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Soul Music - Series 15 - 5. Shipbuilding

The Robert Wyatt song from 1982, written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, is a political song like no other.

The song from 1982 was written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer for Robert Wyatt and has been recorded in several versions by Elvis Costello himself, Suede, June Tabor, Hue and Cry, Tamsin Archer and The Unthanks.

The blend of subtle lyrics and extraordinary music makes this a political song like no other. It transcends the particular circumstances of its writing: the Falklands War and the decline of British heavy industry, especially ship-building.

Clive Langer and Elvis Costello describe how the song came to be written and how the legendary jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Chet Baker, came to perform on Costello's version.

Richard Ashcroft is a philosopher who wants the song, which he describes as a kind of secular hymn, played at his funeral because it gives a perfect expression of how he believes we should think about life. Not being able to feel the emotion of the song would, he feels, be like being morally tone-deaf. If you don't like this song, he'd find it hard to be your friend.

The song's achingly beautiful final couplet about "diving for pearls" makes the MP Alan Johnson cry and has also inspired an oral history and migrant integration project in Glasgow. Chris Gourley describes how the participants found a way to overcome their lack of English and communicate through a shared understanding of ship-building practice.

Other contributors include Hopi Sen, a political blogger who was an unusually political child, and the Mercury Prize winning folk group The Unthanks. They toured their version to towns with ship-building connections as part of a live performance of a film tracing the history of British ship-building using archive footage.

Producer: Natalie Steed.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 1:30PM Sun, 17 Mar 2013
  • Available until 12:00AM Thu, 1 Jan 2099
  • First broadcast BBC Radio 4, 11:30AM Tue, 5 Mar 2013
  • Categories
  • Duration 30 minutes

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