When executives in the then-fledgling record industry of the mid-1920s started sending teams of engineers with bulky recording equipment out into the hinterlands of the U.S., it wasn’t out of any noble sense of cultural preservation.
It was business-motivated desperation. Such is the thesis of “American Epic,” an ambitious four-part documentary series. The long-gestating project, a collaboration between PBS and the British Broadcasting Corp., premieres Tuesday, May 16.
Contemporary parallels to events that unfolded nearly a century ago are impossible to miss. Then, those who had for decades been selling recorded music in physical form were suddenly under dire threat from a new medium: radio.
“Radio did ruin the record business at that time, because people could now get music for free,” said superstar producer T Bone Burnett.
Along with actor-director Robert Redford, who also narrates the series, and Americana musical maverick and entrepreneur Jack White, Burnett serves as one of the executive producers of “American Epic.”
“In 1926, sales in the record business fell off by 80%,” Burnett noted, “which led [record executives] to put their record machines on trucks and trains and send them down South where they didn’t have electricity for radios. They started to record this whole other culture for records that could be played on record players with hand cranks, and really documented the beginnings of blues, jazz and country music.”
Record executives started targeting rural consumers in regions largely overlooked by radio in the hopes they might sell a few thousand blues recordings to those in Mississippi or Cajun music to locals in southwestern Louisiana.
“American Epic,” as directed by British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon with his producing partner Allison McGourty and their Lo-Max Films company, traces how the recordings spread beyond their regionalism.
The work zeroes in on the stories of 10 widely disparate musicians to illustrate the far-reaching and long-lasting effect those long-ago recording sessions had across the nation and around the world.
It touches on artists as widely revered as country music’s the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, as well as blues titans Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Then there are virtually forgotten performers such as gospel singer Elder J. E. Burch and country-blues songwriter Dick Justice.
The film also features Mexican groups such as Guty Cardenas Y Lencho, Puerto Rico’s Los Borinqueños and a number of other genres and artists.
“One great aspect of this whole project is that it shows us the amazing amount of people who became aware of each other because they were making records,” said musician Taj Mahal.
MacMahon tapped Mahal, born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in 1942 in Harlem, N.Y., as a repository of musical knowledge that he and his team turned to in shaping the films. He’s also one of the performers for a modern-day series of recording sessions using the same equipment their predecessors used nearly a century ago.
“The recordings that were being made [in the 1920s] were the first time America heard itself,” MacMahon said. “Literally there were people living in Kentucky and people in Louisiana had no idea of each other’s music. This was before radio and it was before talking pictures.”
While musicologists have often delved into earlier styles of songwriting and musical performance, there’s a key difference between the work of ethnomusicologists such as John and Alan Lomax and what’s explored in “American Epic.”
“They were doing an entirely different thing,” MacMahon said, who also will participate Sunday, May 21, in a question-answer session at downtown’s Los Angeles Public Library.
“The Lomaxes were going out and recording America — all for the Library of Congress, not for commercial gain — and they were recording it with an agenda,” MacMahon continued. “They were looking for old songs, songs they considered to be in their purest form possible. So they would always go to places like prisons, because there were people who had been locked up for 60 years and they figured they wouldn’t have heard anything else for 60 years.”
By contrast, he said, “These guys — the recording engineers and A&R men for record companies — they’re actually going out to record commercial music to sell. These guys were capturing Tex-Mex from San Antonio, the Hawaiians, the Puerto Ricans, the Cajuns, all singing music for their own people, singing their own songs about their own lives. The missions were very different.”
MacMahon said he researched nearly 100 performers in the process of deciding which ones to home in on for the documentary. Those stories are framed in the films by images of vintage record albums containing discs by each of the featured musicians.
“Each story begins with one of those old record albums, which would have anywhere between four and eight pockets that you would put your 78s into,” he said. “The idea was, ‘How, without being didactic, does one capture this beautiful richness, and at the same time, acknowledge that however deeply you go into these stories, they are just one of thousands?’
“So,” he continued, “we thought, ‘Why don’t we pull one of these albums off the shelf?’”
Case in point: Elder J.E. Burch, a preacher and gospel singer from Cheraw, S.C.
The segment on Burch reveals that among the many locals who were infected by the electrifying spirit of his singing was a kid whose family lived down the street from Burch’s church, one Dizzy Gillespie.
Another big discovery MacMahon and his team made concerned a vast trove of early 78s from the RCA Victor label, many of which in the U.S. had been melted down during World War II for the raw materials that were re-purposed for the war effort.
The American discs turned up in the archive of EMI in England, a story as intriguing in itself as many of those behind the artists and songs documented in “American Epic.”
“The head of RCA at the time went to England and met with the head of His Master’s Voice’” or HMV, the precursor to EMI Music, MacMahon explained. “He saw their logo with the dog [Nipper] listening to a record player and asked if he could use the logo for RCA’s releases back in the States. The head of HMV told him, ‘Yes, as long as you send us a copy of everything you release with that logo.’”
That one serendipitous agreement resulted in a cache of early Victor and RCA discs that were sent to England — a crate at a time, year after year — and which remained untouched for decades in a temperature-controlled room.
While researching the documentary, MacMahon and his team located them in the vast EMI Archive, which he likened to the final warehouse scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Additionally, he learned that the Western Electric recording machine that produced hundreds and thousands of records by amateur musicians — while some became superstars of their time, most went back to their lives, enriched to the tune of $25 or $50 for each recorded song — also soon facilitated adding dialogue and singing to movies.
“The success of these records meant Western Electric could go back to Hollywood and show them people are now getting high-quality sound recordings for their Victrolas — they’re not going to sit still for silent movies much longer.”
For the project, MacMahon’s team, led by engineer Nicholas Bergh, rebuilt one of the original Western Electric recording machines developed by AT&T in the mid-’20s. It was used to record “American Epic: The Sessions,” two CDs’ worth of new recordings of vintage songs performed by White, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Alabama Shakes, rapper Nas, East L.A.’s Los Lobos and more.
One unforeseen fringe benefit of the reconstruction of the original recording machine: playing records that were made with it decades ago yields unprecedented audio fidelity. That should be evident on the companion five-CD box set with 100 vintage recordings.
“It’s so fascinating who all these people were and where they came from,” MacMahon said. “All of them were working people—they weren’t pop stars; they were coal miners, cotton pickers, preachers, hobos who roamed the railways; all these different parts of American life coming together.
“What fascinates me about this period is this uniquely American confluence of capitalist need sparked by an emergency, yet it had this wonderfully democratic outcome,” he said. “They don’t really have an interest in poor people in rural places and making them happy. They’re just trying to save their business.”
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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