PBS Series 'American Epic' Explores Our Musical Roots, With Help From Jack White & T Bone Burnett

Jack White (pictured) and T Bone Burnett lead an epic recording session using the only working 1920s recording device in existence in "The American Epic Sessions," a tribute to the artists celebrated in the "American Epic" documentary series.
Courtesy of 2017 Lo-Max Records Ltd

Jack White and T Bone Burnett lead an epic recording session using the only working 1920s recording device in existence in "The American Epic Sessions," a tribute to the artists celebrated in the "American Epic" documentary series. 

In the 1920s, music labels were eager to reinvent themselves as they faced potentially devastating declines in record sales due to the rise in radio’s popularity.

Salvation came in the form of a new electrical recording device that allowed A&R scouts to go out into the field and capture the sounds of country and blues acts like the Carter Family and Memphis Jug Band, many of whom had never been heard beyond their front porch.

That process allowed America to “hear itself for the first time,” as narrator Robert Redford declares in the three-part documentary American Epic, which premieres Tuesday on PBS. Redford, T Bone Burnett and Jack White serve as executive producers of the project, which spans the 1920s and early 1930s and chronicles how the new technology not only saved the record labels, but brought the music to the masses as the U.S. continued its move from an agrarian society to a modern one.

It took first-time director Bernard MacMahon, who also produced with Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, more than 10 years to complete the project as the documentary morphed and expanded. His entry to the film came years ago when he and a camera crew spent the day with aging bluesmen Homesick James Williamson, Robert Lockwood and David “Honeyboy” Williams at a local festival in his native England. 

MacMahon didn’t know what he would do with the footage; he only knew that he kept hearing the musicians he listened to -- Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave -- refer to these artists from the 1920s and 1930s, and he was curious to find out more. The problem was that other than the most famous artists from the era, his research turned up no photographs or biographical information. “I thought, 'They’re like mysteries, they’re like ghosts,’” he says.

He fell down a rabbit hole of research, placing stories in newspapers in tiny U.S. towns that he was coming to visit and hoping to meet with relatives, friends and colleagues of some of these early artists. Amazingly, the tactic worked, and he began piecing together stories of these musical pioneers. “I knew we were really at the last moment when we can collect information from these people or the people who knew them. Some of their children were already in their 80s,” he says. 

He and his fellow producers researched 100 musicians from New York to Hawaii, often going door to door. A turning point came when McGourty set up a meeting with Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen in 2010. Armed with unearthed photographs and other documents, the producers immediately caught Rosen’s attention, who opened his Rolodex. He connected them with BBC Arena, which provided crucial funding -- MacMahon says he put around $1 million of his own money into the project -- and Burnett. “I got on a plane a few days later and walked in to Village Recorders in L.A. There were two guys with their backs to me in the studio and it was T Bone and Elton John,” MacMahon recalls. Burnett instantly signed on as an executive producer, bringing in Redford and White, while John handed over his number and said if he could help to call.

The elephant in the room, MacMahon says, was that no one could figure out how the early recordings were made. He tracked down engineer Nicholas Bergh, a pre-eminent restorer of audio tracks for early films. Bergh had just finished restoring an electrical recording machine from years of collecting parts -- none of the original 20 made by AT&T’s Western Electric had survived.

Bergh’s machine also led to the second part of American Epic: The American Epic Sessions, a feature-length film airing June 6 on PBS with White and Burnett leading contemporary artists through recording sessions using Bergh’s reconstructed device. Among the participating acts are Alabama Shakes, John, Nas, The Avett Brothers, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens and Taj Mahal. The machine works on pulleys and allows for no stopping or restarting and records straight to wax.

“We spent a lot of time figuring out who would have the guts to do this,” says MacMahon of the new recordings. “We avoided people with feverish tendencies. We told them, ‘We’re going to do this live in one take.’”

Mahal, who also appears in the documentary, served as a vital link between many of the long gone blues artists and today since he met many of the musicians in the documentary in the 1960s as a young bluesman. “When I came out, most of these guys were anywhere from their early 60s to early 80s,” he says. For Sessions, Mahal performs “High Water Everywhere” because, “I’m a Charley Patton fanatic,” he tells Billboard, even though he never got to meet Patton, who died in 1934. “‘High Water Everywhere’ is one of the most tour de force blues you can find. It’s historical. He’s talking about this flood and what’s going on. It’s like a play set to music.” 

Mahal was brought into the project by Legacy Recordings president Adam Block, who was recruited by Rosen because he knew that Legacy, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, already held the rights to many of the songs the producers hoped to include. “Bernard arrived believing he could uncover a new first chapter in American music,” Block says. “I think that when he got into our archive, he realized how much deeper he could go. This became an even richer story than he imagined.”

On May 12, Legacy Recordings released American Epic: The Collection, a 5-CD, 100-song box set with much of the material heard in the documentary, as well as additional rare, archival recordings. Also out is American Epic: The Soundtrack, a 15-track single disc featuring songs from the documentary trilogy. 

Columbia Records will release a Sessions companion album on June 9. White’s Third Man Records will put The Collection, The Soundtrack and Sessions out on vinyl, as well as a number of 12” vinyls devoted to single artists, including Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt. 

When it came time to find an American television partner, the producers’ first stop was PBS for one simple reason— they had spent years crisscrossing America researching these musicians, often going into poor, rural communities. “It just felt appropriate that it should be on a channel that everyone could watch,” MacMahon says. “We know there’s going to be less money than doing it with a pay-per-view channel, but it was really a democratic decision.”

“In the summer of 2013, they brought me a spectacular dossier of ancient, archival photographs and stories of people they’d interviewed, [including] relatives of completely forgotten and obscure musicians who turned out to be the first cohort of recording music,” says Stephen Segaller, executive in charge of PBS flagship station, WNET. “It was the best series pitch I had heard in years.” 

He brought the idea to PBS Chief Programming Executive Beth Hoppe. “I said to PBS, ‘They’re asking for a lot of money and I think you can do it.’ That’s when we got it off the ground. That’s when it was green lit.“ Segaller put the budget at ‘seven figures,’ but declined to be more specific. “We’re not quite done with raising the money to finish paying the bills,” he said. 

In some cases, virtually no remaining copies of the original recordings existed because the shellac had been melted down to help paint tanks in World War II. “We had to go back and recover our past,” Burnett says. Remarkably, EMI in London had copies of many of the albums by a fluke, Burnett continues. When RCA [now part of Sony] started in 1906, the head of the label went to the already established EMI in England for research and asked to use EMI’s “His Master’s Voice” tag. The head of EMI said yes, asking that in exchange RCA sent EMI a copy of every record put out by RCA with the logo. EMI’s copies were not melted down.

One point made clear through the archeology that led to the making of American Epic, Burnett says, is “it is crucial that we archive our culture in as future-proof a way as we can,” he says. “From watching the documentary, I want people to learn how valuable music is to our culture. Music and the arts lead us, reflect us. That we’re going to be archived digitally through our consumer habits cuts us off from everything that makes it important about being a human being.”

For Block, the challenge is making sure that American Epic reaches as wide an audience as possible and “the world takes time to listen to this music and understand the stories behind it,” he says. “Without this material, there would not be the music we have today.” Sony will market all audio companions as frontline product. Sony is also working with Touchstone, which has released a coffee table book that goes behind the scenes of the American Epic saga, to promote the project, as well as linked with Dogfish Head craft brewery, which has created a spirit based on American Epic. 

MacMahon, who now lives in Santa Monica, sees American Epic and all its parts as a love letter to his adopted country. “I grew up in South London and I would look up and see the planes going over Heathrow and wonder if they were going to America and want to be on one of those planes,” he says. “This film is from English filmmakers to America on why we love the spirit of America.”


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