A film series exploring the pivotal recording journeys at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when music scouts, armed with cutting-edge recording technology, captured the breadth of American music and discovered the artists that would shape our world.
Robert Redford narrates this meticulously researched story of a cultural revolution that changed the world. “This isn’t just another film, this is history” – Elton John.
Part 1: The Big Bang
The first episode takes us back to 1920s America, where the growth of radio had shattered record sales. Record companies travelled rural America and recorded the music of ordinary people for the first time. The poor and oppressed were given a voice as their recordings spread from state to state.
The film introduces the early recordings of The Carter Family, the founders of modern country music, steeped in the traditions of their isolated Appalachian community. It also features Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, whose music told the story of street life in Memphis, and laid the foundations for modern day rap and R’n’B.
Part 2: Blood and Soil
This episode takes a look at the stories of those early music pioneers whose names have largely been forgotten.
In the small South Carolina town of Cheraw, Elder Burch held lively church gatherings which inspired young musicians – including jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie’s autobiography cites Burch and his sons as direct inspirations; it is no exaggeration to say that modern music would not look the same without Burch’s early influence.
The programme takes a look at the gritty songs and musicians that came from the coal mines of Logan County, West Virginia – The Williamson Brothers, Dick Justice and Frank Hutchinson. The hellish conditions of the coal mines inspired them to find a way out, through their music.
Finally we head to the home of the blues – the Mississippi Delta, where Charley Patton captured the sounds and struggles of life in the cotton fields. Patton’s significance cannot be understated; he is widely considered the most influential musician in the birth of blues, teaching some of the best blues artists that followed including Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards.
Part 3: Out of the Many, the One
The third episode takes a look at the influence of Hawaiian music and more specifically, the steel guitar, which became a central sound to a range of musical styles. When Joseph Kekuku picked up a metal bolt as he wandered down a train track, the bolt hit the strings of his guitar and the sound was born. He perfected his slide to create a new instrument that would travel the world.
The programme continues with an exploration of Cajun music, the blended music of Louisiana that reflects the winding landscape of the bayous. This appealed to the record companies as something set apart from the established genres of country, jazz and blues. Central to the scene were the Breaux family, who talk about continuing their musical heritage today.
Finally we hear the story of Mississippi John Hurt – discovered in the 1920s but soon forgotten, he represents the odyssey of American Epic in microcosm. After travelling to Memphis where his music was recorded, he returned home to Avalon, a tiny spot on the map of Mississippi. With the Depression, recording in the south came virtually to a halt and Hurt simply went back to sharecropping, his music forgotten by all but a few dedicated collectors. 35 years after those first recordings, folklorist Dick Spottswood tracked down Hurt in 1963, sparking a revival of his music. He starred at the Newport Folk Festival and became celebrated all over the world.
Part 4: The Sessions
The machine that introduced the sounds of America to its people has been lovingly reassembled and now, in the heart of Hollywood, in a perfect recreation of the atmosphere and conditions of America’s first ever recording studios, today’s music superstars roll the epic on.
Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Alabama Shakes, Jack White, Nas, Ana Gabriel, Beck, Los Lobos and Steve Martin are among the artists who test their skills against the demands of the recording machine that literally made American music. There are no edits, no overdubs and no retakes, and the disc only allows for three minutes of recording time.
Despite these limitations, today’s recordings for American Epic have one advantage – the freshly recorded sound is crystal clear and of an astonishing depth, transporting us vividly into the past – and the future.