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Critics' Choice
AN EPIC LOOK AT ROOTS MUSIC
5/15/17

By Phil Gallo

Isolation. If there’s one word that encapsulates and binds the music explored in the PBS series American Epic, which premieres Tuesday, isolation is it. Epic looks at the earliest recordings of music performed in rural settings such as Appalachia, the Mexican border, southwestern Louisiana, Native American territory and the Mississippi Delta and examines how that music, captured in its unadulterated form, received its initial distribution.

It’s the story of music recorded in the 1920s by enterprising label executives, most of them associated with Victor and Okeh, who ventured into the South from major cities to find music rooted in tradition and unadulterated by any outside influences. While recordings were made in New York, St. Louis, Atlanta and elsewhere, only one urban area is covered here—Memphis—for its role in birthing the blues. As the series explains itself, these are “the sounds of working people.”

Sony Legacy has released an impressive five-CD box set with music divided geographically that goes further into the stories of the music makers and the music industry’s leap into tapping regional markets with local music.

Jack White and T Bone Burnett executive produced the series and led the follow-up concert film with contemporary artists, American Epic Sessions, which airs 6/6. This series is very much a deep dive into the vaults of Sony Music; considering White’s involvement and the amount of time devoted to Charley Patton, it’s surprising the doc does not delve into the impact of Paramount Records, which his Third Man Records has compiled in two box sets. Robert Redford, the other executive producer, provides the dry narration.

In a manner similar to Ken BurnsJazz, director Bernard MacMahon has employed a Great Men in History style, positioning Ralph Peer, the Carter Family, Memphis Jug Band leader Will Shade, Lydia Mendoza, Patton and an obscure preacher, Elder J.H. Burch, as the most vital forces for their respective musical styles.

The filmmakers save the best story for last, the tale of Mississippi John Hurt (pictured), or as Redford says, “the saga of American Epic in microcosm.”

Okeh was looking for musicians to bring to Memphis and the road trip eventually led to Hurt’s hometown, the village of Avalon, Miss. He recorded 20 sides in two sessions, the first in Memphis in 1928 and the second in New York a year later. His songs “Candyman” and “Avalon Blues” were considered hit records, though the Depression put an end to his recording career.

He worked on farms from the 1930s through the ‘50s, though his legend started to grow after Harry Smith included two of his songs on the 1952 compilation Anthology of American Folk Music. Hurt was rediscovered in the early 1960s, his comeback starting with the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. In an interview at the festival, Hurt notes that the Bible says “older men teach the younger ones. Glad that’s something they want.” Sharp listeners will realize Bob Dylan is introducing “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the background.

To differentiate itself from similar docs, American Epic turns to relatives for their take on their ancestors’ achievements. In far too many cases the grandchildren are clueless; the tool works wonderfully when the descendants are actively involved in promulgating the music—Louisiana’s Breaux family and Ralph Peer II provide some of the strongest testimony.

At times, American Epic connects dots from these early recordings to rock-era stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Nas and The Rolling Stones, but most of that exercise is left to the Sessions performances from Willie Nelson, Beck, Rhiannon Giddens, Taj Mahal, Elton John, White, Nas and others. Columbia is releasing the Sessions soundtrack on 6/9, three days after it premieres. The BBC is airing the series this month as well. Legacy has released 100-song (5-CD) and 15-song (1-CD) sets of original recordings featured on the series.