“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

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A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Making A Murderer.

Of the many, many depressing things about the deeply disturbing Making A Murderer, the most troubling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true managed to find Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey guilty.

As is the procedure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plainly and repeatedly. They needed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

To see him so obviously framed, couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game" Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

“To see him so obviously framed,
couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
where justice is a game.”
Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of significantly lower than average intelligence were able to violently murder a woman in their own home, before chopping her up and burning her in their back yard, without leaving a shred of evidence or a single drop of blood behind in the house as evidence, without having any doubt whatsoever as to their guilt.

I’m ignoring obviously the ludicrously placed car key that magically turns up in the middle of the floor in Steven’s bedroom, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evidence in the Avery and Dassey trial, Making a Murderer, in the Michael Peterson case, The Staircase, in the Adnan Syed case, Serial season 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New Yorker piece ‘Recognition’, and not see in front of them a mountain of doubt forming before their very eyes is quite simply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all necessarily innocent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That anyone could have heard any of those trials and not come away with at least a few, reasonable doubts almost defies belief.

The most charitable thing that can be said, and I’m clutching at straws here, is that it is no longer reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to ignore the media circus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cases. And that the sort of uninformed, gutter, tabloid journalism that that produces is impossible for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twenty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Perhaps it is time to dispense with the jury system when it comes to murder trials. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross ineptitude of the judicial system, and the blind prejudices of some of its practitioners determined to profit by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watching Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and listening to Serial, all of which are captivating if incredibly depressing, and Serial season 2 by the bye, is every bit as good as season 1 though in a somewhat different way, the prospect of witnessing yet another unimaginable miscarriage of justice really didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extraordinary story away, except to say that eventually, and mercifully, it has a happy ending.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Masterful storyteller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to confess that this is yet another Storyville documentary that I’m recommending (reviewed earlier here). But then I remember all those over-produced, idea-free franchise films, all those pedestrianly produced television programmes and all those needlessly published books that get foisted on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Storyville need to be celebrated loudly from the tops of every and all available rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incredibly brave of film maker David Sington to make a film made up almost entirely of one man sitting in a chair and talking to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was barely able to read and write. And yet, through nothing than his his own force of will, he re-made himself as a thoughtful, educated and deeply intelligent man, who would eventually be transformed into a dazzlingly brilliant storyteller. And what a tale he has to tell.

You can see the trailer for A Death Row Tale here, for Making a Murderer here, and The Staircase here.

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Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

The BBC4 documentary strand Storyville isn’t part of what is clearly a golden age of documentary film making, it’s the principle driving force responsible for bringing this age into being.

Since kicking off in 2007-08, Storyville has helped fund over one hundred documentaries, each one even more impressive than the last.

In the 2013-14 season there was The Gatekeepers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, reviewed earlier here. Plus the mythic Muscle Shoals: The Greatest Recording studio in the World, reviewed earlier here, and the fascinating Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolutely riveting The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal system has become little more than an elaborate excuse for institutionalised racism, reviewed earlier here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

Then in 2014-15 there was Mugabe and the Democrats, the surprisingly moving Particle Fever: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson, and the majestic Searching For Sugar Man about the genuinely extraordinary singer Rodriguez, reviewed earlier here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the current 2015-16 season:

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land brings vividly to life quite how unimaginable life in Mexico has become. When his three neighbours are beheaded by one of the local drug cartels, the local doctor Jose Mireles decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his similarly desperate neighbours take up arms and set up the autodefensas.

And within a few weeks, he and his civic minded vigilantes are moving through the state, convincing citizens from village to village to join them, take up arms, and defend themselves against the marauding cartels.

Without wishing in any way to spoil the story, what happens next is all too predictable. It is staggering to witness quite how corrupt Mexico has become, at every conceivable level, from top to bottom. And quite how impossible it seems to be to free yourself from it. And although on the surface this isn’t a depressing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispiriting a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Censored Voices is very much a companion piece to The Gatekeepers above. When the celebrated novelist Amos Oz came back to the Kibbutz where he lived for so much of his life after fighting in the 6 day war, he and his fellow soldiers were so conflicted by what they had just been a part of, that they each recorded a series of interviews with one another so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic question they asked themselves was, how can what was supposed to have been a defensive war result in the mass deportation of tens of thousands of people from their land?

Nearly half a century later, we watch as the elderly men listen to what their thoughts had been barely ten days after what many people at the time were celebrating as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

FBI Undercover seems like an innocuous enough tale. We follow one of the many very ordinary, and completely unqualified people recruited by the FBI after September 11th to root out terrorism. And then we follow the Muslim man he has been sent to trap. And suddenly, without anything actually happening, a young man’s life has been completely ruined.

If you’ve ever wondered how Daesh manages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explaining it.

And finally, Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets follows a reformed prostitute as she walks the streets of Chicago bringing life-saving succour to her former colleagues. Which sounds hopelessly earnest and horribly dull, but is in fact incredibly moving. Brenda Myers-Powell is quite simply a living saint.

So often documentaries feel like something you ought to watch rather than something you’d like to watch. In reality, all of the above are unmissable. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer, get yourself a VPN.

It will take about 10 minutes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use SaturnVPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Netflix for the intellectually curious. It’s the best investment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trailer for The Six-day War:Censored Voices here.

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Brian Epstein’s Brief but Dazzling Life with The Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

When I saw that the documentary on Brian Epstein on BBC4 was in two parts, lasting over 3 hours, my heart sank. What more could there possibly be to learn about the Beatles? Happily, I was gloriously wrong.

In 1963, a Brian Epstein act was on the number one spot in the UK charts for 37 of the 52 weeks. Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer, Cilla Black, and of course the Beatles. And yet just three years later it all began to unravel.

Texas, God bless America.

Texas, God bless America.

During their tumultuous 1966 tour The Beatles received a spate of serious death threats in Japan, had their records burnt in the Philippines and had to deal in the American south with John’s bigger than Jesus remarks.

They decided to quit touring and concentrate instead on the recording studio. For Epstein, this was a disaster. Without in any way planning it, the Beatles suddenly stopped turning to their business manager for their every decision , and came instead to rely increasingly on their producer George Martin.

Much more damning from a personal perspective was the growing realization that Epstein had made a complete mess of the merchandising deals he had worked out on their behalf after The Beatles had so spectacularly broken America. Business was his purpose in life and deals were supposed to have been his currency.

And then there was his private life. Inevitably, the elegant, suave and extremely erudite gay music impresario had that taste for danger that British establishment figures seem inexorably drawn to. And he’d gone and gotten himself a bit of American rough. All too predictably, he was humiliated by him.

Epstein reposes at home.

Epstein reposes at home.

By 1967, the lonely, gay, Jewish multi-millionaire discovered that for all his apparent success, he was as much of an outsider then as he’d ever been. And that spring he attempted suicide. A few months later, on the bank holiday August weekend, he tried again. This time, there was nobody around to rescue him.

This is the sort of programme that the BBC does so fantastically well. Originally broadcast in 1998 as part of their justly famed Arena strand, it melded first hand interviews with archive footage to produce a cultural snap shot of a moment in time. And the extraordinary impact one man had on it. Keep your eye out for it.

You can see a clip here.

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BBC4’s “The Walshes” is Mesmerically Unfunny, But Don’t Worry, it’s British.

Irelands' Richard Harris...

Ireland’s Richard Harris…

For many years the best and brightest from Ireland enjoyed dual citizenship in Britain. So, after his performance in say This Sporting Life, or A Man Called Horse, Richard Harris was referred to in the press there as “British”.

But when the following week he was arrested after yet another drunken brawl in a seedy pub, he was described by the same august organs as Irish.

Decades were spent gnashing teeth and crying into innumerable pints cursing perfidious Albion for its cultural rape and pillage.

But times have changed. Money, Sky Sports and Ryanair have all contributed to a change in our attitude to our friends across the way. And we’ve mostly managed to shed the chip that had weighed so heavily on our shoulders.

Indeed, recently we’ve been returning the compliment. So Daniel Day Lewis is plainly Irish. And The Walshes, like Mrs. Brown’s Boys before it, is clearly British. It has nothing to do with us. Seriously.

The Walshes, as the fella said, shit on a stick without the stick.

The Walshes, as the fella said; shit on a stick without the stick.

On the face of it, it’s made up of exactly the same ingredients as Father Ted. Stock characters in contrived scenarios behaving in an all too predictable way. One cliché after another.  But the characters – and therefore the performances – in Father Ted were all really appealing. And it was this that made their situations comic. None of the characters in The Walshes are remotely attractive, and many of them are vaguely unpleasant.

There was a split second, after a scene in which the da sits chuckling at an episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, when I wondered if I’d got it all wrong. Maybe it’s meant to be this unfunny. Perhaps this is the most brilliantly subversive sitcom ever made. And they’ve ruthlessly wrung anything that could in any way be considered comic, never mind an actual joke, from every single scene, to brilliantly deconstruct the very notion of what we understand by the term “sitcom”.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

But there’s no getting away from how visibly pleased everyone involved is with what they’ve created, and how funny they all seem to find it. You can almost hear the guffaws emanating from the set. Which is to put it mildly baffling.

Still, not to worry. Like I say, it has nothing to with us. BBC production. It’s British through and through.

Unless of course… It’s all part of a brilliantly executed post modern joke. What do you think?

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