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Soul Music is Radio 4’s greatest labour of love – each episode takes up to five years to make

Now in its 26th series, the show takes a song or a piece of music and looks at its impact.

By Antonia Quirke

Did you know that only one person makes each episode of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music? And that it can take up to five years to compile one edition? (As it did for the episode on Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.) Now in its 26th series, the show is the quintessence of what commissioners mistily call a “recurring strand”. Desert Island Discs, In Our Time, Great Lives… elevator-pitch-swooning formats. Soul Music takes a song or a piece of music and looks at its impact. No presenter, just voices weaving in and out, sometimes speaking for hypnotically pause-studded minutes, like scenes in an Antonioni movie.

What started in November 2000 with Elgar’s Cello Concerto reached its 136th episode on 2 May with Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colours”, in which the writer of the song, Billy Steinberg (who also wrote “Like a Virgin”), played the original demo, and described (having clearly just thought of it) Lauper’s brittle and brilliant voice as “almost Japanese”. He was great, but the greater pleasure of Soul Music is anticipating the next speaker. Because it might be anybody.

One episode (“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, Dec 2013) involved an astronaut, a disabled mum, and Frankie Valli talking for the first time (the show doesn’t use archive material) about singing it to a group of Vietnam vets just returned from duty. But for every Valli, or John Legend (“Redemption Song”, Dec 2017) there will be a Philadelphian outreach worker (“O Holy Night”, Dec 2017) or a young missionary, Ruth Baraberewe, dancing to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (April 2018) at her wedding.

That episode’s producer, Nicola Humphries, told me she found Ruth during a 3am search of wedding videos online, and got her to record her testimony on an iPhone in a makeshift studio in Burundi. Humphries also found the song’s lyrics painted on to a shell, and tracked down the artist. But usually it’s a question of searching through cuttings and googling blogs and home movies, looking for riches. More than perhaps any other show, Soul Music reflects in the listening some of the dogged experience of making it: the patience and profound unexpectedness, as though the whole world were before us. Humphries is now embarking on REM’s “Nightswimming”. Over to you? 

Soul Music
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right