‘American Epic’ on PBS, in Writing and on Record

New series searches for the roots of America’s music

May. 16, 2017
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In the 1920s, when “on the road” meant bumping along gravel turnpikes in most of the country, America was still a largely unknown land to most of its inhabitants. This was changing, not only because of asphalt highways and motorcars but from a revolution in music. The nascent recording industry, imagining markets of millions to be exploited, began sending “scouts” into the hinterland to record the vernacular musicians they discovered. In distinction to the “songcatchers” that transcribed folk ballads, their interests were far from academic. The record scouts were hoping to find music their labels could sell.

The PBS series “American Epic” (debuts May 16) seeks to rekindle the exhilarating sense of discovery that accompanied the growth of recorded music in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Like prospectors panning for gold, the record scouts found societies little known in American urban centers as they hauled bulky yet portable recording gear across the South and the Midwest. As a result, it was possible to hear New Orleans jazz, Mississippi Delta blues and Appalachian folk anywhere a Victrola was found.

Accompanying the television program is American Epic: The Companion Book to the PBS Series (Touchstone) by producers Bernard MacMahan and Allison McGourty with Elijah Wald, who previously authored the provocative How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll. The Companion Book recounts their journey across the U.S. in search of traces left by some of the seminal recording artists featured in the series. In a sense, they followed the trail of those early record scouts as well as the travels of backcountry musicians to the cities for work and a chance to hear themselves on record. The scouts set forth with few preconceptions. They “were largely groping in the dark and willing to take a chance on almost anything that was interesting and different.”

Also released is American Epic: The Collection (Legacy), a five-CD, 100-song set bound in a hard cover along with an extensive, illustrated book. The carefully curated collection includes the familiar and the utterly obscure and creatively programs genres to showcase musical and cultural links between blues, gospel, country, Hawaiian string bands, Mexican singers, even Hopi Indian chanters. Among the many standouts are Elder J.E. Burch’s fervent call-and-response choir; the hard to peg Hoyt Ming and his Pep Steppers, perhaps a fiddle driven attempt to emulate Hawaiian music accompanied by feet tapping the floorboards; Clarence Ashley’s spectral “The Coo-Coo Bird,” which sounds plucked from a stream of ancient verses; and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” which effortlessly fused country, blues, Hawaii and Dixieland.

The sonic restoration is superb. Many of the tracks haven’t sounded this good since the day they were recorded.

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