“American Epic,” a new musical documentary series beginning Tuesday on PBS, comes with some big names attached: much-advertised executive producers Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford, who also narrates.
It’s helpful in the documentary world to have celebrity endorsements — writer-director Bernard MacMahon is not a name to reckon with — but they are not the point, and happily they do not get underfoot. The series’ strength lies with less starry legends.
MacMahon’s subject is the moment, in the mid-1920s, when the record business turned its attention to the country’s regional music — poor people's music mostly, passed from player to player and then from generation to generation. (Some of the inheritors, like Robert Lockwood Jr., who learned from his uncle, Robert Johnson, are onscreen.)
Along with the people who made the music, MacMahon is interested in the figures, representatives of big-city record companies, who traveled the country to find them, set up shop where convenient and recorded them. In doing so, they created a kind of audio bible, an encyclopedia of American vernacular self-expression and, for its audience, self-perception.
That this was a commercial and not merely a musicological enterprise is not incidental; musicians got paid, and some got famous, and in getting famous carved new paths for the music to take, reaching an audience otherwise out of earshot. Find the music, says White, “and the next step is to figure out how can we … make money off of it. … Then happy accidents start happening.”
The Carter Family and their date with destiny in Bristol, Tenn., is where MacMahon’s story begins, but his structure is loose and he lets the music make his points. (There are no critical voices here; musicians and family members, alongside Redford’s narration, carry the tale.)
Although the episodes, called “The Big Bang,” “Blood and Soil” and “Out of Many, One” have some vaguely discernible structure, the overall effect is, not unpleasantly, of a random ramble through the overlapping patchwork of American roots music, from artist to artist and culture to culture, from hollow to field, from street to church, from desert to bayou.
Along the way we meet — through records, photos, sometimes video clips — Lydia Mendoza, MIssissippi John Hurt, the Memphis Jug Band, Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, steel guitar inventor Joseph Kekuku and influential Cajun accordionist Amédée Breaux, who once won a competition by playing while strolling overhead among the building’s rafters.
Technology and art have always gone together — you can't paint a picture before you figure out how to make paint — and what we hear is inextricably a product of the machines that have been invented to record it. With each new technology, of course, something is lost as something is gained, which spurs new generations to go in search of it.
That’s the animating principle behind the series’ companion piece, or culmination, “The American Epic Sessions,” in which contemporary artists — including producers White and Burnett, Nas, Beck, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Los Lobos and Alabama Shakes — record direct-to-disc on the sort of machine that would have been used 90 years ago. (It runs by pendulum.)
It’s a bit of a stunt, if not uninteresting or unenjoyable. But the series is more valuable for showing history than it is for re-creating it and for the useful reminder that there is more to life than the noise coming from our capitals and cable news. Music may not save the world, but it unites us anyway. It can still knock holes in our prejudices, making way for open hearts and willing spirits. I don’t mind telling you I got a little emotional watching this series, and you might too.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd