Formats Unpacked: Soul Music

How a format about music uses human stories to move your heart and your feet

Hi all,

Does your fancy need a tickle? Wanna hang out with proper creatives from all over the world? Then join us this Thursday (April 25th) at 1 pm (UK) for Proper Fancy. For the uninitiated, Proper Fancy is a Storythings team show and tell that’s open to everyone. It happens on Zoom as lunch time is a pretty relaxed kinda thing. Don’t worry if you don’t want to talk or share - many regulars attend in podcast mode.

OK. On to the unpacking. This week sees the return of Adam Gee who previously unpacked Long Lost Family. Adam is Head of Content at TV indie Doc Hearts. A long-time Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 and the first Com Ed of Originals at Little Dot Studios. Adam is unpacking a much loved radio show.

Over to Adam

What’s it called?

Soul Music (radio show and podcast)

What’s the format?

A non-scripted/documentary radio series, which has also become a podcast like many BBC Radio 4 properties. It started in November 2000, before the on-demand audio era, and is still going strong 24 years and thirty odd series later. The episodes are a neat 28 minutes long. The core idea is to explore the emotional dimension of songs and pieces of music by putting together a judicious sequence of personal narratives related to hearing or performing the work in focus.

I pick it because I love music and I love stories - it's the perfect blend. Every artwork in whatever medium should, by and large, be an emotional experience. Walter Pater said that "all art aspires to the condition of music". Being without physical form, music penetrates straight to the heart, with no need to visit the brain on the way in.

Each episode interweaves the music with stories about experiencing that music. The music typically starts with the piece itself then brings in cover versions and occasionally live performance. The stories are typically sourced from about 4 or 5 people across the half hour, from all round the world, cut together without recourse to a presenter. They range from a highly personal account of hearing the piece at a particular time in a particular place, via an anecdote capturing its historical/social historical significance, and a narrative about its recording, to a contemporary tale about playing it.

BBC Radio 4 - Soul Music - Available now

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The title is not a reference to the kind of soul music typified by Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles. The "soul" here is pointing to the ability of music to uplift and transcend everyday reality, to offer a spirituality without recourse to religion. The show covers all genres from pop to classical, with one song/piece featured per episode.

The internationalism of the format, usually including contributors from beyond the shores of Blighty, underlines the universality of music and the way it travels fluidly around the planet - from the songlines of the first nations to the algorithms of Spotify.

The episodes are cast very carefully and the stories hunted down with great patience so there are episodes which take literally years to complete (each ep being assigned to a single producer). The alchemy is in the rounded picture achieved by the rich, thoughtful mix of contributors.

Taking an example from the current season - Van Morrison's song 'Sweet Thing'. The cast is made up of an East Sussex writer for whom the song released pent-up grief over the first death of a friend in her circle; an East Belfast man (where Van comes from) who can get back in touch through the song with his first love, to a Catholic girl, against the backdrop of the emerging Troubles (the song was released the year the Northern Ireland conflict burst out); a Bostonian author who wrote a book about the album on which the song lives ('Astral Weeks'); the flautist who played on the LP; and a female South African singer who often opens her live sets with the song.

After over 150 episodes, why does the gift keep giving? It is simple, like the best and most enduring of formats - the focus on one work, a thread of music interwoven with humble but powerful human tales. And it is soulful, it brings our attention to the important, meaningful and transcendent aspects of life. You are unlikely to leave 'Soul Music' without your heart being moved ...and your feet.

Favourite Episode

The two that particularly stick in mind are The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset and The Pogues' Fairytale of New York. In the former, musician and writer Christopher Young recounts his experience working in mental health at some sheltered housing. Strumming the song and highlighting certain lyrics, he uses it to reflect on men's mental health, poignantly and illuminatingly relating it to the struggles of his younger brother. In the latter, James Fearnley, The Pogues' accordian player, reveals that it was the wife of Jem Finer, their banjo player, (she is called Marcia for the record), who came up with the notion of including an arguing couple in what is now a classic Christmas song, largely defined by the argument between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. Who knew?

Similar formats?

There are podcasts that analyse songs and their lyrics, such as 'Dissect' and 'Song Exploder', but they are much more head and much less heart and soul than 'Soul Music'.

Thanks Adam,

This got me thinking about some of my favourite episodes. As well as the ones mentioned above, the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry, Harold Melvin’s Don’t Leave Me This Way, and The Smiths’ There is a Light are all wonderful. Give them a listen.

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch.

Finally, if you’re in the content business but you aren’t getting the results you hoped for then speak to us about our Content Audit. It’s an incredibly useful way to identify where things are going wrong and how you might fix it. Just hit that button below.

Thankd for reading. See you all next time,Hugh

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