American Epic Sessions

Some of you may recall some time ago when I raved about seeing a screening of a film called ‘American Epic Sessions’. It’s finally arriving on UK screens this Sunday evening at 10 pm and for the next four weeks. In the US, it began this past Tuesday and will continue for the next three Tuesdays on PBS. (Not sure how PBS handles second showings, viewing the archive etc)

This piece, also published on The Guardian online, explains everything. –  happy viewing!


Imagine the music business in crisis – at a click, anyone can listen to music whenever they like, for free! Why would anyone ever buy a record again? Sounds like 2010, doesn’t it?

But it’s not, it’s 1925, the year network radio swept across America with live broadcasts from big city ballrooms that could be heard from Seattle to Miami. A remarkable series of documentaries, Arena: American Epic (BBC4, Sunday 21 May at 10pm and three Sundays thereafter)tells the story of how this existential moment for the record industry coincided with the arrival of electrical recording. Victor and Okeh Records’ response to the crisis laid the groundwork for popular music as we know it today.

Some bright spark came up with an idea: let’s make records for people without electricity or radios – the rural poor! With their wind-up gramophones, they may be our only market left. Thus began the extraordinary saga of turning Mississippi Delta blues and Appalachian hillbilly music into commercial products, exposing the country – and eventually the world – to authentic Southern roots music. On one afternoon in Bristol, Tennessee, producer Ralph Peer discovered both the ‘yodelling brakeman’ Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family, cornerstones of the country music industry. For the ‘race’ catalogue, he recorded the Memphis Jug Band, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Willie McTell while competitors Paramount immortalized Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton. Other scouts and producers ventured into Louisiana Cajun Country, the Hispanic heart of Texas, the Hopi Indian Reservation and the island of Hawaii. The reverberations of this avalanche of great recordings have shaped our musical world.

Bob Dylan has spoken and written about the effect of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music on him. Like Dylan, I, too, was entranced by tracks like “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice on the Smith box; the voices then were disembodied, floating ghosts with little context save the obvious colour of their skins. Arena: American Epic puts flesh on those wisps of sound as we hear of the terrible lives of Justice and the magnificent Frank Hutchinson in the West Virginia coal mines.

Film-makers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty have wisely focused on key individuals and archetypal stories, bringing the characters and times to life with great sensitivity and thoroughness. We see the birth of ‘race records’ and ‘country music’, the strands of the fast-expanding record industry that converged in 1954 with Elvis and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. The films show us how the record industry introduced America to its true self, selling hundreds of thousands of records in the cities as well as in the sticks and developing a world-wide taste for the rural roots of urban music. The headline music between the wars may have been Rudy Vallee, Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley but the attitudes, accents and frames of reference of today’s most popular artists hark directly back to recordings made far away from Tin Pan Alley.

While the first three films delve into history, making up for the absence of live footage with great interviews and a stunning assemblage of still photographs, the fourth crowns the achievement with something different. T-Bone Burnett and Jack White were involved in the project from the beginning and this climax finds them in a Santa Monica store-front studio hosting an array of contemporary heroes – Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson and Los Lobos among them – recording the old fashioned way. An obsessive named Nick Bergh reconstructed the original Western Electric amplifiers, cables and cutting lathe of the first electrical recording studios. Prior to this technology, performers would sing and play into a horn, the sound would vibrate a spiralling stylus in a soft wax disc which would be coated in metal to stamp the shellac discs which repeated the process in reverse on those wind-up gramophones.

1925 saw the first microphones powered with electricity, which sent a far more vivid signal into the cutting stylus, rendering those magical moments in Mississippi and Georgia hotel rooms many times more lifelike than the 78 rpm discs of earlier years. For two hours, we revel in filmed performances in front of that single microphone, as the camera lovingly follows the sound through anaconda-like cables to the cutting head. As soon as the blank disc starts spinning, our soundtrack switches from the film-maker’s 21st century hand-held digital stereo to the glorious mono of the single microphone. There are no faders; if Burnett or White want more of this musician and bit less of that one, he moves them closer or further from the microphone. It’s brilliant theatre, beautifully filmed and makes for glorious television. Miss it at your peril.