American Epic is a four-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on PBS in America and BBC Four in the UK. The first three episodes look at the lives of some of the earliest recorded American folk musicians, all of whom came from rural and very poor backgrounds, went on to make a few songs for $25 per record (more money than they’d ever seen before), and then returned to their hidden corners in the country’s great expanse – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, even Hawaii. Most were never heard from again (there were exceptions, The Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt being the most prominent). All of the music endures, particularly given the astonishing remastering done for these films. Meanwhile interviews with family members and contemporary musicians help to illustrate just how important these disparate strands of roots music, from all across America, have been in shaping popular music as we understand it now. Blues, gospel, country, Hawaiian, and Latin styles eventually converged to form rock & roll, in the shape of Elvis Presley, informing virtually everything we listen to today.
The fourth episode is a two-hour special called The Sessions, in which modern musicians are seen recording new songs and remakes of early folk songs on a reconstructed 1928 Western Electric machine. That machine was the first electrical recording device, and is the only one of its kind still remaining and in operation. It’s an amazing machine, one that records straight onto disc; it’s operated by a pulley that drops slowly to the ground, and when it reaches the ground, in the space of about 3 minutes, the disc suddenly stops recording. So you have less than 3 minutes to record your song, and in just one take. There’s no overdubbing or any other audio manipulation that can be made to the disc post-recording. So what you play is what you get. It captures live performances, then, attached to a single 360° microphone in the centre of a recording booth, around which the musicians must gather as if round a campfire. The stars brought in by director Bernard MacMahon and executive producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record on The Sessions are evidently thrilled to be in the studio, using the exact same recording device as some of their pioneering heroes. The excitement caught on camera is infectious. The film is a joy to watch.
American Epic: The Sessions is the fruit of their labour: a 2-CD, 32-track compendium of those live recordings, and they’re also a joy to listen to. The guests form an impressive variety of modern pros: Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Beck, Ashley Monroe, Alabama Shakes, Nas, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos, Blind Boy Paxton, Taj Mahal, The Hawaiians… and many others, including the biggest surprise Steve Martin, who ably equips himself on banjo on a slowed-down cover of ‘Coo Coo Bird’. In fact, they all ably equip themselves, showing off their talents within the strict limits brought about by the primitive recording technology. Indeed, the tech caused some challenges: in one moment captured on the documentary, Beck found himself struggling to get his voice across on ‘Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods’ above the powerful din of the gospel choir behind him, so Jack White stepped in to tell the choir that they should sing facing the wall! Fourteen takes later, ironically, they got the job done.
The album’s concept is played pretty fast and loose, with musicians being allowed to play pretty much whatever they want – within the realms of the rootsy and bluesy gestalt, of course. There are triumphs in the pure blues department: Taj Mahal tackles the gravelly groan of blues’ grandaddy Charley Patton on ‘High Water Everywhere’, audibly channeling that man’s protégée Howlin’ Wolf whilst brewing up a suitably apocalyptic storm. Then there’s Petty Lafarge’s take on ‘St. Louis Blues’, which I was biased against from the start because Louis Armstrong’s 1954 version is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time – however Lafarge still managed to blow me away by the end. There’s Alabama Shakes’ version of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Killer Diller Blues’, which is both killer and diller, I think. There’s Rhiannon Giddens’ flat-out hilarious you-gotta-come-inside-me-in-‘One Hour Mama’. There’s…
You get the point, it’s an incredibly strong set of music. All of the artists sound like they’re discovering music for the very first time. And perhaps in some sense they are.
Here’s the best of the best. Firstly: the ubiquitous Jack White, producer and audiophile extraordinaire whose enthusiasm on this project deserves our gratitude; he’s so good on ‘Matrimonial Intentions’ that a dubious lyric is brought to expressive life, as he brings worlds of humour into simple asides (‘hmm’ he sings wistfully and mockingly to himself, it seems). Secondly: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, old pals working together again – with a touching and overt fondness for each other, they end both of their duets in warm chuckles. Thirdly: Nas, who covers the Memphis Jug Band’s blues ‘On the Road Again’ with great panache, fastforwarding 60 years to the era of gangsta rap as he does so and demonstrating the link between the two genres undeniably. He said of that song in the documentary: ‘as long as there was English and black people, there was rap.’ You better believe it.
The unsung hero of the recordings is Lillie Mae Rische, a session musician who displays prodigious chops on the fiddle and gorgeous Emmylou Harris-esque backup vocals. She regularly soars and pushes the celebrity singers to greater heights.
I won’t poop the party by pointing out the dud moments, because there are a couple. I really don’t want to do anything to prevent you from seeking out either the album or the documentary. They really are worth it. If you care at all about modern music, as you should, then this collection is relentless in its offering up of contemporary pleasures, whilst also looking back to the roots that were formative influences on everything modern generations listen to. You can’t understand the present without looking to the past.
Of course you should seek out the original 1920s and 30s folk recordings too, which are essential to gaining an understanding of 20th century music. To that end, two further soundtracks have also released as part of the American Epic project: the one-disc American Epic: The Soundtrack, and the five-disc box set American Epic: The Collection. I’m still exploring these collections, and I can’t quite vouch as to whether they match up to Harry Smith’s incredible Anthology of American Folk Music.
But I can vouch for American Epic: The Sessions: it’s truly epic, great music, and so much more.