Rory McLeod, one of the standout artists of this year’s Port Fairy Folk Festival, has spent more than 35 years traveling the world and sharing his stories and songs about all manner of subjects. One moment he might be sharing gentle reflections on love and family while picking an acoustic guitar, and the next he might be belting out an upbeat harmonica and spoon-tapping number about the dismantling of the welfare state. Les Thomas caught up with Rory McLeod to ask about his beginnings as a traveling artist, extensive travels in Australia and preserving history in music.
You’ve been part of the international folk circuit for years. How did it all start for you?
It was by accident with the folk scene, but I eventually realized it’s all folk music whether it’s reggae, punk, jazz. I survive playing the music I do and playing my own songs, in a stubborn kind of way.
I lived in Germany and played in a jug band there and I started making songs there. We did a couple that were political and one about my mum as well, and we did the German Rock Against Racism. Later I ended up in Mexico working the circus and living with an Azteca family. I did busking on the streets and fire eating at Portobello Market. If you do it every day, you can get dysentery of the tummy, so ended up getting quite sick there. I was also working on farms and making songs, but never in English. I eventually felt compelled to get back to England with the riots and all the things that were happening with Thatcher. Of course there were things happening in Central America too and I was very inspired by the muralists and artists like Diego Rivera.
I got up to Austin, Texas after that, which is quite a liberal town as far as Texas goes with the richest university. I ended up playing in reggae bands there. That’s were I wrote ‘Criminals of Hunger’ and ‘Angry Love’ and eventually I worked out ways of doing them on my own and there was a Bar there called Emma Joe’s, named after Emma Goldman and Joe Hill.
Run by Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World)?
Yeah, exactly. They were great a great couple that ran it; good friends with Utah Phillips. They didn’t want any racist music played there and I’d been away with the punk thing happened, but I realised I really like the energy and edge to it. After that, I realised I needed to go back to England. I felt like a deserter.
Did things like the miner’s strike have a big impact on you?
Yeah. Even before I left I have a bit of trouble at school and they made me do painting as subject, so I decided to do one for the miners and I started to look up artists I liked and got onto Diego Rivera, John Heartfield and people like that. So even before I left it was important to me, through my dad and the Red Clydesiders and John Maclean, so I couldn’t help but grow up with that kind of radicalism.
My dad came from Govern, the shipyards there, and John Maclean was a big hero of my granddad, who I didn’t really get to know. Maclean was a great orator and teacher who spoke about Internationalism, opposing the First World War. They almost wanted to start a soviet [workers council] in Glasgow, you know? With the revolution in Russia, they wanted to bring it to England. So the Red Clyde and that whole tradition of militant radicalism came out of that. Maclean was a great teacher so they locked him up five times and he went on hunger strike.
I remember it started up again when I was a kid with Jimmy Reed. He was another inspiration for workers rights, taking over the ship yards there. All that tradition from Glasgow is something to be proud of really.
And somebody that sang a lot about the Red Clydesiders was Alastair Hullett who I understand one of the songs on your current album is dedicated to.
Yes, bless him. I recorded it at the time and he passed away. So with the sleeve notes, I thought, it’s going to be for him; he was a good comrade. I met him here actually in Sydney during the Stop the War campaign and Tim Anderson Framed Campaign. We spent a lot of time together and shared the same stages and I still know his partner Fatima back in Glasgow who stood for the Scottish Socialist Party.
It seems that you’ve accumulated a lot of Australian stories with all the visits you’ve made.
Yes. I did the Whitefella Blackfella tour with Kev Carmody when his first album Pillars of Society came out and we went to Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and up to Darwin and we sat around singing to each other, as you do. There some redneck areas, but I remember playing some of these places on my own and I’d do my song about my mum and playing the harmonica and then if they started talking about “Abos” and this kind of racist stuff, that’s when I’d do my other songs. And they didn’t know quite how to place me then, because they liked the mum song and the harmonica and suddenly I was singing other songs about shoe shiners, Black folks and racism, but they didn’t beat me up. We had a dialogue. I said, “I come from here. I grew up with Black kids, you know?” With anyone, I guess you’ve gotta look for the good in them and stand your ground, really. I was lucky. Probably some real fascists might have tried to beat me up.
The sets of yours I’ve seen have been so much about humanity, love, things that break down any kind of barrier.
That’s the secret of what I try and do. You’ve gotta get out to the people and connect. Not alienate them or be angry straight away. I don’t like sloganeering anyway. That’s why I call it Angry Love; it’s to do with love. They’re all love songs. Some are angrier than others. I didn’t want to use the words “protest song” really, because that’s got a thing about it as well. It comes from somewhere else.
There’s a kind of limit to protest in some ways, isn’t there?
Yeah, and I think people do turn off. You’ve gotta win them over, avoid preaching, use the harmonica, catch their attention. I mean with busking you have to do that anyway. You’re forced to stop people so they’ll have a listen and put money in your hat. It’s how you reach them. And actually, in the end, I’ve always loved music by anyone who sings from the heart.
A lot of what you talk about on stage has to do with preserving memory as well.
It is keeping memory alive and preserving history. It’s not just about kings and queens. History is largely written by the winners, so what historians might call the Indian Mutiny, the Indians would call the War of Independence and it depends what side your on. It sounds a bit trite to say from a working people point of view, but that the perspective of my mum’s song or the song about the 400 year-old fruit market. It celebrates the life that was passed down for generations and I’ve sung it to the guys there, taken it back to them. That’s what I’m trying to do. And my song about the school strike for the teachers in East Anglia. They’re trying to create a sense of place and home. The ‘Kissing Song’ does that too.
Yes. You listed of the word “kissing” in over a dozen languages. Is that word that you’ve been collecting in travels around the world?
I did start. I’ve forgotten some now, but I’ve got some Arabic ones, Turkish, I remember the Aboriginal ones, realizing there are some many different languages anyway, but they’re the ones I remember . . . I like the sounds of them as well “Spoonikin”. When I live in Orkney, they speak Norman up there, an old Viking language, and no one speaks it. It’s a dialect. And I thought I might put some into songs because it’s that thing of having a word that describes something that no other word can. That’s the tragedy of all of these indigenous groups losing their memory of that language which is so tied up with nature: the word for a flower, a recipe, medicine. If they get lost, then you’ve lost that magic as well.
Port Fairy is a very varied folk festival, but what’s your sense of how well the folk traditions are surviving?
I think there’s a renaissance of it for some reason. There’s a fairly conservative side to a lot of folk music, and there’s a lot of navel gazing a lot of quite pretty music, very well played technically, and good luck to them, but I think there’s a lot more depth to beauty. There can be beauty in an old dump, you know [laughs] and it’s a bit darker and breathing more fiercely sometimes.
AUSTRALIA 2014 TOUR DATES
Thurs 13th Brunswick Music Festival- Melbourne- VICTORIA –
314 Sydney Rd. Brunswick 3056
Fri 14th Blue Mts. Music Festival NSW – Katoomba
Sat 15th Blue Mts. Music Festival
Sun 16th Blue Mts. Music Festival
Wed 19th Newcastle University NSW
University Drive, Callaghan, NSW
LUNCH TIME SHOW 12-1pm
Thurs 20th Newcastle Carrington Bowling Club NSW
Conelly Park, 1c Cowper St. Newcastle
0407 017 417
Fri 21th Wauchope, NSW
Uralla Arts, Oxley Lane, Wauchope
(Try Bookings) 0429 854 733
Sat 22th Food Angel Café, Dorrigo NSW
18-20 Cudgery St. Dorrigo, NSW
0428 415 078
Sun 23th Kyogle Memorial Institute- NSW
Crn Stratheden & Summerland Way, Kyogle
Fri 28th Bangalow Bowling Club- Byron Bay – NSW
21 Byron Bay Rd. Bangalow
Sat 29th Hats Juke Joint, Cootharabah – NSW
29 Agathis Lane, Cootharabah
Sunday 30th 11am Singing the Stories-Workshop
Hats Juke Joint, Cootharabah – NSW
29 Agathis Lane, Cootharabah
Fri 4th Illawarra Folk Club – NSW
City Diggers Club, 82 Church St.
(Corner of Burelli and Church Street)
Sat 5th The Shack, Narabeen – NSW
The Tramshed Arts & Community Centre, 1395A Pittwater Rd. Narabeen
Sun 6th Petersham Bowls Club Sydney NSW
77 Brighton St. Petersham, NSW
Ph. 9569 4639
Wed 9th The Yarra Hotel -Melbourne – VICTORIA
295 Johnston St. Abbotsford
Fri 11th. HOBART- TASMANIA
Polish Club, Hobart
120 Main Road, New Town, TAS
Sat 12th The Brunswick Hotel, Adelaide
207 Gilbert St. Adelaide
Sun 13th -Hepburn Springs -Victoria
The Old Hepburn Hotel-
236 Main Road, Hepburn Springs. 3461
Thurs 17th National Folk festival- Canberra
Fri 18th National Folk festival
Sat 19th National Folk festival
Sun 20th National Folk festival
Mon 21st National Folk festival
Wed 23rd FREEMANTLE WA.
Fremantle Workers Club –
9 Henry St. Fremantle WA.
Fri 25th Fairbridge Folk festival- WA
Sat 26th Fairbridge Folk festival
Sun 27th Fairbridge Folk festival
Fairbridge Village, Pinjarra,WA