Lost world in Mississippi

Radio: DOWN THE DIRT ROAD Russell Davies
  • @RobertHanks
Over the years the team of Russell Davies, presenter, and Noah Richler, producer, have made a number of excellent programmes about aspects of American popular culture - baseball, the writing of Carson McCullers, shopping malls, the early blues singer Robert Johnson, and now, in yesterday's Down the Dirt Road, another pioneer of the blues, Charlie Patton. There are many things to admire in these programmes: they are generally well- informed, witty, often with some slightly off-the-wall angle on the subject, and they're often beautifully recorded. In Down the Dirt Road, for instance, there was a lovely conversation with an old black man living on a Mississippi plantation, where the echo of the room and the scream of a caged bird created a sense that the microphone was intruding in some lost world.

Personally, though, I find that I'm starting to listen in the hope that Russell Davies is going to do his American accent. He did it the first time a few years ago in the Robert Johnson programme; and while I've caught hints of a faint twang since then, it hasn't flowered in its full glory again - not until Down the Dirt Road. It's no coincidence that both programmes were about bluesmen who died in the 1930s: few early blues singers left much behind in the way of written records of their existence - just some scratchy records, the odd photograph and a few memories. Fleshing out their life stories entails interviewing a lot of ageing southern black people, who often speak in fairly impenetrable dialect. The accent that Davies adopts is a kind of half-way house between Cambridge and Indianola, intended perhaps to put interviewees a little more at their ease.

A measure of the success of the tactic came when Davies was talking to Patton's daughter, Rosetta Brown. He suggested that Patton's records are often hard to understand: partly because they were recorded on discs made out of some unstable material, partly because he had a deep, gruff voice. She admitted that she didn't always understand his singing voice: "But when he talked to me, he just talked like we talking."

Davies wasn't the first person to have trouble understanding Patton's lyrics. When his recording of A Spoonful was issued, the record company's advertisements made it clear that it was a song about soup. Actually, it was an old cocaine number and, as Davies pointed out, "A spoon, of course, is still a recognised part of the kit." He sounded a little bit pleased with himself for knowing about that sort of thing. Still, if he wants to feel pleased with himself, let him. He's entitled.