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‘American Epic’ Brings Early Music Recordings to Life
May 16, 2017  | By David Hinckley

I’m under no illusion that a whole lot of people will be excited about a PBS show that recounts the history of the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band.

But I am. I love that PBS has produced American Epic, a three-part series on the country, blues, gospel and folk music of the 1920s (Mississippi John Hurt, top). It launches Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), and I sure wish a whole lotta people would tune in and see how exquisite this stuff was and is.  

American Epic, directed over ten years by Bernard MacMahon with help from people like Jack White, Taj Mahal and T-Bone Burnett, explains how a handful of record company scouts came to round up an amazing array of musicians in the early days of electrical recording.  

Sound recordings had been around for half a century since Thomas Edison and the first cylinder machines. But the development of electrical recording, which began around 1925, meant record companies could send mobile machines – huge, bulky things, but still portable – around the country.

The record companies wanted to do this because, among other things, fans of popular and classical music could increasingly get that for nothing on the radio. But blues, country, folk, and gospel weren’t played on the radio, so they represented a fresh, unserved audience for phonograph records.

This quest soon gave us artists like blues singer Charlie Patton, whose songs pulsed with pure raw power even when his enunciation got shaky. It included good-time blues-rooted entertainers like Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band.

It included the Carter Family (left), one of the seeds for country music right up to the present. It included religious singers and Hopi Indian musicians.

It included Blind Willie Johnson, whose wordless “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” sounds as haunting today as it did nine decades ago.

As narrator Robert Redford notes, this is true folk music in the sense that this is how everyday musicians entertained their families, or their congregation, or a local social club, or the crowd at a Saturday night rent party.

This is the sound the field scouts from Okeh or Victor or Columbia heard and mostly captured. But they also set changes in motion, because once record companies started telling artists what they should be singing to get a record deal, that became the path many subsequent artists followed.

Also, inevitably, that first wave of recordings shattered many of the hopes it raised. If a first session produced no hits, there was no second session. The son of Dick Justice, a West Virginia coal miner who cut ten superb tracks, recalls Dick never said a word about it, even to his family.  

American Epic recounts stories like that, wonderful stories that are known but far too rarely told.

The first hour is divided between the original Carter Family – A.P., Sarah and Maybelle – and the Memphis Jug Band.

The Memphis Jug Band was one of dozens of ensembles that played around Memphis in the early 20th century. They played every kind of music from waltzes to popular tunes to rags to pure blues, depending on who wanted to hear it.

That is to say they were doing what rock ‘n’ roll musicians would do 30 years later, throwing it all into the pot and boiling up something both old and new.

American Epic reminds us how music, and art in general, is created. More importantly, it reminds us how much today’s American popular music was shaped by the evolution of recording technology and the simple fact that America could now “hear itself.”

And that’s even before we get to another point that American Epic makes clear: how good so much of this music was.

True, much of it today does sound like it came from another era, maybe another world. Sadly, that alone often makes many contemporary listeners dismiss it.

In a perfect world, one where we all had more time for these things, music fans would sit down, listen and realize these words and the melodies are so much more timeless than our today-centric culture acknowledges.

Rapper Nas (right, recording Memphis Jug Band's "On the Road Again") makes that point here, noting the blues singers of the ‘20s were talking about many of the same things hip-hop artists are addressing today. 

Between the music itself and the stories of how almost by random accident it happened to be preserved, American Epic is well worth a watch – just as the companion 100-song box set from Sony Legacy is well worth multiple listens.

American Epic had me from the first notes of “Wildwood Flower.” It’d be great if it made some other converts along the way.

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