RADIO / Got dem R3 blues again

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
STUNG BY charges of elitism, Radio 3 has come up with figures to show that it's still Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert who are given the most air time - the subtext of this announcement reading, 'Why turn to Classic FM when you can still hear lots of your old favourites with us?'

It's a reasonable argument, and Eine kleine nachtmusik sounds no worse on Radio 3 than anywhere else, but it might be better to draw the listeners' attention to the variety of music - and the depth of musical analysis across a range of styles - that is the untrumpeted glory of the network. Take blues, for example. This is not a genre one associates with Radio 3, and as the best-for- Mozart school takes hold we are hardly being encouraged to think along those lines. Yet in its own learned way, Radio 3 has done as much for Leadbelly and the 12- string guitar as has Andy Kershaw on Radio 1.

In 1988 Paul Oliver set the standard with his magnificent, Sony Award-winning series Before the Blues. He followed it with Meaning in the Blues. Now Francis Wilford-Smith has picked up the dusty trail with Bluebird Blues, the story of how the Bluebird label, a subsidiary of the Victor label in Chicago, became the first to record the musicians of the Deep South in the late Twenties and early Thirties.

Wilford-Smith's feeling for his subject is infectious: you don't have to be a lover of early blues to be captivated by these spare, haunting sounds, in which there is melancholy even in the up-tempo numbers. Indeed, you could look at it all in much the way that Pete and Dud did in that Not Only But Also sketch which earnestly deconstructed the standard blues lyric. But Wilford-Smith, whose genial, sing-song, slightly wheezy delivery falls somewhere between Humphrey Lyttelton and the late, great Peter Clayton, doesn't intellectualise. He just talks about the likes of Blind Willie McTell and the jug-band leader on the racoon-skin banjo as if they were friends he wished he'd had, and gets on with the story. The producer is Derek Drescher, of Desert Island Discs fame, and you're always in good hands with him. With nine more parts to come, Bluebird Blues already has the makings of a classic.

Around the time McTell and his peers were being discovered on Atlanta street corners, the Irving Berlin crowd was launching another tradition of American song in New York. In Return to Tin Pan Alley (R3), three songwriters from the era - Mitchell Parish, Gerald Marks and Ann Ronnell - provided one of the highlights of Radio 3's 20s Season with tales of hawking their songs around the music publishers centred on the Brill Building.

This was a fascinating slice of oral history - pure Damon Runyon, right down to Lindy's restaurant. It was there, where Nathan Detroit stocked up on cheesecake and strudel, that the songwriters gathered. 'But there was no big social life,' Marks recalled. 'If you made a date with a fella, it was to write.'

This was an impressive claim, and had Simon Parkes been around then it might not have gone uncontested. In Goodbye to All That (R4) Parkes has been sceptically touring some of the world's artistic communities for a thoughtful, absorbing series, if a little long on 'lifestyle', a little short on the creative process.

In his programme on Robert Graves's Majorca I would have liked to hear more about the poet himself, though Parkes did well to track down his last 'muse'. Martin Seymour-Smith, a biographer of Graves, also produced a lovely anecdote about how Graves would pretend to be the family gardener as the coachloads of German tourists came nosing by, telling them that Mr Graves 'was away in Germany'.

Parkes has come up with some entertaining guides. In New York the journalist Reggie Nadelson supplied a Tom Wolfeish critique of the TriBeCa loft-dwellers that was more subtly damning than the series had perhaps intended to be. In St Ives we had the gushing Molly Parkin, her luvviness spread inches thick on the canvas. She was fun to listen to, but I'm not sure you'd want her next to you in the life class.