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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