The Poor Shall Wear the Crown

Here’sachallenge. Cantwelvesongs encapsulate such a long career as Leon Rosselson’s, a career that witnessed so much social and political change, as well as his own activism in song and satire? What’s more, it is so often the case that songs are rarely sung more convincingly than by their author. There’s got to be a good reason to hear someone else sing it. Nancy Kerr is that reason. The alignment of their political philosophy is a given, but it’s more than that. Nancy makes clear that Leon has been a formative companion to her own career, as if he created a habitat in which she could flourish. Then there’s that clarity that Nancy brings, as one of the finest singers of our times, best placed to tell a story; there is never any mistaking the message despite the truth that many are noticeably long and involved, full of narrative. Take Song of the Old Communist, Leon’s most popular song, if Spotify is to be believed. Like the protagonist of the song, Leon has so much to tell and Nancy acknowledges that it’s an ambitious song. Yet, like a method actor, she enters the character, embodying him with a passion and urgency.

The choice of songs is strikingly varied. For every Old Communist, there is another which conveys its message briskly in a couple of minutes. Style too ranges from the caustic to the humorous to the deliberately childlike, always socially observant. But not to be forgotten is just how beautiful some of these songs are – jewelled ships to carry a precious lyrical cargo. With her own violin, viola, guitar and piano to hand, at times Nancy provides remarkably lush arrangements. The brass arrangement of the original Harry’s Gone Fishing is matched here with a complementary string arrangement lifting the chorus, nicely rounded off with a phrase stolen from Leon’s own The World Turned Upside Down.

Nancy’s arrangement of The Ant and the Grasshopper, a fable for our times, is lighter as befits the summer of the grasshopper, but that isn’t always the way. The starkness of domestic dystopia portrayed by Invisible Married Breakfast Blues is matched by a plucked guitar arrangement that feels like a Nirvana riff waiting to break out. Elsewhere, Nancy’s treatment of the rhythms of She was Crazy He was Mad could almost be Syd Barrett, but the political slant of the lyrics is reassuringly Leon.

TNancy’s voice frequently brings something special to the songs. Whatever Happened to Nannerl? was made for her gift for vocal inflection, while her clear diction is perfect for conveying how Susie ‘bites policemen’ with such enthusiasm! At times like a recitative, at others singing for the song’s characters, then with a childlike playground chorus, there are so many voices in this song, which Nancy carries off with all its colourful variety. And it has to make a difference to hear a female voice singing Don’t Get Married Girls, but if anything it reinforces just how remarkable it is that they are a man’s words. Nancy’s is always a different perspective, but always respectful.

The one guest artist on the album is a certain Harry Fagan, one half of internet sensations Harry & Hamish, appropriately enough helping out on one of Leon’s Songs for Children, Why Does it Have to be Me? And if the performance sounds improbably good for Nancy’s 10 year old son, then check out the version on YouTube and be impressed and delighted. As it happens, there you will also find the project that spawned this album, as Nancy put the dog days of May 2020 to good use, offering a Leon song per day throughout the month.

If The Poor Shall Wear the Crown can be seen as a collection of characters and voices, it’s appropriate that it closes with Bringing the News from Nowhere – William Morris getting a second mention on the album, his story being told through the words of Leon Rosselson, with the voice of Nancy Kerr. Often Nancy’s arrangements are fuller than the originals, but here it is stripped down to just the guitar and voice, leaving the beauty clear to hear, and the message being everything, lovingly delivered.

So, this is a marriage of two crafts – Leon’s songwriting and Nancy’s singing (not to mention her own accompaniment). Listen again to Harry’s Gone Fishing – this tale that smacks of a community King Arthur who can rise again to bring salvation. Nancy’s voice brings it all together – hope, celebration, solidarity, triumph. The songs are filled with conviction, a message carried home shoulder high. If you are familiar with Leon’s songs, this will tilt the angle to show the song in a different light; if the songs are new to you, there could be no better introduction, and will likely lead to further exploration.