American Epic: A Fresh Perspective On Rock’s Roots

I am really loving American Epic, the 3-part PBS documentary about the recorded music revolution of the 1920s. But the real payoff comes with the second part of the series, The American Epic Sessions, which will feature performances from Alabama Shakes, The Avett Brothers, Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Taj Mahal, Jack White, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, among others. The Sessions begin airing on Tuesday, June 6. This is a lineup you don’t want to miss.

These are performances unlike any other these artists have done before. The American Epic Sessions is part performance film, part science experiment. The idea was to faithfully re-create the recording conditions of the 1920s and see what today’s artists would sound like, and the results are amazing. Check out the Alabama Shakes version of “Killer Diller” below. It’s got that tinny sound of old time recordings, but the heat of the Shakes’ performance still comes flooding through.

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It’s no surprise that Jack White and T-Bone Burnett are behind this project, their combined passions for musical authenticity leave no stone unturned. It took years just to reassemble a 1920s recording system from original parts. It’s one step up from The Flintstones using a cranky bird’s beak to cut a record. It consists of a single microphone, a six-foot amplifier rack and a live record-cutting lathe, powered by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears. The musicians have about three minutes to record their song direct-to-disc before the weight hits the floor. You can’t get any lower-fi.

Yet this was the kind of humble recording setup that changed America forever by opening the door to the tidal wave of music that was to come later in the 20th century. It’s a fascinating story. With the widespread adoption of radio in the 1920s there was a steep drop in recorded music sales. The record makers decided the only way to fight back was to get out into the country in search of new styles and markets. And man did they ever find some amazing sounds, as the website tells it:

The recordings they made… democratized the nation and gave a voice to everyone. Country singers in the Appalachians, Blues guitarists in the Mississippi Delta, Gospel preachers across the south, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, Tejano groups from the Texas Mexico border, Native American drummers in Arizona, and Hawaiian musicians were all recorded. For the first time, a woman picking cotton in Mississippi, a coalminer in Virginia or a tobacco farmer in Tennessee could have their thoughts and feelings heard on records played in living rooms across the country. It was the first time America heard itself.

Most of these early recordings never survived. But they planted musical seeds in American culture, which over time grew into the great forest of cross-pollination that popular music has become almost a hundred years later. It’s always good to remember the dozens of musical styles that contributed to Rock music as we know it. The strength of this series is to affirm just how far back in time Rock’s roots really go. Try to catch it if you can.



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