Radio 4's The Lost Genius of Judee Sill, review: The tale of an unsung folk genius is a revelation

 

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If the songwriter Judee Sill were alive today she'd be quite the sensation. Her ferocious wit, stormy love life, drug addiction and multiple brushes with the law would guarantee endless splashes in gossip mags and concerned columns about the fecklessness of youth.

This scandalously little known singer, who operated on the same Laurel Canyon scene that yielded Joni Mitchell and Carole King, had talent to burn but was a walking, talking calamity. She was Lindsay Lohan minus the remorse.

Even so, Radio 4's The Lost Genius of Judee Sill, presented by Ruth Barnes, who has long been championing underappreciated female singers on her Amazing Radio show, told Sill's story without drama or judgment.

In fact, it was only really in passing that Barnes, alongside one of her interviewees, XTC's Andy Partridge, revealed that Sill ran away from home as a teenager, developed a heroin habit, engaged in prostitution and repeatedly held up liquor stores at gunpoint before spending nine months in a reform school (where she learned to play the church organ).

Both preferred to dwell on the songs that Partridge eloquently described as "tiny symphonies... so gentle and shifting". He had first heard them through a girlfriend in the early Seventies. "As soon as she went to work I would surreptitiously creep over and put on these girlie albums," he said. "As a chap who was into The Stooges and the New York Dolls and all things noisy, I wasn't supposed to be listening to this stuff."

As compelling as the music itself were the concert excerpts in which Sill rambled charmingly between songs. Introducing one track, she explained to the audience how she had been trying to write something that "would somehow musically induce God into giving us all a break... Since that time I've decided that I shouldn't get any more breaks because I already squandered them in weird places. But I'd like to sing this song for you in the hope that you'll get a break."

Sill had already had her biggest break but she broke it. David Geffen signed her to his label, Asylum, in the early Seventies and released two albums but, as the fortunes of her label mates The Eagles soared, she felt she wasn't getting the attention she deserved. After Sill announced on stage one night that Geffen was gay, word got back and he fired her. When she was found dead in her apartment some years later, a needle still in her arm, it went unreported in the press.

If the tone of Barnes's documentary was sad, it was never less than respectful. It was a prime example of radio doing what it does best: shining a light on the shadowy corners of human experience. It was about playing songs and telling stories. It was a revelation.

In a different Radio 4 documentary, another remarkable story was told about a woman whose work went unrecognised in her lifetime. In The Mother of the Sea, Quentin Cooper told the tale of Kathleen Drew, a scientist from Manchester whose findings about edible seaweed, crucially the behaviour of its spores during the growth cycle, transformed the lives of thousands of post-war Japanese farmers whose harvests were failing. They used her discovery to develop new farming methods and control the production process, leading to the multi-million-pound nori industry.

We heard how Drew is now honoured annually by the Japanese at a ceremony in Uto, a remote town on the southern tip of the country, where songs are sung and offerings given. Better late than never.

Twitter.com/FionaSturges

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