Review: Leon Rosselson & Robb Johnson- “The Liberty Tree: A Celebration of the Life and Writings of Thomas Paine”
The most ridiculous and inappropriate trend in modern American politics has been the Tea Party’s embrace of Thomas Paine, culminating with the publication of Glenn Beck’s book Common Sense, which purports to be a tribute to Mr. Paine’s seminal 1776 work. While Beck would probably be in agreement with Paine’s assertion that “government, even in it’s best state, is but a necessary evil,” the similarities end there. I have a strong interest in American history and unlike Mr. Beck, I have actually read the works of Thomas Paine beyond Common Sense and I’m willing to bet that the Tea Party would be shocked to learn that their hero was not only an early feminist and abolitionist (meaning that unlike many of the “Founding Fathers,” he practiced what he preached), but also an outspoken opponent of imperialism (Rights of Man), a strong fighter against organized religion (The Age of Reason), and, perhaps worst of all, an avowed socialist (Agrarian Justice) who proposed taxing the rich in order to pay for social programs. Now, I mean no offense to conservatives. (Although I’m a sort of left-leaning libertarian myself, but many of my best friends are conservatives.) All I’m saying is to find a new icon. Maybe Alexander Hamilton.
Thankfully Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson, two folk singers from Paine’s home country of Great Britain are here to set the record straight with The Liberty Tree, an affecting mixture of music and the spoken word spread out over two discs, that serves as both a history lesson on Paine’s life and work and a biting commentary on our present shortcomings. Much of the album consists of readings from Paine’s best works tied together with a brisk repeated melody detailing his life from England to America to France where he took part in the French Revolution and, finally, back to America. In addition there are also 13 songs, adorned simply with acoustic guitars, dealing with our modern society. Whether these are supposed to be seen as the 21st century voice of Thomas Paine or simply a contrast to Paine’s ideals is never clear, but, regardless, these are some of the best topical songs I’ve heard in years.
The brilliance of Robb Johnson lies in connecting the humdrum nature of everyday life to the sins of government, perhaps most effectively on the stark “Picking Up the Pieces” and the more upbeat but no less vicious “Oliver Twist.” As a whole, his songs are almost morbidly bleak. Yet his crowning achievement here is “We All Said Stop the War,” a beautiful fantasy in the vein of Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Has the Strangest Dream” and Phil Ochs’ “The War is Over,” that envisions “the international sex workers of the world united with the girl and boy next door.”
Leon Rosselson, who has been prominent in British folk circles since the 1960s, creates songs that are markedly different from those of Johnson. His songs are much lighter in tone, while still dealing with very serious subject matter. While “Stand Up for Judas” is a bit radical for my tastes, his other tunes, such as the humorous “Don’t Get Married Girls” reveal hard truths in an accessible fashion. “On Her Silver Jubilee,” for example, may be the most brutal attack on the royal family since the Sex Pistols, while “Palaces of Gold” seems to be the new national anthem for the U.S. government with the recent government bailouts and Obama’s latest sellout on tax cuts for the uber-rich.
The styles of these two songwriters couldn’t be more different, but both get the point across in their own way and, when working together, fashion a tale which not only does justice to the politics of Tom Paine, but also explores the man’s complexities amidst our modern society. This album is in the tradition of Johnny Cash’s historical albums of the ’60s and ’70s: great music that is likely to give listeners an interest in their heritage and their history. Listening to this album is a bittersweet experience that makes one proud to call Thomas Paine on of our “Founding Fathers,” while at the same time lamenting how far we still have to go to live up to his ideals. While The Liberty Tree’s audience will mostly see it as preaching to the choir, it is also an album that, if sent to Glenn Beck, would be unlikely to change his mind, but would probably make him pissed off at not only Mr. Johnson and Mr. Rosselson, but also his supposed hero Thomas Paine.