Have you ever been asked to imagine yourself stranded on a desert island, and tasked with selecting which items would bring you comfort or hope? It is an exercise some people enjoy playing over and over again. And even if you’re a bit tired of it, or don’t feel like compiling your own list, you might still enjoy Desert Island Discs.
On this BBC podcast, artists, politicians, musicians, and other high-profile “castaways” choose the eight musical tracks they would take with them to their mythical lonely isle. At the end of each episode they also get to pick one book and a “luxury item” to take along—in addition to the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible (placed there by The Gideon Society).
This show existed long before podcasts were popular; it began as a radio show in 1942. The host has varied over the years, as have some details in the format, but the fascinating depth of these conversations remains. Each guest’s musings on music typically reveal—in a rather organic, natural way—what they find meaningful and beautiful about their experience of life in general. Their appreciation for the “soundtrack of life” highlights the shared humanity of every person.
Spiritual beliefs and religious themes often arise in these music-inspired discussions, too. In a recent episode, U2 frontman Bono talks about the role of creativity, grief, and religion during his childhood and beyond, and eventually selects Bob Dylan’s song “Every Grain of Sand” as the song he could not live without because it “speaks to (him) of the eternal.”
Hymns and choral songs make regular appearances—in fact, a recent study revealed that the most chosen piece of music was Handel’s “Messiah,” selected by 119 castaways. In a Classic Desert Island Discs episode from 1988, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who had a troubled childhood and an inspiring life, describes her grandmother’s powerful singing voice as sounding like “hot gold” and compares it to Mahalia Jackson’s version of “How Great Thou Art.”
Then there’s novelist Anne Tyler poignant moment with Bach’s “While Sheep May Safely Graze” while she and her daughters are on their way to the hospital for her breast cancer operation. All of them are freshly grieving Taghi, Tyler’s late husband, and one daughter is recovering from a brain tumor operation. When this beautiful piece of classical music comes on the radio, Tyler says they listened “with all their hearts,” because it “seemed like Taghi was talking to us.”
With over 80 years of episodes, Desert Island Discs has a remarkably broad-ranging catalog available, and episodes can be found on podcast platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify, as well as on the BBC website, which also has bonus content about the historical show. (BBC)