“American Epic,” a star-studded three-part music documentary exploring the birth of the recording industry and its impact on world culture, will premiere May 16 on PBS as a joint venture between the U.S. public broadcasting system and the BBC in Great Britain.
Actor-producer Robert Redford, who narrates “American Epic,” music producer T Bone Burnett and roots-music guru Jack White are among the executive producers of the documentary directed by British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon. The work features interviews and performances by White, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Merle Haggard, rapper Nas, Beck, Steve Martin, Rhiannon Giddens, Alabama Shakes and numerous others.
The historical documentary focuses on the emergence of recorded music as a force in the widespread dissemination of American popular music, a development that exploded in the 1920s and ’30s and exerted a profound impact on popular culture, nationally and internationally.
The project has been in the works for a decade, and will be accompanied by a companion book due May 2 and the May 12 release of a 100-song box set of music highlighted in the documentary.
“ ‘American Epic’ is a love letter to the United States,” MacMahon said in a statement. “It’s the story of one of the great moments in American history: when the voices of working people, minorities and rural people throughout the country were first heard. It celebrates all I admire about the country — its rich culture, technological innovation, entrepreneurism and its freedom of speech.”
Such recordings allowed listeners from Los Angeles and New York to Seattle and Miami to hear for the first time regional sounds of Cajun musicians from Southwest Louisiana, gospel singers from Alabama, blues musicians from Mississippi and Tex-Mex performers from San Antonio and other regional music centers.
Artists highlighted include the Carter Family, considered the “first family of country music,” the Memphis Jug Band, blues singer-guitarist Charley Patton, Hopi Indian chanters, Lydia Mendoza, the Breaux Family, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson.
“This is the story of a profound act of democracy,” Burnett said in the same statement, “when the poorest people in our country were recorded and their stories, their songs and their voices broadcast around the world.
“These early pioneers set a course that led to the extraordinary library of jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop that is our music. This is the story of the United States: A kid leaves home with nothing but a song and conquers the world.”
As part of the project, documentary makers recruited engineer Nicholas Berg to reassemble the first electrical recording system from parts still available, in order to allow modern musicians to use the same device that captured the voices and instruments of musicians working nearly a century earlier — live, without editing or overdubbing capabilities that are now standard.
“Early electric recording is very interesting to me,” Berg said, “because it literally transformed the way the whole world communicated, and it essentially enabled the record companies to set up recording sessions all over the country, where everyday people could record their songs and then have those songs distributed across America.”
Contemporary artists recorded songs dating to the early 20th century, many of them carrying contemporary resonance.
Nas recorded a 1928 song by the Memphis Jug Band, “On the Road Again,” of which he said, “When you hear me saying it, you might think I wrote it, because it sounds like something today. 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… It didn’t start with hip-hop, it started a long time ago. It started with America.”
Different installments focus on various early recording artists through their records and contemporary interviews with acquaintances and family members.
“It’s not often that you’re pitched a project that is entirely fresh, immediately visual, and seems likely to change your whole understanding of cultural history,” said Stephen Segaller, executive in charge for New York PBS affiliate WNET. “ ‘American Epic’ is that project — a documentary series that gives us an amazing narrative of cultural enterprise and creative energy, touching on deep American history — and a recording sessions vérité film that keeps on outdoing itself as artist after artist revels in the old-time music and brings it to new levels.”
Said Redford, also in a statement, “This is America’s greatest untold story. It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”
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