Folk Roots

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 London.

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 main man 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, AniDiFranco, Michelle Shocked, Tarika, Hassan Erraji and KathrynTickell, 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 me."

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 down."

In 1976 that ole devil called love launched him off on his travels over land 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 parent's 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 armchair."

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 clarinetist, 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 around. 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 onto 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 around 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 LastTree, 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-kokey 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 amazing."

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 Accordion player or a Zulu jive Accordion 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 every where 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 AndHeartbeats (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, TravellingHome (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 legend.

"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."