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Yodelling for Jesus

24 May 2013

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MUSIC works in mysterious ways. Who would have thought, for instance, that yodelling might save the soul of an abject sinner? It would come as no surprise to the gospel singer Wanda Jackson, whose song "Jesus put a yodel in my soul" is a big hit in the born-again yodelling community. Nor to Beverly Massegee, a heroin addict who found Jesus, and now does a cover version of the Jackson classic.

This sub-culture of yodelling for the Lord came to Radio 4 listeners in a similarly mysterious way. The week before last, the regular Sunday-morning press review on Broadcasting House was interrupted by a burst of Massegee's song. This peculiar glitch led the good people of the Beeb to track down the singer, and last week we were treated to a riveting interview with Massegee, on her tour bus, as she traversed the Southern States, spreading the Word.

Her story includes her witnessing Kennedy's assassination at first hand; the gangland slaying of her husband; and a drugs problem; and if even half of it is true, it is worthy of a programme on its own.

But the most bizarre element of the Massegee phenomenon is that the yodelling is delivered not by her, but by her ventriloquist dummy, Erick. The vocal dexterity required to yodel is something of a miracle; to manage it without moving your lips is surely a gift which could only be bestowed by the Almighty.

This accident of broadcasting will surely be one of the most memorable episodes of radio this year.

By comparison, the eerie song of the gibbon, echoing across the rain forest, seems almost ordinary. Yet it is one of the sounds that convinces many scientists that music is an integral part of our development as a species. It was an argument taken up by Robert Winston in the first of a four-part series, The Science of Music (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), with the help of, among others, musicologists, psychologists, and neuro-scientists.

Indeed, near the beginning of the programme, an archaeologist, Steven Mithen, said that music was too important a subject to be left to musicologists. On the evidence of this programme, it is too important to be appropriated by any discipline.

There have been excellent books on the links between music, evolution, and emotional response, but I get the sense that, as research continues, music should be treated not as a single subject, but as a curriculum in itself. A programme of this kind, 20 years ago, might have contained enough material for one 30-minute slot. Now, two-hours' radio will only scrape the surface.

In the spirit of joined-up programming, Radio 3 encouraged its Breakfast listeners on Thursday morning to suggest their favourite sad music, via email, Twitter, and the rest. It is one step away from the Classic FM approach, whereby every other piece of classical music is defined in terms of its ability to relax the listener.

For me, as a professional musician, a great deal of classical music - especially choral music - makes me anxious. So I was pleased to hear the tweet of a Radio 3 listener, declaring what balderdash that was; if a piece of music makes you sad, switch it off, and put on a Pomp and Circumstance march instead.

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