ROY BAILEY's recent tour of Australia finished at the National Folk Festival in Canberra over the Easter weekend. Before the tour was over, Green Left Weekly's ALEX BAINBRIDGE caught up with him in Newcastle to talk about his music and politics.
Australian audiences have almost certainly had their last chance to see Britain's Roy Bailey live in this country. However, his powerful voice and moving performances will not be forgotten. Bailey has been singing progressive songs for over 35 years and has played all over the world.
Bailey has been a socialist all his life. He favours a Marxist approach and a class analysis. "The songs I sing reveal that, without the songs themselves being heavy, didactic pieces of propaganda."
Bailey sings songs that reflect the social and political views he supports and consciously rejects songs that have racist, sexist or other right-wing content.
He found his way towards this sort of music via the North American folk music scene in Britain and "became enamoured with the general idea of people's music". Early on, he made a choice. "I had an opportunity to go into popular music, but chose instead to sing these sorts of songs because they seemed to me to express stories about the world I lived in."
One of the things that Bailey considers an asset to his music was his employment as an academic. Because he had an income source other than music, he was able to sing what he wanted without having to change his repertoire to get work.
While being a politics professor was restraining, Bailey never sold out. At his retirement ceremony, he broke with tradition at such occasions by singing. Vice-chancellor, senior professors and graduating students, unsure what to expect, were presented with the parodied "I did it their way" — his rejection of the conservatising academic straitjacket.
Bailey believes that progressive music can give people confidence to keep struggling. "I don't believe for a minute that songs are going to change the world. I don't even think, necessarily, that they will get us to the barricades. What I think they do is help with a sense of unity. People come to concerts as individuals. Hopefully, when they see people responding positively to the things in the songs they're responding to, they don't feel so alone."
While never claiming to be an activist — his contribution is in other areas — Bailey admires people like the late South African liberation fighter Joe Slovo. Slovo, he says, would have been critical of some aspects of the new South Africa, but Slovo and others give him inspiration because they fought against injustice. "They dedicated their lives to something."
On the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bailey has a mixed response. "At one level I'm disappointed. There are many things about the Soviet Union which I found abhorrent, but there were many things a darn sight better for ordinary people than they've got now."
On the other hand, he says, we are not defeated. "I travel the world and meet thousands of people who respond to the messages of socialism in my music. There are thousands of us, millions probably. We need to be aware of each other and support each other."
While a heart condition will prevent him from returning to Australia, Roy Bailey will continue to be an inspiration. He has spent the best part of his life singing songs of hope, solidarity and struggle. If you've missed his concerts, make sure you pick up one of his CDs. It'll be worth it.