— mu­si­cian Jack White

Pasatiempo - - LISTEN UP - Amer­i­can Epic Amer­i­can Epic Ses­sions, The

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.

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