There are a lot of music podcasts, but Radio 4’s Soul Music became the best of them all by not really being about music at all.
It’s about music, obviously. But it’s more about people, and about life at large. That’s a very broad précis, admittedly, but the vast, sprawling, deeply moving stories that Soul Music manages to tell in 45 minutes are that podcasting gold.
It’s a way of getting right to the very core of a piece of music by giving a little bit of the context around its making, but by then lifting it out of history and hearing it through the people each piece has touched.
So instead of hearing, yet again, how unexpected the first line of God Only Knows is, we meet a couple in Burundi from different cultures who personify the whole sentiment, and a widow remembers how it felt to collide with what, exactly, she should be without her husband.
Always understated and beautifully paced, there’s a library of 165 episodes stretching back to 2000 on BBC Sounds now stretching from Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor to the Smiths’ There is A Light That Never Goes Out via the traditional Welsh ballad Myfanwy. Here’s where to start…
Sunshine on Leith by the Proclaimers
This is a great example of the way Soul Music finds interviewees who can tell the story of the song at the same time as the song is telling the story of the interviewees. The hymnal feel of the song is at the heart of the responses here, from the communal joy and relief of the crowd at Hibernian, who took the song as their anthem, to a lawyer who heard Craig and Charlie Reid singing the song at a gig while he was defending a prisoner on Death Row.
Prelude a l’Apres Midi d’un Faune by Debussy
The other thing Soul Music does extraordinarily well is articulating the abstract feelings that classical music can stir up inside you, especially when you’ve not got the specific vocabulary to really dig into exactly what it’s doing to make you feel that way. Rather than getting the thing up on the jacks and having a poke about inside it with a musicologist, Soul Music’s intertwining stories show how a piece is refracted like light through each person who hears it. Hearing Debussy floating from a window moves a Jamaican poet to write, and an Iranian doctor to leave Tehran for London, and a new mother to cope with postnatal depression.
Africa by Toto
Soul Music’s also very good at taking a piece of music that has some level of ironic appreciation attached to it, and dusting it away to reveal the very earnest emotional tug underneath. The soft rock classic turned into a viral hit around the time a DJ in Bristol played it for 12 hours solid at a charity night. But beyond the surface it’s got this deep yearning which David Greig, the Artistic Director of the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, leveraged by using the song in one of his plays. And, on top of that, a song by an LA rock band is reclaimed by a youth choir from the poorest parts of South Africa.