Take a communist playwright, actor, singer, and songwriter and introduce him to a young American musician and singer half his age. They fall in love. Add an ex-submarine commander with a eccentric view of radio as Art. Send them with the new mobile tape recorder to railway yards, onto fishing vessels, down coal mines, in search of gypsy encampments. Now read about the most compelling series of radio programs ever made.
So state the notes on the cover of Peter Cox’s latest book, Set into Song. The book that all folk music lovers wish they had written. The making of the eight ground breaking Radio Ballads. It’s about the lives of the makers, the lives of their subjects set into song, public broadcasting, the BBC and above all it documents a slice of the folk revival in the UK. Such tremendous subjects and timely too as 2008 marks their 50th anniversary year.
So what of Peter Cox’s treatment, who by his own admission has only been involved in the "folk scene" for the last two years. It is impeccably well researched. Access to Peggy Seeger’s phone book was a huge initial step up, serving as an introduction to the old folkie grapevine. As a consequence, the original musicians and studio hands could be contacted along with the actual subjects of the ballads. When he wasn’t on the phone or chatting face to face, time was spent pouring over various archives. A year in fact, writing content, cross referencing and checking his sources.
The result is an absolute treasure trove of a book that delivers and delights on so many levels. The early chapters satisfy any biographical interest in the contrasting lives of the three protagonists. Whilst the middle section with its behind the scenes approach, transcripts and detailed processes for each of the eight ballads, immediately turns the book into a companion to the audio material and at times a handbook for radio producers.
The latter part continues with a number of chapters on life after the Radio Ballads for all concerned. The final one, devoted to the 2006 radio ballads, finds the author bold enough to offer a comparison between the two series. This book is an absorbing, entertaining and educational read. It deserves to be cited many times as an invaluable reference book.
Copies of the book can be purchased postage free through its own website, where you’ll also find transcripts of the radio ballads, the first two pages of each chapter, photographs and other companion material.
Peter Cox was my guest on GondwanaSound on the auspicious day of 2nd July 2008, the 50th anniversary of The Ballad of John Axon, the first of the Radio Ballads to be broadcast by the BBC.
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