We Sell Everything (Leon Rosselson)

In a world full of stolidly written, didactic, and generally plodding political songs, it is a wonderful thing to come across an equally didactic leftist song that is clever and funny, and even has interesting chords. When I discovered this one, on an album called Love, Loneliness, Laundry, I instantly made it part of my repertoire, shortly followed by a bunch of other songs by its author, Leon Rosselson.

That would have been in the summer of 1982. I hitched from Seattle to Vancouver and settled in for what would be the first of many long stays with Maggie Benston, one of my favorite people ever. Maggie was a professor at Simon Fraser, the identical twin sister of one of my mother’s friends and collaborators back in Cambridge, and a member of a maggie-benstonpolitical singing group called the Euphoniously Feminist and Non-Performing Quintet. She drove a red sports car, juggled boyfriends with alacrity, baked a chicken dish with forty cloves of garlic, and let me stay in her guest space for weeks at a time, sometimes with her around, sometimes on my own with the cats.

I learned a lot of good music in Vancouver, and Maggie was responsible for more than her share of it. She was the first person to turn me on to Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the first person I knew who had Eric Bogle records, and the first person to mention Leon Rosselson. Leon was completely unknown to me, and to most everyone else in the United States — as I recall, he’d made his first Canadian appearances only the previous year, including the Vancouver Folk Festival. He was the most brilliant lefty political songwriter I’d heard in ages, and one of the cleverest writers of any sort, and Maggie had two or three of his rosselson-songbookbalbums, as well as his first songbook.

I taped the former and xeroxed the songs I liked from the latter, and I see from my surviving set lists that I was playing three or four of them at shows during the following year. This song was by far my favorite, because it was smart and funny and had so many words in such quick succession — from “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” to “I’ve Been Everywhere,” I had an affection for fast patter songs, and “We Sell Everything” is still the most cogent tongue-twister I’ve found.

I had the pleasure of meeting Leon a couple of years later in Saratoga Springs. I’d been booked for a weekend at the Caffe Lena, and Leon was there the night before with Frankie Armstrong, a wonderful British ballad singer, so I went up early to catch their show and hang out. We got along fine, and the next couple of times he came through Boston, he stayed at my place. I also stayed one night at his place in Wembley, London, a few years later, when I was researching my Josh White book. By then he was devoting most of his efforts to children’s books, but he continues to perform and remains a singularly intelligent and reliably leftist voice. I recommend checking out his website, which has plenty of information on his recordings, books, and upcoming gigs.

As for Vancouver, I’ll get back to that subject shortly, but to wrap up one story line, Maggie died in 1992, and I see from her Wikipedia page that Simon Fraser now has a building dedicated to her memory — which is nice, in its way, but no consolation. She was wonderful, and I loved staying with her, and I miss her.