— musician Jack White
The folk music of Appalachia and the American South is relatively well known today. The glimpses these programs afford of the impoverished environs in which this music grew — cotton fields, flooded farmlands, desolate outposts — will be affecting, if not entirely unfamiliar. But with the 90-minute third episode, “Out of the Many, One,” the series leaps to its highest level. The pace quickens as we make the rounds of numerous widely dispersed communities that less predictably include Joseph Kekuku and his Hawaiian guitar; Lydia Mendoza and her soulful Tejano ballads; the Breaux Family and legendary Cajun singer Joseph Falcon of Louisiana. Here, too, the Southwest gets its moment in the sun, thanks to a segment focusing on the Hopi Indian Chanters, whose two sides of a 1926 Victor platter offer performances of the “Chant of the Snake Dance” and the “Chant of the Eagle Dance.” The story behind this record, which proved to be a strong seller for the label, is fascinating: an Anglo named M.W. (Milo) Billingsley fell in love with the Hopi, was adopted by the tribe, and helped defend them when some nasty souls in government started branding their sacred ceremonies as blasphemous. A moving commentary is provided by Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the present-day director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. He conveys ineffable sadness in recounting how these Hopi ceremonies were saved by performing them in public before a hell-heeled and well-connected crowd on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. — “They may have borrowed from another, non-sensitive ceremony,” he allows — essentially sacrificing the privacy of these rituals in order to preserve them. It led to a resolution from Congress allowing the Hopi to practice this ceremony forever. I do not know if today’s Hopi will be happy about seeing this vintage film of the snake dance aired in a PBS series, but I assume the network exercised the proper courtesies before including it. It is a beautiful segment, and Kuwanwisiwma’s commentary proves enriching insight.
Most of the talking heads who help dissect these recordings are active musicians, including blues legend Taj Mahal (whose insights are simply terrific), roots rocker T Bone Burnett, hiphopper Nas, and garage rocker Jack White. Burnett, White, and Robert Redford (who serves as narrator) are the series’ executive producers. In supporting publicity, White makes a striking observation: “In we can examine how important the fact is that when phonograph records were invented, for the first time ever, women, minorities, poor rural men, and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear, shockingly without much censorship. What they were allowed to say on phonograph recordings, they were not allowed to speak in public or in person. That is an astounding thought.”
The interviewees bring various perspectives to bear, some more convincingly than others, but in every case their appreciation is unmistakable. In fact, many of them appear in
a two-hour program and appendage to the series in which modern musicians recreate the recording experience of the 1920s. They perform some of these early songs to a reconstruction (by engineer Nicholas Bergh) of an electrical recording machine of the time. It is not as insistently captivating as the three installments of the series proper, but it is sure to delight fans of the participants (a diverse group that includes Willie Nelson, Elton John, and Los Lobos) and it does provide an unusually hands-on perspective on a potent chapter of America’s cultural history.
The three episodes of “American Epic” will be broadcast in New Mexico by KNME-TV (digital channel 5.1) at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16, May 23, and May 30, with “The American Epic Sessions” following at 7 p.m. on June 6. A companion soundtrack, consisting of 100 songs on five CDs, is being released as a collaboration by Legacy Recordings, Columbia Records, and Third Man Records. The book “American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself” is available from Touchstone.