By Blair Jackson
Here’s a solid recommendation: Be sure to check out the brilliant three-part documentary series American Epic, airing Tuesday nights in May on PBS, beginning May 16 and continuing on May 23 and May 30, along with the related American Epic Sessions program airing on Tuesday June 6. American Epic is the first exhaustive music documentary to look at the rise of American roots music in the late 1920s and early ’30s, when various “scouts” traveled all over the country recording every form of music imaginable, in large part to create and then feed new markets for phonographs and discs that lay outside of the nation’s urban centers. Using sophisticated (for the time) portable recording gear, these music-collectors went into the mountains and “hollers” of Appalachia to record old-time pickers and fiddlers, to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta to capture country blues, to the bayous of Louisiana and the music-rich border lands between Texas and Mexico, and even across the Pacific to Hawaii. The result was an incredibly rich recorded legacy that has influenced virtually every form of American music that has emerged in the decades since.
The story is masterfully told by director Bernard MacMahon, who artfully combines amazing archival footage, still photographs, vintage recordings, old and new interviews, plus bits from the contemporary “American Epic Sessions,” for which an impressive group of current musicians teamed up in various combinations to re-interpret songs from that era—among them Jack White, T-Bone Burnett (both deeply involved in the series as a whole), Taj Mahal, Elton John, Nas, Beck, Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson, Alabama Shakes, the late Merle Haggard, and more. Rather than attempting some sort of comprehensive historical narrative littered with endless names and factoids (Robert Redford is the series’ calm and thoughtful narrator), MacMahon has chosen to focus on a few representative musicians from different genres to tell the tale in a more personal way. It’s an approach that really brings the history to life.
For instance, the first episode digs into the saga of the Carter family, tracing the early days of country music (the famous Bristol sessions) but following that thread up through that clan’s lineage to Johnny Cash and June Carter and their children. The second part of that episode looks at the Memphis Jug Band and how they reflected life in that wide-open African American-dominated city in that era—and also convincingly shows the link between that music and modern hip-hop: a clip has Nas speaking eloquently about the line that connects those two forms and then rapping a version of the Memphis Jug Band’s “On the Road Again.” Wonderful!
Each episode delves into a few musical worlds and includes both obscure artists (the gospel preacher Elder Burch, the Williamson Brothers & Curry, Tejano music great Lydia Mendoza, etc.) and musicians probably familiar to many AG readers, such as Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Blind Willie Johnson. Needless to say, there is plenty of acoustic guitar music spread throughout the series, and on the “Sessions.” One of my own favorite sections is Part 3’s look at the origins of Hawaiian steel guitar, invented by 11-year-old Joseph Kekuku in the 1880s—the segment shows how it was adapted by early blues players (Son House), country music artists (Hank Williams), African musicians (King Sunny Adé), and of course modern rockers (Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour). Hawaiian steel guitar pioneer Joseph Kekuku
In the press materials for the series, Jack White notes: “In American Epic, we can examine how important the fact is that when phonograph records were invented, for the first time ever, women, minorities, poor rural men and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear, shockingly without much censorship.” Adds T Bone Burnett: “This is the story of a profound act of democracy—when the poorest people in our country were recorded, and their stories, their songs, and their voices were broadcast around the world. These early pioneers set a course that led to the extraordinary library of jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop that is Our Music.”
If for some reason you can’t watch or record the shows as they pop up on Tuesday nights (and whenever they’re repeated on your local PBS affiliates), don’t despair. On June 13, American Epic will be available on DVD and Blue-ray through Amazon and shoppbs.org, and you can already purchase the phenomenal 100-song, 5-CD box set, The Collection—which goes far beyond the scope of the series—or the smaller one-disc Soundtrack, and the two-disc, 32-track all-star set, The Sessions. But wait, there’s more (as the TV pitches say)—You can also get vinyl-only discs covering Best of Blues, Best of the Carter Family, and the Best of Blind Willie Johnson.
I can’t recommend this series highly enough. It’s constantly entertaining and inspiring, often moving (such as the section on Hopi Indian music), and full of surprises for even the most knowledgeable music buffs.
Here’s a trailer for the series and “Sessions”: