The word “epic” has been degraded through overuse in recent years, but here’s a new box set that truly merits that adjective. This is more than just the soundtrack for the brilliant three-part PBS documentary series American Epic—about the rise and spread of American vernacular (or what we now lump under “roots”) music in the late ’20s and early ’30s.
This comprehensive five-disc, 100-song treasury is one of the most important compilations of its kind ever released—perhaps since Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, which collected 84 songs on six LPs from (roughly) the same period, and which through the years affected untold numbers of folk, blues, country, and rock musicians who got their first exposure to non-mainstream regional American music before it was widely transformed by the rise of radio and the record industry outside of cities. American Epic actually covers more stylistic ground than the Smith anthology, adding Hawaiian, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Native American, and other indigenous forms to the basic staples of blues, old-time folk, early country, jug band, gospel, and more that it shares with the Anthology. (The two releases share just seven tracks between them.)
For lovers and players of acoustic guitar, American Epic offers an incredibly rich and varied sampling of styles and approaches to the instrument. (By my count, guitar appears on 73 songs.) There’s a fair amount of rhythmic support strumming—sometimes in competition with more prominent (or audible) fiddle or banjo—but also, song after song of soulful and at times virtuosic fingerpicking and slide work that still astonishes 90 years later. As you might expect, many of the best-known blues and country players of that era are represented—Blind Blake, Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, et al. But for every “name,” there’s an equally compelling (relative) unknown: Julius Daniels, Mattie Delaney, Roosevelt Graves, Hawaiian slide ace Sol Ho‘opi‘i, William Moore, Guty Cardenas y Lencho, and so many others.
Lovingly curated by the director of the documentary series, Bernard MacMahon, the small, square, book-format box also includes a fascinating essay about the music, the era it came from, how the recordings were originally made and later restored, plus personnel and complete lyrics for every song, copious photos, and quotes accompanying each song, either from the artist or someone who had seen them perform. It’s a marvelous history lesson, but even more, it’s a glimpse into the very heart of America, as emotionally relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. Times and circumstances change. People don’t.
A cleaner version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Waiting for a Train’ than this one is one of the 100 tracks on the box:
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.