Deep Dive into American Roots Music

AmericanEpicWhen radio threatened the young phonograph record industry in American cities in the 1920s, it sent out talent scouts to rural corners of the country, seeking to find local musicians who’d appeal to regional audiences where there still was no radio.

They’d find local musicians by asking in town newspapers if they’d like to hear what they sounded like on record.

Setting up portable equipment in hotel rooms in Bristol, Tenn., and Memphis, Tenn., the excise also managed to widely disseminate unique music beyond the local holler, but influence American music for decades to come with the discovery of artists from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers to Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The blues, old time country, gospel, cajun, jug band music, Mexicali and Native American chants that were recorded in those sessions are the basis of a new four part series on public television, “American Epic” (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings).

It culminates June 6 with “American Epic Sessions,” in which contemporary artists including Jack White, T Bone Burnet, Beck, and Nas get together to sing some of these classic old tunes on a portable 1920s recording machine that was carefully re-assembled for the occasion.

A bunch of recordings accompany the broadcasts, from a 100-song boxed set of archival recordings with surprising new fidelity, just out Friday, to the upcoming “American Epic Sessions” featuring the contributions of Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Los Lobos, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens and Taj Mahal. There is even a duet of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard before the latter’s death.

According to Stephen Segaller of the producing WNET, “the filmmakers reassembled the lathe and replicated the atmosphere of these seminal 1920s field recordings, recording straight to acts’ original microphones and the amplifier that was invented for the purpose and, of course, this reconstructive lathe.”

Since none of the original machines were still around, they had to replicate them, said director Bernard MacMahon. “Our engineer, Nick Berg, over eight years, tracked down original parts to rebuild the entire system from as far afield as Japan and put the entire thing together. So this is basically the blueprint of how we all communicate today invented in 1925.”

“Until this film was put together, no one had actually seen photographs of one of these machines before,” said McMahon, speaking to TV writers in August 2015. “AT&T, who designed it, were incredibly secretive about the technology, and they were terrified that other companies would attempt to emulate it. So until the film comes out, there’s been no known film footage existing of this machine. No blueprints survive. There are literally two fragmentary photographs as a part of the machine. So our engineer had to build this, like, 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without a box.”

It was kind of a mind-blower, Taj Mahal says. “when I started recording later on in the ’60s, it was, like, two track, four track, eight track … You always knew that there’s this other technology that’s going on. And you hear the records, and you just wonder, how did they do it back then?”

Taj Mahal is a musicologist who has been mining old blues throughout his career; but Jack White also had an intense interest in the old sound, and the old processes, McMahon says.

“I think I wrote him a two line email saying, ‘I have color film footage of Sleepy John Estes from 1941 and a picture of Son House from 1929.’ And I think he wrote back in five minutes and said, ‘Where are you? When can we meet?’”

Narrated by Robert Redford, “American Epic” does have a lot of rare footage that is often as remarkable as the sound recordings. And children and grandchildren of those who are featured, talk about their forebears.

In the case of Charlie Musselwhite, the bluesman says Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band was a mentor and friend.

It’s the Memphis Jug Band recording of “On the Road Again” that got Nas on board.

“When you hear me saying it, you might think I wrote it, because it sounds like something today,” he says in the film. “These guys are talking about carrying guns, shooting something, protecting their honor, chasing after some woman who’s done them dirty…it’s the same as rap music today, so it just tells you something about American culture, American music.”

“American music that I’ve loved since my childhood,” says McMahon, a Brit. “And the diversity in America with all of these different cultures making music together. That’s what the film is about.”

In those days, the single-take process brought an urgency to the performances that came through, he says. “You literally had three minutes to get your song onto this wax disc, cutting directly to disc before the weight hits the floor. And the wax discs were expensive, and they took, like, an hour to shave to a glass like surface. So it was a really big deal.

“Each take was a huge, big performance. And so the performances that that machine, got out of people were really, really exceptional, and that’s why the music from that era has this kind of raw power to it. It’s, like, really raw America expression, and there’s an excitement to it where everyone has got to focus everything into this three minutes of an incredible take.”

When record companies started putting out ads in rural newspapers in the 1920s that invited people to be recorded, McMahon says, “they literally would have thousands of people coming out of the hills to these recording sessions, and they would arrive in their trucks filled with gear.

“They would advertise, saying, ‘Do you want to be immortalized on a phonograph record?,’ which sonically would be not dissimilar to saying, ‘Would you like to see yourself in a mirror for the first time?’ You have to remember, at that time people hadn’t heard recordings of themselves. There were no home recorders. So yeah, they would turn up. I think what perhaps the film can’t hint at is just the scale of this undertaking. It was, like, huge. You’re talking sometimes thousands of people turning up for these auditions. It was like a precursor to ‘American Idol.’”

Except they were hearing things that were rarely heard outside the immediate area.

“I think what was exciting about it was that, at that time, nobody had heard of anyone else,” MacMahon says. “So the recordings that were being made were the first time America heard itself. They were literally people the people living in Kentucky and the people in Louisiana had no idea of each other’s music.”

It set in motion what he calls “ a whole form of communication through music that’s basically transformed the world. And this machine and these recording sessions that the documentary is about is the first time that happened, that that, kind of, modern technology suddenly started to capture the whole nation and record it.

“And that’s when we first started hearing each other, and the musical stars started mingling. And I think perhaps the last thing interesting to me and maybe to Charles, he said, “We are at the same crossroads now, today, as they were then,” because social media is about to change the way we all communicate, and all the old precepts we lived by are changing. And this machine arriving was the same thing for America at that time.”

At the same time, record companies were working out of necessity.

“The record companies were being really hit hard with the Napster of the day, which was radio. There was a rural audience that were desperate to hear music that were not being given record players or having records made that they were interested in. And suddenly this machine was invented. So when the record companies went out, they initially started recording obvious things, but then they would kind of go, ‘Well, let’s start recording Native American music. Let’s record Cajun music. We don’t even understand what this is. It’s people singing in high pitched French with accordions.’ But as soon as they started recording it, the records started selling hundreds of thousands of copies. And it was that great thing where you had this giant technological beast that is able to facilitate this thing, but it doesn’t actually understand what it is. It just does it and there’s a market.

“What the record companies didn’t anticipate was America’s desire to hear itself and the fact that the Cajuns were interested in listening to the blues musicians from Mississippi, that the Appalachian fiddle players in Kentucky were interested in hearing the Mexican music.”

Says Segaller: “What was recorded changed music and changed America forever.”

 

“American Epic” airs on PBS May 6, 23 and 30 at 9 p.m. “American Epic Sessions” airs June 6 at 8 p.m. Check local listings. 

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