folk — Michelle Shocked, Billy Bragg and the Pogues are a reflection of that.
The folk scene is coming up to date, with songs being taken out of museums and more people making a more popular culture. But I've got lots of friends who are great musicians who don't get work, so it's not an easy thing to get by.