Roy was born in the Autumn of 1935 in poverty-stricken Bow, in the East End of London, the son of single mother, Anne Smith and was brought, up a cockney lad, with the help of her family, at first in Bow and later in Ilford, Essex. When Roy was five in the second year of the Second World War in 1940, Anne married John Bailey, a Manchester-born bookmaker and Roy took his name and three years later he had the company of his new half-brother, Ron.
When Roy was nine the family had the trauma of finding their home had been destroyed by a German V2 bomb when they returned after an air raid and were evacuated to the safer to Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Despite the fact that he was clearly a bright lad, he left his secondary modern boys school in 1950 without qualifications. He later recalled : "My political education began in earnest when as a 16 year old I met three young socialist students, one English, one Iraqi and one Thai, at a Further Education College in Southend. I'd left school having failed the 11+ exams, but with the encouragement of my parents I went to the local Tech to do "O" level GCE's."
Called up for his two National Service, when he was 18 in 1953, he served for two years in the RAF and it was at this point that his interest in popular music started and while he enjoyed his share of Frank Sinatra's "Songs For Swinging Lovers", it was the immediacy of skiffle and the music of the American group 'The Weavers' that made most impact on him emotionally and intellectually. He later recalled their music : "related to me in terms of class. I began to view the world in terms of class rather than geography in my late teens and early twenties."
"My Iraqi friend's stories of family and friends, of Arab struggles against imperial England and the western economies generally, meant I resisted the definitions of Arab people presented by the British propaganda machine. I felt an affinity with ordinary people whether from 'the west', from the middle east or from Asia. These early experiences and friendships helped me to view the world less as a number of nations and more as ordinary people trying to make ends meet, to grow, to raise a family, to educate their kids and to care for their parents."
Roy began his part-time musical career when he joined a skiffle band at the age of 23 in 1958. and two years later he was working for the American 'National Cash Register Company' when he took himself off to Leicester University as a 'mature' sociology undergraduate. It was as a student that he helped form the university folk club and in his spare-time he journeyed south to perform in the folk clubs in Southampton and Portsmouth with his repertoire of the US-based folk and skiffle popular and then found his voice in folk music as a popular expression of political and social dissent and influenced by by the likes of Ewan MacColl and with his encouragement became the musical voice of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
"I was caught up in that even if only as an observer and occasional participant. Songs and politics came together. The emergence of what was known as the folk revival was a musical and political movement of incredible creativity and depth."
In addition, his political education continued and he later said : "When I finally went to University at the age of twenty-five I was attracted to the world of Karl Marx and the writings of his supporters and critics. For me class is both a social and an economic category." He became convinced that folk music could become a powerful vehicle for contemporary social criticism. His conviction that it was our duty to denunciation war, political repression, injustice and the impoverishment of working people and minorities and which would stay with him for the rest of his life, were formed in these years.
"met Leon Rosselson and began to hear new songs written about my world, of an urban culture. Leon invited me to join his group 'The Three City Four'. I was about to move to London to teach in an FE College in Enfield, so I readily agreed."
In fact, as Roy later said : "My academic career enabled me to avoid the economic problems that went with trying to make a living from a decidedly minority musical interest and freed me to follow whatever musical pathway I wanted. Fortunately, I discovered there are people out there (quite a lot in fact) who have a similar interest as far as folk songs are concerned."
"I was attracted to songs about justice, peace, equality, work and play by, what I viewed as 'ordinary people', wherever they came from, regardless of nations. I have a lot of sympathy, now, for that resistance; the Folk Revival was seen by many was an indigenous stand to encourage and remind us that we had our own traditional music and song and we should not allow it to be swamped by the music of the USA."
At the same time, over the next 8 years he shaped and led, what became one of the best non-university sociology departments in the country. He had a particular interest in deviance and criminology and was instrumental in setting up of the 'National Deviancy Conference' which met in York in 1968 and then intermittently in the 1970s.
In 1976 he released his ten-track album, 'New Bell Wake' with his 'John Barleycorn', 'The Wymondham Fight', 'Beggar Man' and 'Fair's Fair' and in the following year teamed up with Leon Rosselson to produce 'Love, Loneliness, Laundry.'
It was in the 70's that, as his reputation spread to Europe, he sang in Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands and during the 80s, became more widely known in North America, particularly on the West Coast of the US and Canada and was a regular feature at the Vancouver Folk Festival, where he met and performed with both Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg. On other occasions he worked with Paul Simon and Tom Paxton. On the other side of the world he performed at folk festivals in Australia in folk festivals in clubs from Sydney to Perth.
1982 brought 'Hard Times' with its 'War Without Bangs' and 'We Will Fight, We Will Win' and three years later came his 11 track '....Freedom Peacefully'. He released his 'Leaves From a Tree' album with 'Nottingham Captain', 'Daughters of the Revolution' and 'Song of the Exile' in 1988.
Roy was appointed Professor in 1989 and Professor Emeritus following his semi-retirement at the age of 55 the following year, having opted to work for another 5 years at Northern College, at Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, which he had helped to set up in 1978. It was during this period that he produced, in 1994, 'Business as Usual' with its 'Tolpuddle Man', 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' and 'Sreets of Sarajevo'.
Roy said : "I shall be forever grateful and proud of my relationship with Tony Benn. He is a remarkable man - gentle and generous - his knowledge and experience are quite daunting. It is an immense privilege for me to share a stage with him and to think of him as a friend."
In 1993 he 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' the following year.
In retirement, at the age of 62 in 1997, came 'New Directions in the Old' and then in 2000, 'Coda' with 'Tom Paine's Bones', 'On the Road to Freedom' and 'Captain Swing'. 'Sit Down and Sing.' The following year he played a concert at the Royal Albert Hall when, among other things, he taught the audience to sign the words of a song he was performing, gradually removing the words entirely until the song finished in complete silence with the whole audience using sign language.
In 2005 , in collaboration with Martin Simpson and John Kirkpatrick produced 'Sit Down and Sing' with its 'Labouring Man', 'Miners Lullaby' and 'Sheffield Grinder'.
It was in keeping with his principles that, having been appointed an MBE for 'Services to Folk Music' n 2000, he should return the award in 2006 in protest against the British Government's support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
He was in his mid 70's when he produced 'Below the Radar' with its 'Old Man's Tale' and 'Visions of Our Youth' and finally 'Tomorrow' in 2010 which ended with 'Tomorrow Lies in the Cradle'.
Roy once said :
"Songs are a source of entertainment and enjoyment, a source of happiness. Art is often regarded as a realm outside the concerns of everyday life; an escape from the worries and the dilemmas of ‘making ends meet’. Songs, however, are not neutral. They either confirm or subvert. To claim neutrality, in almost any sphere of life, is to affirm the status quo. To be neutral is to abandon the issues and leave them firmly in the hands of the powerful and the privileged."