In the hundreds of different musical varieties available to the public today, it is often hard to find commonality. However, many genres that seem disparate to us today started with similar jumping-off points in the 1920s, when representatives from national record labels explored rural America in an effort to discover new types of music. “American Epic” is a new three-part series that explores what they found, produced by Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford.
The first episode chronicles the “Big Bangs” of country and R&B music. It kicks off with The Carter Family, discovered by producer Ralph Peer at a 1927 audition in Tennessee. The episode extensively documents their impact on music, featuring footage of Taj Mahal, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who said, “Once you hear the original Carter Family, you don’t have to explain why they were special.”
The focus then shifts to Memphis, where jug bands — groups who played homemade instruments like jugs and washboards when they couldn’t afford real ones — were forming the beginnings of R&B music. Early recordings of the Memphis Jug Band included “On the Road Again,” recreated in a session by hip-hop artist Nas. “They’re talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honor… It’s the same as today, it’s the same as rap music today,” said Nas, adding, “When people look down on hip hop, and look down on the words that we use — it didn’t start with hip hop. It started a long time ago. It started with America.”
Episode Two explores gospel churches and coalmines. Elder J.E. Burch’s church in Cheraw, South Carolina was the setting of many early spirituals and gospels, and inspired many attendees — including a young Dizzy Gillespie, who said in his autobiography that “people like Aretha Franklin and James Brown owe everything to that [Sanctified Church] beat.” Meanwhile, in the coalmines of West Virginia, workers Frank Hutchison, Dick Justice and Earl Williams were drawn toward music as a way of escape from rough working conditions. The episode also focuses on Charley Patton, whose coverage here is a testament to meticulous levels of research. There is no film footage of Patton in existence, and only one photograph, but his irrefutable impact on music and on Delta blues in particular is nevertheless well chronicled.
The third episode is perhaps the most varied and interesting part of the series. It recounts the 1926 journey of Hopi priests to Washington, D.C. to reflect their way of life by performing a snake dance; the 11-year-old Hawaiian boy, Joseph Kekuku, whose invention of the steel guitar introduced a new musical sound that would be adopted by artists in countless genres for decades to come; Lydia Mendoza, whose records appealed to a growing Spanish-language market and gave a voice to many of the disenfranchised poor; and the Breaux family, who blended French songs with songs from Spain, Africa and Chile to create the beginnings of Cajun music. Another important final focus is Mississippi John Hurt, a 1920s artist whose recordings were mostly forgotten until collector Dick Spotswood tracked him down in the 1960s. He brought him to perform at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where Hurt ended up becoming the hit of the festival and inspiring an entire young generation of attendees.
For all the fascinating stories told in the main documentary, the final installation, American Epic Sessions, is not-to-be-missed in a different way. It features an array of modern musicians, each given three minutes to record a take on a painstakingly restored recording machine, the same weight-driven type used by these artists’ musical ancestors nearly a century ago. These sessions hammer home the close relationship between modern music and its long-lost roots. The equipment falters a couple of times, when the weight breaks during Los Lobos’ recording of the 19th century Mexican folk song “El Cascabel,” and when the sound distorts during The Avett Brothers’ session of 19th century gospel song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Overall, though, the sessions go smoothly, and it is telling just to see the looks on these artists’ faces at the experience of using this historic equipment. Jack White himself is a pleasure to watch: While he keeps his distance in the main episodes and allows the material to speak for itself, it is obvious here how passionate he is about this subject matter and how involved he has been in keeping the project running smoothly (for instance, using his sewing skills to fix the recording machine himself when the weight breaks).
In “American Epic,” White has put together something truly worthwhile and humbling. By examining these earliest recordings of music as we know it, we are able to discover an earlier America that speaks to the country we know today: an America that is just as diverse, troubled and ambitious as our country is now, an America that knows about hard times and life-rending struggle just as it knows about true love and familial bonds. With an approach that is sensitive, timely and thoroughly researched, “American Epic” highlights this country’s music, a layered and intersectional national experience that has defined this country’s character since the beginning.