Folk Roots interview

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INTERVIEWED by Colin Irwin

Describe the multifarious wonder of the man they call Rory McLeod in
50 words. Well you can't, obviously. So if it's all the same to you
I'll use 5,000, okay? I mean, the man has been a fire-eater and
circus clown in Mexico. He's lived with vagabonds and beggars in some
of the world's most remote nooks and crannies. He's busked in
international cities and remote mountain villages. He's jammed in
throbbing bars in Ireland and family parks in China. He's thrown
himself into political struggles from housing disputes in London to a
battle to free a man framed as a terrorist bomber in Australia. And
you barely have to ask and he'll blow your socks off with a frenetic
blues, reggae, ska, soul, folk, jazz, rock'n'roll or country song,
which he might accompany with a searing assortment of harmonica,
guitar, spoons, trombone, finger cymbals, bandorea or djembe.

He's swapped tunes with 80-year-olds in Cuba, jammed with travellers
in Central America, danced the hokey-cokey with families in China,
given away harmonicas to children in Afghanistan, engaged in animated
discussion about attitude to aborigines with redneck Australians in
the bush and sung fiercely political left wing mantras to hard
drinking good ol' boys in the bars of Texas. There's no-one quite
like Rory McLeod. A globalist humanitarian who instinctively
recognises the communal ability of music to cross all the great
divides and ever keen to make a personal delivery, involving himself
fully in the music, lifestyle and struggle of whatever locality he
finds himself, be it Asia, Western Africa, Central America or North

This is a man born with an eternal lust for travel and the rich
experiences it inevitably brings. "I've travelled to look for work,
to mend a broken heart, to be with someone I longed for, I'd travel
to visit friends and on the way I'd make new ones and I'd roam
because I was curious to see what was around the next corner," he
says simply.

And lest this be forgotten as we get into the story of his colourful
adventures, Rory McLeod is also a wonderful singer songwriter,
storyteller, live performer and communicator in his own right. A
one-man soul band, as somebody or other once described him, who takes
you through the whole range of his extraordinary experiences and
influences in unpredictable performances of explosive emotion and
intense energy. His real life songs of real life people in all their
idiosyncratic guises touch all the senses to make you laugh, cry and
kick a few walls the way only great songwriters can do. Add that to
the power and glory of one of his individual live shows and you have
the mainman in a genre of one.

Not that you'd necessarily know it. McLeod himself is a hugely
likeable, unassuming man of infectious enthusiasm with an avalanche
of tousled black hair on his head and a perennial beam on his face.
He's also a disarmingly assuming man who takes his music seriously
but has barely ever looked at it as anything other than the door to
the next gig. He's certainly never ever ever seen it as, heaven helps
us, a career. He's played with Ali Farka Toure, Flaco Jimenez, Ani
DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, Tarika, Hassan Erraji and Kathryn
Tickell, and has made six albums of thrilling invention and vitality
yet relatively modest sales. And while he may be a legend in places
most of us have never heard of, he's often struggled to get gigs in
his home land. He's never had a manager, is considered too musically
diverse and oddball to meet the marketing requirements of most record
companies, is far too wilful and independent to play the industry's
silly games anyway and never stays in the same place long enough to
establish his own niche in the natural order of things. And you know
what? It suits him perfectly. The guy is one of the true wonders of
roots music.

Rory McLeod was born in London, the son of a Glaswegian shipyard
worker, who doubled as an ardent trade unionist, atheist and
communist who steadfastly refused to stand up for the National Anthem
(a gesture that Rory also upholds). Forced south looking for work, he
fell in love with the daughter of a Russian Jewish family from the
East End of London and they ran away to get married. He was always
close to his grandmother, who'd been brought to London at nine months
old and died last summer, aged 90. One of the last times he saw her
was at her 90th birthday party when he sang Al Jolson's Anniversary
Song, based on an old Russian folk waltz tune she'd danced to at her
wedding. He wrote a song for her, The Wind Is Getting Stronger, which
he still performs. It helps keep her memory alive., he says. "I
travel with songs about my family and it feels as if they are with

Apart from Al Jolson his gran sang music hall and the blues songs of
Bessie Smith, while his mum filled the house with 78s of Tennessee
Ernie Ford, Paul Anka and Danny Kaye. His dad was more into Irish
music, though for all of them dancing was the greater passion. "My
mum had violin lessons when she was a girl but they hit her fingers
when she did it wrong, so that was it. But I always liked singing,
even in the choir, even though I wasn't brought up with any religion."
They lived in different parts of London Camberwell, West Kilburn,
bits of Middlesex and Rory's musical journey began with a harmonica
given to him by his dad and the songs of The Beatles blaring out of
the radio. He also went to a multi-racial school which was heavily
populated with West Indians, giving him a fierce enthusiasm for ska
and reggae.

"Me and a schoolmate would go to South Harrow market and
we found this old blues stuff by accident. We found Rock Island Line
and thought it must be rock'n'roll 'cos it had the word 'rock' in the
title, but of course it turned out to be Leadbelly. So after that I
started buying all these old second hand records cos they were cheap
and that's how I got into people like Sonny Terry and Sonny Boy
Williamson. And I was a big rock'n'roll fan. I loved Eddie Cochran. I
started going to this club, the 6:5 Club and there'd be all these
teddy boys dancing to Sandy Nelson's Let There Be Drums and I'd be
like the youngest one there. Then I got into different things weird
stuff like Captain Beefheart and I started experimenting with jazz.
I loved Duke Ellington and funnily enough Herb Alpert, which is
kitsch really. But I loved that brass sound and all the Mexican stuff
that went with it. Then someone played me Dylan. Nobody at home could
stand his voice but to me all that stuff melted together."

Plenty more heroes were acquired along the route, with Muddy Waters,
Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, George Jones, Charlie Patton, Elvis
Costello, Dick Gaughan, Bob Marley, Ry Cooder, The Watersons, John
Prine and Emmylou Harris also joining the list of honour. His first
gigs were busking with a bunch of mates at Portobello Market and
Camden Lock in a primitive jug band. There were regular pauses while
they replaced strings which kept snapping due to the frenetic playing
and the general need to be as loud as humanly possible.

Already working with a group trying to set up a community arts centre
at the Elephant & Castle, Rory had learned the rudiments of
fire-eating from a guy he met on the same project, John Trigger. So
he started fire-eating as a distraction to divert the crowds during
the regular intervals when they were replenishing strings. It worked.
The band started getting gigs at clubs like Bunjis and ended up being
booked into dates in Germany. And in Germany they stayed.

"We were playing in Aachen and decided to go to Hamburg just to see
what happened and ended up staying there. We worked and lived there
and made a record and fell in love and got stopped on the road a lot
'cos police thought we were Baader Meinhoff groups. You know, a bunch
of young fellers together "

Rory had already started writing his own songs but didn't get much
chance to play them. "I'd made all these songs I knew we'd never sing
'cos they were songs about me mum and stuff and you don't do songs
about your mum if you're a blues group. I also wanted to sing in my
own accent but it didn't fit well with the phrasing of their stuff.
You know, white fellers trying to sound black American."

He ended up working as a duo with another member of the group and,
after his partner failed to turn up for gigs, played on his own. "I'd
get these gigs and he wouldn't show so I'd be there doing a whole
night on my own on harmonica. After a while I started doing my own
songs. They were really simple chords - I don't consider myself a
guitarist as much as someone who writes songs on a guitar. I never
really wanted to play on my own. It was only 'cos my mate let me

In 1976 that ole devil called love launched him off on his travels
overland to Afghanistan at a time when the Shah was still in Iran and
the Iranian border was open. "I played with people wherever I went
and jammed and met lots of drummers. I took harmonicas as gifts and
to trade and I often wonder what kind of things they'd be playing on
them now. I find it fascinating to look at the way music travels." It
had a big effect on him, quite apart from inspiring one of the best
of his songs, Baksheesh Dance (on Kicking The Sawdust). "Afghanistan
was amazing. They never throw anything away. They store old Cadillacs
and repair them 'cos they're great mechanics."

But Germany had a huge impact on him. He spent two years working solo
in Germany and still has ties - several of the jug band mates who'd
originally gone there with him remained and he still has a son there.
He also sharpened his political edge during his time there, getting
involved in various local issues and writing topical songs to make a
point. His 1987 double album Kicking The Sawdust (Forward) includes a
dedication to Kemal Altun, a Turkish political prisoner who jumped
from a window to escape extradition from West Germany rather than
face imprisonment and torture back in Turkey.

Undergoing an emotional upheaval following his parents break-up and
complicated emotions of his own, he came home in the late 70s.
Briefly: "Some parts of me always missed London. I had a hankering to
come back to London 'cos there was a lot going on with the punk thing
and all the rest of it. I felt like a punk even though I didn't look
like one. I couldn't persuade anyone I was a punk 'cos I didn't have
the leather jacket or whatever the costume was."

He busked a bit but soon wanderlust set in and he took off for the
States. With only three weeks on his visa it was always going to be a
short visit, but when the three weeks were up he had no wish to
return and instead headed south for Mexico. That was when he joined
the circus. "I just asked around if anybody knew a circus, put the
word out I was looking for a circus to join. I didn't know much
Spanish but I thought it would be a good job to do 'cos I'd worked in
the streets with the clowns and I'd done fire-eating and there was
this whole sense of adventure of travelling with them. I didn't want
to stay in one place basically."

Somebody pointed him in the direction of a small circus run by an
Azteca Indian family from Mexico City who travelled the Pacific coast
working mountain villages and tobacco plantations. It was a rough and
ready existence and they had African lions and carried guns to ward
off the constant threat of drunks and banditos.

"We also had a King Kong act which was Gonzalez dressed up and that
caused some panic. The people were well, not gullible, but their
imaginations were fired up and when King Kong came in and stormed
round the ring, people would run out screaming. I was a musical
clown, doing a mime thing with the harmonica and make-up. They really
built me up as this exotic act from London which was unbelievable to
me. Can you imagine anyone from London being exotic? It's funny, the
more you travel the more you realise the word exotic just means
someone who's not from there. Which says a lot about world music and
all the labels. It means you can travel without getting out of your

It was an exhilarating , but gruelling way of life and, looking back,
he concedes the way the animals were treated was sometimes brutal.
"They were farm country people with different sensibilities," he
says. He spent six months on the road with the circus before it began
to cripple him. He injured his back putting the tent up and the
combination of copious amounts of fire and mescal down his throat
every night took their toll and he got dysentery. "That's when I
realised that fire-eating every day isn't actually very healthy. You
can get cancer of the mouth and belly and I was constantly burping
from the taste of petrol. Even the smell of petrol now reminds me of
it. And the mescal but that's another story."

He recovered his strength sleeping in an old school and then headed
south and got a job in a bakery. He borrowed a guitar and started
moving around again, busking and gigging with a Mexican clarinettist,
while paying his way with labouring jobs on local farms. He decided
to move on but still loves Mexico, his son is still there, he still
goes back there.

Next stop was Belize. "It was a bit of a culture shock finding people
there speaking English and seeing colonial things like jumble sales.
I spent some time in Belize City, which travellers usually avoid
because it's dangerous but for me it was great, just hanging out,
talking English and having a laugh. There was such a mix of people in
Belize Hispanic, African, Indian and there was a bit of a war going
on at the Guatemala border. I heard a lot of reggae down there too so
I'd take the harmonica and join in with them. Most of the young black
Belize fellers there were trying to get to the States, they thought
it was the land of milk and honey but I met loads of old fellers
who'd been there in the '20s and had encountered racism and the rest
of it and now they were home they had no wish to go back. It was
interesting hearing them talk about all that."

In 1980 he was back in the States himself. He was on the way to New
Orleans to see first hand the birthplace of jazz, but on the way
there he bumped into Austin, Texas. Now, he thought to himself, here
was a town and a half. Austin is, of course, one of America's hottest
music towns and although he didn't know that when he arrived, he'd
made his own idiosyncratic mark by the time he left. Butch Hancock,
Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams were among
those making the joints jump in Austin at the time and, although he
was living on the streets, Rory eventually joined them at places like
the Alamo Lounge.

He met some guys who liked his harmonica playing and joined their
reggae band, Pressure. With a mini reggae explosion going on in
Austin at the time they got some prestigious work, including support
slots with the likes of Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown. It was there he
wrote some of his most popular songs like Angry Love and Criminals Of
Hunger, designed for use by Pressure. With their eye on poppier
climes, the band rejected them, but the songs came to serve him well
when Rory's nose for political intrigue drew him away from the
commercial aspirations of Pressure and into the barricades with the
likes of Utah Phillips and Townes Van Zandt.

Singing his own songs in America was a revelation as it suddenly
struck him that he'd basically only ever previously sung his own
songs to people who didn't understand English. The reaction he was
suddenly getting to lyrics goaded him on into writing more. He became
a fixture at Emma Joe's bar - named in tribute to Emma Goldman and
Joe Hill - an oasis of resistance in a sea of republicanism. "I met
quite a few Mexican Indian workers there and anti-Klan people and I
made a lot of friends there. I really enjoyed Texas. Really earthy
people. They love picking and they love songs in Texas, the
storytelling tradition. I made up a lot of songs there. You play in
those bars and you can play three or four hour sets and take the tip
jar round. So playing that long stimulated my songwriting.

"I felt at the time I was singing country songs but they didn't see
them as country songs there 'cos I had a different accent and I had a
different guitar style 'cos I'd taught myself and I had this whole
ska influence as well. I wasn't consciously trying to develop a style
but you absorb things without knowing it and just by playing the
wrong chords with the wrong fingers you develop your own style. I
remember Butch Hancock saying to me once 'You're really ethnic,
aren't you?' 'cos I was singing in my own accent."

Even by Austin standards, the Londoner with the mad hair must have
seemed very strange. A lot of time he lived on the streets - and
we're not talking nice streets. It was the part of town even the
cabbies refused to visit. "But they were lovely God-fearing people,"
says Rory, smiling at the memory. He shared beds with cockroaches,
lived in a car belonging to one of his reggae band mates and slept
with his feet hanging out of the window. "I remember staying in this
railway siding with a Czechoslovakian guy who was on the run for
something and he ended up in prison. But he ran a used car place and
the only customers they ever had were Mexicans. These Czechs couldn't
speak Spanish so I ended up translating for them so they let me stay
there. You should have seen how big the rats were "

One day he chugged off to the Kerrville Folk Festival (a couple of
years before Michelle Shocked and those pesky grasshoppers made it
famous) and somebody entered him for the harmonica competition. Rory
being Rory he befriended everyone at the festival, entertained at
every camp fire going, and was declared harmonica champion of
Southern Texas. Or something. Whatever, he won $100 and was dead
chuffed. Seduced by the gentle songs about his mum and his gran, the
organisers invited him to do his stuff on the main stage and quickly
regretted it as Rory launched into his most vitriolic rants about the
shortcomings of American foreign policy and the like.

Quite suddenly he got homesick. He remembers guffawing loudly while
watching Monty Python's Life Of Brian but left somewhat disgruntled
because no-one else was laughing. Hearing of exciting things
happening back home by strange names like the Buzzcocks, The Jam, The
Beat and the Specials, he decided it was time to come home. "It was
funny me doing all this reggae stuff in America and there was a
parallel thing going on in England without me knowing it. I was
culturally homesick. When you travel on your own you become cocooned
culturally. "People would ask me about Britain, but I knew New Mexico
better than I knew Britain."

In the event Britain turned out to be a major culture shock too.
"When I got back I couldn't articulate. I'd simplified my vocabulary
to such an extent. And there were so many cultural groups I didn't
know where I fitted in. There were skinheads and punks and hippies
and I was a bit of each of them, so I had the punk arguing with the
hippy in me. And I'd grown up with skinheads as well."

He started doing regular floor spots at the Empress of Russia,
Islington where Flowers & Frolics and Bob Davenport held court and
encouraged his progress, albeit stunted, around a suspicious British
folk club scene. In 1980 he even made an entirely acapella single I'm
A Rebel Trying To Govern Myself (revisited on new album Mouth To
Mouth) which raised not an eyebrow in Britain but found its way on to
a radio station in Austin and threatened to give him a hit single in
Texas. Except, of course, that nobody could actually buy it.
For a long time Rory had a malevolent attitude to the idea of
recording, believing it would somehow dissipate the magic of the live
event, sapping the energy and destroying the uniqueness of
performance. If people could listen to him via a vicarious experience
from the safety of their armchairs, he thought, why would they want
to see him on stage? Once he'd made his peace with the idea that
hearing records could actually stimulate interest in the live
performance, McLeod's recording career developed fast. Forward Sounds
released his first album Angry Love in 1985 and very fine it still
sounds today, but despite the odd nibble from major players, he never
could get his head round the pursuit of fame.

"All I've ever wanted to do was get gigs and sing songs to people.
People said to me 'Do you wanna make it?' but I'd just see that as
getting trapped. I'm into live music and I'll only do things on my
own terms, I don't want to sign anything."

He followed Angry Love in '87 with the double album Kicking The
Sawdust, including sparky songs like When Children Starve In
Peacetime, Everything Is Provocative, Old Brigades Song and Last
Tree, alongside the delicious Hug You Like A Mountain, one of sadly
few Rory songs to get the cover treatment. It also included one of
the things of which he is most proud, The Commentator Cries, an
allegorical song complete with sound collage about a football match,
with deeper allusions to Argentina. The album didn't set the world on
fire but it raised his profile on home shores appreciably, even
earning comparisons from Sounds (deceased) with Ray Davies.
"Intricate vignettes warmly wrapped in an urban '80s politics," said
Sounds profoundly.

Rory typically didn't hang around to admire it and was back on his
travels almost before the shrink wrap was off the sleeve. Africa,
Cuba, China, always the inveterate traveller, exploring the people
and the musics of many different cultures but never really
recognising any difference.

"I still laugh about the time I was in China and there were circle
dances going on in the park so I started singing with all these women
and playing harmonica and they were all dancing and having a real
party in the park. We all had our arms around each other dancing and I
just started doing the hokey-cokey and they all started following me
in dead earnest. They probably thought it was some deeply religious
dance or something. I'd love to go back and see if they're still
doing it."

In Cuba they thought he was Mexican because he spoke Spanish with a
Mexican accent but he ended up driving south in a car with no brakes
and played spoons and harmonica with some of the guys who'd turn up
later with the Buena Vista Social Club. "I actually stayed with a
Russian family and they were keen to hear all about England. All
their sons wanted to talk about was Pink Floyd. But I thought Cuba
was great. They've got lots of problems but their resourcefulness is

So what's your view of the explosion of world music?
"Well, it's obviously a label, a marketing thing and I've always been
suspicious of music that comes from everywhere but nowhere. Whether
it's a Suffolk accordeon player or a Zulu jive accordeon player it's
all folk music to me. It's made people look at their own roots more
and it's important to keep the local thing going as well as the
universal thing and maintain local dialects and local politics but
there is something that separates when it gets sold. It crosses a lot
of barriers but at some of these festivals with music from everywhere
you get people thinking they've crossed 50 borders in one weekend. It
is positive but I am suspicious"

"See, in Zimbabwe they loved country music. Dolly Parton and stuff. I
think that's brilliant. And wasn't it King Sunny Adé who played pedal
steel and that worked brilliantly? I played harmonica in China, which
is where the harmonica is from originally, so that was an interesting
journey. It doesn't matter where instruments are from, it's the sound
they make that matters. And what usually happens is that things that
are familiar to us are ignored. If it's in our own back yard we don't
want to know, that's what's happened to English folk music. I do feel
I'm a folk musician and it's part of the struggle to make it relevant
to young people."

You get described in many colourful ways, but folk musician is rarely
one of them
"Oh I get described as a gypsy and world musician and all sorts but
I'm a British person who's singing songs about my life in Mexico or
wherever. Britain is so diverse. I grew up with Hindu kids and black
West Indian kids and maybe in Africa they grew up with Christian
hymns 'cos of the missionaries. It's the same way language develops,
Romany travellers picking up words which become part of our language.
It's like the drones relating to Irish music and Indian music and
aboriginal music. There's some all-embracing thing
"That's why I love the voice. All these Scottish waulking songs
they're work songs and African work songs have the same rhythm.
They're all connected in some way and it makes it rich. Some
xenophobic people are worried about the purity of music but there are
mongrels everywhere. I'm a mongrel with the Scottish side and the
Russian side "

But there's a strong argument that the more you expose folk music to
the outside world the faster you will destroy it
"That's always gonna happen. In China I heard lots of street
musicians. They were my favourite musicians of all and there were
these people notating the different tribes, but the moment you do
that it gets locked in. Somebody like Cecil Sharp doing his
collecting may have missed out certain verses because they were too
bawdy or whatever. It's like in jazz there are inflections and things
you just can't write down. Like Charlie Parker's horn solos how do
you notate a breath noise?"

One of the featured musicians on Rory's 1989 album Footsteps And
Heartbeats (Cooking Vinyl) was the great blind Moroccan oud player
Hassan Erraji. They'd met on a train en route to Farnham Folk Day and
Erraji ended up staying with Rory when he was living in a tower block
in London for a while. "Amazing feller lovely man found his way
round London."

It was Hassan Erraji who introduced Rory to Ali Farka Toure,
establishing another friendship which blossomed when Ali invited Rory
to play harmonica on his album with Taj Mahal. It developed into a
spontaneous jam. "They were so respectful of each other's playing
those two so respectful I love jamming with people. You get taken
on journeys and just don't know where you are gonna go, which is
great. I started pulling out trombone at some sessions, which is
great fun, though you do get some funny looks and I have to be really
respectful. There's a real etiquette at sessions. But there's always
fiddles and mandolins with high frequency at sessions and I always
wanted to hear a bit of bass. So I went out to look for a tuba but
came back with a trombone. I love playing with the pipes, just
jamming. I'd rather do that than go out and play on my own."

Rory made two albums for Cooking Vinyl during the '90s, Travelling
Home (1992) and Lullabies For Big Babies (1997), but since then his
life has done a few somersaults. Playing at a festival session one
night he played and played and played until there was only one
person left with him erstwhile Anam singer and bodhran queen Aimee
Leonard from the Orkneys. "I wasn't looking for anyone," he says,
"I'd just come out of a relationship but I recognised something in
her that was so familiar. Apart from anything else I knew she'd be a
good friend. She's so talented and a great singer and she has such a
feel for the bodhran. She's got a real sense of swing, a funky
player, but she's also got a trained voice so there's her and there's
me sounding like a foghorn "

The couple now live across the Scottish border and have a baby son
Solly, who has his own starring role biting an apple on the sleeve of
Rory's newest album Mouth To Mouth. Aimee, who has now quit Anam,
harmonises with him on the album and sings and plays bodhran with him
on as many gigs as she can. Rory is subsequently especially proud of
Mouth To Mouth - another double album, folks - as it's also the first
released on his own label Talkative.

He has plenty of reason to be proud. Apart from a plethora of
wonderful songs like London Kisses, Unlearning Song, Patron Saint Of
Loneliness and Cold War Of The Heart, it includes one of the most
extraordinary pieces you'll ever encounter. Titled Stranger-God, it
expands his reflections on travellers into a staggering epic which
transports the old legend of a monkey washed up in Hartlepool and
hanged as a French spy into Java where it develops its own allegoric

"It's about travellers. How they're welcomed or not welcomed. Some
travel to work, some to be with someone they love, some just to see
what's ahead, and some have no choice. The refugees. I wanted to
write a song exploring all that. The story about the Hartlepool
monkey fascinated me, so I did this story about a white monkey who
turns out to be a sailor, and this is the story of his life. it
covers 500 years and the whole thing of pilgrims and in the end the
church not wanting them to travel because they became worldly and
they couldn't control them. So it's to do with power and colonialism
as well."

And just in case you wonder if his new-found domestic bliss has
dented his sense of outrage over injustice, then listen to God Loves
Me, a cleverly blistering diatribe about the hypocrisy of Bible
bashers, sung in an American accent.

"People say to me 'you are angry' but they're all love songs to me.
It's just that some are angry love songs. I'm taking songs with me
and telling people 'this is where I live and this is our battle' and
in most places you visit they have the same battles. I feel I'm
bringing a sense of history with me and I feel quite emotional when I
sing these songs. I am happy to have discussions with people if they
don't like what I'm doing or what I've said in one of my songs. I'm
always up for a discussion."

Not that he's through with travelling. He's anxious to retrace his
grandmother's life journey from Russia while he has plans to write a
musical play. Oh yes, he says, there's more adventures afoot.
"See, that's the thing about music. There are songs for all occasions
wherever you go. I think music should be on the national health."

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