There was something unexpectedly moving about hearing not just one but several renditions of the somewhat naive and rose-tinted but always heartfelt ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ when I switched on the radio after several days’ absence. America has been so much in our thoughts these past few weeks, but a distasteful, shameful version of itself. It was just so refreshing to hear something different, something meaningful, yet still so American, like a glass of ice-cold water after a long walk in the heat.
Last Saturday’s edition of the series Soul Music (produced by Sara Conkey) gave us Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying version of the American national anthem at Woodstock in 1969 as well as Jose Feliciano’s controversially funky rendition at a baseball game the year before. We also heard from John Carlos, one of the medal-winning US sprinters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City who took the opportunity of the medals ceremony to make a stand on the podium for Black Power, raising their fists as the anthem was played. He explained how carefully he and Tommie Smith had planned their demonstration, each gesture meaning something different: the hat to remember the lynchings in the American South, the black scarf for black pride, the black shirt for the shame of America’s past treatment of black people, their shoes off for the poverty of so many black Americans. There was so much information and insight in just 30 minutes of airtime from this Radio 4 stalwart, Jimi Hendrix’s brother, who was in the US army, remembering how after Woodstock he had been sent off to peel potatoes for six months.
The idea behind Soul Music — to take a famous, popular or notorious piece of music and illustrate what it means to those who love or hate it — is so simple. But the thoughtful research and sophisticated editing that underlies each programme always succeeds in giving us much more than mere anecdote. On Saturday, an American woman who was living in France in November 2008 recalled how on the morning after President Obama’s first election victory she was driving to the airport to pick up a friend. She turned on her car radio, which was tuned in to a local classical-music station, and was surprised to hear not just one version but a continuous stream of performances of Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem (set to an English ballad), which was adopted as America’s national anthem in 1931. First there was a performance by Stravinsky, then something quite different by John Williams. But it was when the DJ put on Hendrix’s version that she ‘lost it’ and had to stop the car and pull over, tears streaming down her face. ‘That this tiny little French station in the middle of nowhere was playing such a homage to America.’
There was more soul music in Sunday on Radio 4 as part of a news item about the opening of the Tavener Centre for Music and Spirituality at Winchester University. It’s always worth waking up in time for this Sunday-morning version of Today, presented by Edward Stourton (and produced by Amanda Hancox), because it looks at current stories from a different, usually less depressing angle. This week, for instance, clips from the music of John Tavener (who died in 2013) were squeezed in between items about the Catholic vote in the US elections (worth 25 per cent) and a new book of epitaphs taken from the gravestones of those who died in the battle of the Somme.
Music, it was suggested, is much more immersive an experience than reading a book or looking at a work of art because it surrounds and becomes part of us, taking us inside meaning, using clips from Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene to prove the point, which it did, most wonderfully, first thing on Sunday.
Ian Sansom, who this week gave us five Letters to Writers as Radio 3’s late-night essay (produced by Conor Garrett), might well disagree with putting music above literature. He writes his letters to Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie precisely because he is obsessed with words and the pursuit of literary greatness, which to him matters above all else. To begin with he is rather overwhelming, his voice a little too declamatory, his tone queasily self-important. But there’s also something disarming about his frankness, his open desire to achieve his own kind of literary fame, and his willingness to expose himself to the derision of his literary heroes, or in the case of Virginia Woolf to admit publicly how wrong he used to be about her. He criticises her self-indulgent style, her absurd privilege, her self-regarding bohemianism and her disdain for people like him (he first read Woolf’s novels by borrowing them from Romford Public Library). But then confesses, ‘I was wrong about all of this ...I was a terrible snob about you.’
Perhaps his finest moment, though, occurs after a flurry of bossy letters to George Eliot, which she disdains to reply to. ‘In the house of fiction,’ he decides, ‘she’s in Buckingham Palace. I’m in a rented studio apartment in the outer suburbs.’