The prolific sound engineer BILL LEADER was the first to record Bert Jansch, the Watersons, Anne Briggs, Nic Jones and Billy Connolly, and (among) the last to record Jeannie Robertson, Fred Jordan and Walter Pardon. That is to say, he straddled the golden age of traditional singing and the folk revival.
Sounding the Century is a projected ten-volume series that sets his life, times, achievements and failures against the backdrop of his turbulent times. It covers the cultural and social background and gives accounts of the artists he worked with; that is everyone in the sixties folk revival, and many of the source singers that nourished the sixties folk revival. The first book, Glimpses of Far Off Things: 1855-1956, spans the century between the emigration of brothers Patrick and Thomas Leader from Ireland, and grandson/great grandson Bill’s involvement with “this bunch of nuts in London called the Workers’ Music Association”. The WMA’s affiliated label, Topic Records, was just then beginning to focus on folk song as the vehicle of the workers’ struggle. There’s a surprising amount of politics in the story, which, in Vol. 1, takes in Victorian gas works, music hall, two world wars, the significance of cinema in young Bill’s life, his blind alley jobs, and the parlous state of Topic economics upon his arrival. Punch and Judy Man Professor John Alexander (d. 2019) is at last given his due and acknowledged as the saviour of Topic Records.
Because, quite apart from the inherent musical interest – not just confined to folk: Bill recorded Paul Simon, Pink Floyd (disputed) and Son House – Bill’s story is the story of everyone buffeted by the large impersonal forces of history. No-one is immune, but as someone blessed with a long life, Bill has been buffeted by more than most, from the trauma of the Second World War to the collective calamity of 2020, the plague year. These intimations (Bill turned 91 at his last birthday) divert the author’s concern for cultural survival to concern for the personal survival of Bill, who, besides from being an Everyman figure has become a good friend.
“If I have a wish,” says author Mike Butler, “it would be for the book to remove the stigma attached to radical socialists. These are the people – be they household names or anon – who have made folk music what it is today.”
Each volume comes with rare photographs and beautiful illustrations by Peter Seal.