Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson, The Liberty Tree: a celebration of the life and writings of Thomas Paine

IssueMay 2011
Review by Susan Clarkson

This collection of spoken word and song was originally a project for the 250th anniversary of Paine’s birth. The spoken element consists of quotations from Paine’s work, newspaper reports and diary entries from the period. The songs address contemporary issues and are performed with the passion and sincerity one has come to expect from Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson.

The excellent sleeve notes by the performers chart the development of the project since its beginning in 1987. The songs have changed over the years which means that the present collection addresses such issues as the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, the plight of asylum-seekers, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2003 march.

Perennial issues such as women’s’ rights, Remembrance Sunday and religion as a means of oppression are also represented.

This last produces an uncomfortable song for anyone like me who is a Christian peace activist. “Stand Up For Judas” is a rage against what is perceived as Jesus’ passivity. Thank God for Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs!

The strength of this collection lies in the way it charts Paine’s extraordinary life and work in England, the United States and France, and his contribution to radical thought and action. Rosselson and Johnson read the texts as well as perform the songs. It inspires the listener to read more of Paine and go beyond the inevitable “sound bite” quality of the performance.

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