Jonah, American Epic Session and Les Blank

Due to a glitch on our end, all those email raves about the “Joe Boyd’s A-Z” podcast seem to have bounced back! The problem has been sorted now, so feel free to lob bouquets or brickbats by hitting “reply” to the newsletter. Letter J has just gone up, filled with the “great, thick blubbery rugs” of a whale’s insides… Yes, J = Jonah. (If you do have nice things to say, feel free to track down the ‘ratings and reviews’ page on iTunes and tell the world….)

Meanwhile, last weekend I attended a screening of “American Epic Session” – a BBC Arena project (coming to your screens – and PBS in America) next March. It is a wonderful film, in which T-Bone Burnett and Jack White supervise a series of recordings on a replica of the first electrical recording machine from 1925. Only one mic, balances obtained by moving the musicians closer or farther away from the microphone; the mono sound goes directly into a mastering stylus and carves out the unalterable grooves. Now that’s the way to make a record!

The theme of the project is to re-create that moment in 1925 when the music industry was in a crisis very similar to where it finds itself today. The first nationwide radio networks had been formed, broadcasting dance bands and crooners and vaudevillians into every corner of America – with radio available all day, why would anyone ever again buy a record? The desperate solution to this dilemma was to seek out the only demograpic that couldn’t listen to the radio – the rural poor! (Many of whom had no electricity, but did possess wind-up grammophones.) Thus record producers such as the great Ralph Peer went out into the hinterlands to find hillbilly and blues singers who would appeal to this newly targeted demographic.

T-Bone believes, and I think he’s right, that this moment led directly to America’s domination of the world’s popular music. Without those recordings of the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the rest of the great rural music catalogue, the ‘authentic’ music of America would never have established itself as an important genre. Hence, there would have been no Sam Phillips (Sun Records) and no Elvis Presley, no LIttle Richard, no rock n roll revolution et etc.

Burnett and White make their point eloquently by enlisting an array of talent, young and old, to perform material, mostly from that period, the old-fashioned way, around a single mic. Los Lobos with acoustic instruments perform a 19th century Jarocha song from Vera Cruz, there are ancient Hawaiians singing and a parade of great Anglophones performing blues and country music. Betty Lavette singing the Beale Street Sheiks’ version of  “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was my personal highlight, but there isn’t a make-weight song in the film. It culminates in Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duetting on some old country songs. Don’t miss it!

I head back to the LFF tomorrow to see the late Les Blank’s “A Poem Is A Naked Person”, his documentary about Leon Russell. I saw a different version of this film in 1972 when Les brought it to me at Warner Bros in LA. He had been commissioned by Leon and his label, Shelter Records, to make a film about the Oklahoma singer along the lines of the great films Les had made about Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clifon Chenier and other great Texas and Louisiana musicians. The problem was that Les’ approach, in which he hangs around the musicians long enough to become invisible and then starts filming, tends to reveal a great deal about their lives and the background of their music. In the case of Hopkins or Chenier, the warts-and-all films make them into more sympathetic and interesting figures. With the Russell film I saw, this was not the case. Les wanted me to plead his case with my friend Denny Cordell, boss of Shelter. It was a wonderful film, but if I had been Leon and Denny, I too would have done anything I could to keep the film being show. Thus, “Poem” has been buried in Les Blanks vault for almost 45 years until Russell finally gave his OK. It will be interesting to see how different this version is from the one I saw those many years ago….

I’ll let you know….