We’re an americana site obviously but we do cover a fair bit of the best kind of folk too, and so it’s with sadness we learned of the passing of Roy Bailey who died yesterday. My own (rather late) introduction to him was seeing his superb ‘Writing on the Wall’ performances with Tony Benn who called Roy “the greatest socialist folk singer of his generation.” The Guardian published this lovely obit yesterday:
Although Roy Bailey, who has died aged 83, played a significant role in the development of sociology in Britain, he was most widely known as a folk singer. He started in the folk clubs around Southampton and Portsmouth in the early 60s, with a repertoire of the US-based folk and skiffle popular at the time, but quickly found his voice in folk music as a popular expression of political and social dissent. Influenced by singers as diverse as Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan, he became convinced that folk music could become a powerful vehicle for contemporary social criticism.
As folk gained in popularity, Roy became a star attraction. His rich baritone voice, his charm and skill as a performer, together with his evocation of traditional folk themes, gave him an appeal to a much wider audience than either a purely cultural interest in folk or an unadorned political radicalism would have.
In the early years, he often sang with his wife, Val (nee Turbard), whom he met in 1960 and married in 1963, but he also formed a number of other working partnerships, including one that took a historical perspective, with the politician Tony Benn. In 1964, he teamed up with Leon Rosselson, a prolific writer of songs of incisive social comment. They collaborated for many years. He later formed the Band of Hope, a group of traditional English folk musicians that also included Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Dave Swarbrick and Steafan Hannigan, and together they recorded the CD Rhythm and Reds (1994).
By the 70s, his reputation had spread to mainland Europe, and he sang in Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. During the 80s, he became more widely known in North America, particularly on the west coast of the US and as a regularly featured performer at the Vancouver folk festival, where he met and performed with both Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg. He also performed in Australia in folk festivals and clubs from Sydney to Perth.
Rather than write his own songs, Roy took up material provided by the many performers and writers he met on his travels, each drawing on the traditions of protest of their own country. With songs from Si Kahn, Robb Johnson, Ray Hearne, Geoff Pearson and Rosselson among others, he wove the threads of his own distinctive themes and causes: denunciation of war, political repression, injustice and the impoverishment of working people and minorities.
His concerts often celebrated figures, from Tom Paine to Nelson Mandela, who rose from the ranks of ordinary people to challenge repressive social forms. In The World Turned Upside Down (written by Rosselson), he sang about the Diggers, 17th-century reformers who challenged the grip that the landed gentry had over agricultural land. Defined as misfits in their own society, the Diggers were pioneers for the society to come after them, laying the ground for rights that we now take for granted. There was an edge to a number of his songs, an anger directed against the power of wealth, war, religion: “I ain’t afraid of your Yaweh … Allah … Jesus/I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your gods.” But he had a whimsical side, too, and recorded a number of pieces for children, including Rosselson’s You Need Skin, a perennial favourite at his concerts.
In 2000, he was appointed MBE, although he returned the award in 2006 in protest against British support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In 1990, he and Benn first presented The Writing on the Wall, a showcase of the history of British dissent named after a book by Benn, with the Labour politician providing the historical narrative and Roy providing the songs. In 2003, their show was named best live act in the BBC Radio 2 folk awards ceremony and they continued to work together until Benn’s death in 2014.
Roy was born in Bow, in the East End of London. His single mother, Anne Smith, raised him during his early years within her own family network, first in Bow and later in Ilford, Essex. In 1940, she married John Bailey, a Manchester bookmaker, and Roy’s half-brother, Ron, was born three years later.
When Roy was nine the family home was destroyed by a V2 bomb, necessitating a move to Southend-on-Sea, Essex. He made up for an undistinguished school record by completing O- and A-levels at Southend technical college. After national service in the RAF and a brief spell with the National Cash Register Company, he went to Leicester University in 1960 to study sociology. On graduation, he was appointed a lecturer at Enfield college of technology in north London.
As a sociologist, he was a strong supporter of the polytechnics as a means of bringing university-level education to a broader audience. He helped shape and went on to lead the sociology unit at Enfield (subsequently Middlesex Polytechnic and then Middlesex University), turning it one of the best non-university sociology departments in the country.
Then, at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) from 1971, he led the process for the accreditation of the applied social studies program, and was subsequently dean of the faculty of education, health and welfare. His book with Mike Brake, Radical Social Work (1975), encouraged students in the discipline to understand the social and economic context of the social problems they addressed, and to think critically.
Roy also helped bring this same perspective to the study of deviance and criminology. He was a key member of what became known as the National Deviancy Conference, following a symposium held at York in 1967. As chair of the polytechnic’s adult education committee, he was a founder member of Northern College, at Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, in 1978. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1989.
Sheffield appointed him professor in 1989 and professor emeritus on his retirement the following year. Roy continued to work for Northern College until 1995, when he left academic life completely, though he continued to perform in concerts around the country and especially as an annual favourite at the Towersey festival, Thame, in Oxfordshire. His last concert was in Sheffield in October 2018 – a rousing celebration of his 83rd birthday.
He is survived by Val, his daughter, Kit (Katherine), son, David, and brother, Ron.”