Ter­rell’s Tune-Up PBS’ Amer­i­can Epic

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Back dur­ing the height of Water­gate, Paul Si­mon sang, “We come in the age’s most un­cer­tain hour to sing an Amer­i­can tune.” We’ve had lots of un­cer­tain hours since then, and I still find strength in those Amer­i­can tunes, the old creaky blues, gospel, hill­billy, jug­band records, those crazy songs of joy, wry hu­mor, and sim­ple wis­dom sung by peo­ple liv­ing in se­vere poverty in iso­lated re­gions, in an era of harsh in­jus­tice and racial apartheid. I find com­fort in those weird mu­si­cal sto­ries of hor­ri­ble mur­ders, of hop­ping trains, of hope­less drunks find­ing the Lord, of spooky old pines where the sun never shines, of care­free ducks div­ing into rivers of whiskey.

So dur­ing this un­cer­tain, tense, and vi­o­lent era I was heart­ened in re­cent weeks when PBS pre­sented Amer­i­can

Epic, its ex­cel­lent doc­u­men­tary se­ries about the dawn of the Amer­i­can record­ing in­dus­try in the mid-1920s, when record com­pa­nies sent tal­ent scouts to scour the hills, hollers, and honky­tonks of the South to find mu­si­cians that the folks in ru­ral Amer­ica could re­late to.

The se­ries, di­rected by Bri­tish film­maker Bernard MacMa­hon and nar­rated by Robert Red­ford, fo­cuses on a hand­ful of greats like the Carter Fam­ily, Mis­sis­sippi John Hurt (a sweet, gen­tle spirit who is one of my ma­jor mu­si­cal he­roes), blues pi­o­neer Char­lie Patton, and South Carolina gospel singer and preacher Elder J.E. Burch — whose parish­ioners in­cluded the young Dizzy Gille­spie. Amer­i­can Epic fea­tures three episodes of mu­si­cal his­tory, plus one called “The Amer­i­can Epic Ses­sions,” which con­sists of per­for­mances of (mostly) old songs by con­tem­po­rary artists in­clud­ing Alabama Shakes, Taj Ma­hal, Los Lo­bos, Beck, Wil­lie Nel­son with the late Merle Hag­gard, and more. These tunes were recorded on an old pul­ley-driven West­ern Elec­tric Scully lathe, the kind that the record com­pa­nies hauled around to record the im­mor­tals in the ’20s and ’30s. Through­out “Ses­sions,” the di­rec­tors show a near cargo-cult fas­ci­na­tion with this Rube Goldberg-like de­vice. Though the South is the main fo­cus of Amer­i­can

Epic, there are also ex­cur­sions into the West. There is a seg­ment on Te­jano mu­sic queen Lydia Men­doza and a trip to Hawaii, where we hear the story of Joseph Kekuku, the man who in­vented the steel gui­tar. And there is a seg­ment on Hopi mu­sic, telling the story of how racist re­li­gious nuts in Con­gress sought to ban the tribe’s Snake Dance, call­ing the Hopi re­li­gion “a weird cult” af­ter unau­tho­rized film footage of the dance — which had been at­tended years be­fore in Ari­zona by Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt — leaked out. In re­sponse, a group of Hopi re­li­gious lead­ers went to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in 1926 to per­form the Snake Dance for a crowd of dig­ni­taries on the steps of the U.S. Capi­tol. They also recorded sev­eral songs for RCA Victor.

Be­ing a jug-band fa­natic, my fa­vorite seg­ment deals with the Mem­phis Jug Band, led by Will Shade. At one point the rap­per Nas talks about the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween hip-hop and jug-band mu­sic. “These guys are talk­ing about car­ry­ing guns, shoot­ing some­thing, pro­tect­ing their honor, chas­ing af­ter some woman who’s done them dirty.” Nas, backed by an acous­tic band led by Jack White, per­forms a ver­sion of the Mem­phis Jug Band’s “On the Road Again” in the “Ses­sions” episode.

Sony has re­leased nine Amer­i­can Epic al­bums, in­clud­ing a sin­gle-disc sound­track of the artists cov­ered, a five-disc box set, a “Ses­sions” sound­track by mod­ern mu­si­cians, and sev­eral for in­di­vid­ual artists and gen­res. Critic Robert Christ­gau re­cently joked — was he jok­ing? — that “Amer­i­can Epic is a Sony plot to poach/res­cue the Amer­i­can folk mu­sic fran­chise from the Smith­so­nian and the great Harry Smith.”

Most of this mu­sic is avail­able on other com­pi­la­tions. Here are some other great Amer­i­can roots-mu­sic col­lec­tions:

▼ An­thol­ogy of Amer­i­can Folk Mu­sic. The fab­u­lously ec­cen­tric Harry Smith com­piled this col­lec­tion in 1952 from old 78 rpm records in his per­sonal col­lec­tion. The 84 songs — blues, hill­billy, Cajun, gospel — orig­i­nally were recorded be­tween 1927 and 1932. Among the artists in­cluded are Mis­sis­sippi John Hurt, Char­lie Patton, the Carter Fam­ily, Dock Boggs, Blind Wil­lie John­son, Rev. J.M. Gates, Blind Le­mon Jef­fer­son, and Un­cle Dave Ma­con. Keep in mind, the an­thol­ogy came about in 1952, back when only a few aca­demics and the most ob­ses­sive record col­lec­tors knew who any of these peo­ple were.

▼ The Bris­tol Ses­sions. The first episode of Amer­i­can Epic tells the story of RCA tal­ent scout Ralph Peer set­ting up a makeshift record­ing stu­dio in an old fur­ni­ture store in Bris­tol, Ten­nessee, in 1927 and strik­ing gold. Among those he at­tracted to Bris­tol were the Carter Fam­ily and Jim­mie Rodgers. Also among the Bris­tol bunch were West Vir­ginia bard Blind Al­fred Reed, Ernest Stone­man, and the Ten­neva Ram­blers, whose song “The Long­est Train I Ever Saw” would in sub­se­quent years be handed back and forth among black blues­men and white hill­billy and blue­grass singers un­der var­i­ous ti­tles (“In the Pines,” “Black Girl”). It would re-emerge in the 1990s as Nir­vana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” (There are a few ver­sions of this col­lec­tion avail­able rang­ing from a sin­gle disc to a five-disc box.)

▼ Ruckus Juice & Chitlins: The Great Jug Bands. This is a set of two CDs (sold sep­a­rately) of clas­sic jug-band record­ings from Ya­zoo Records. The col­lec­tion in­cludes sem­i­nal acts like the Mem­phis Jug Band, Can­non’s Jug Stom­pers, Earl Mc­Don­ald’s Orig­i­nal Louisville Jug Band, Whistler & His Jug Band, and more.

▼ My Rough and Rowdy Ways: Bad­man Bal­lads & Hell­rais­ing Songs, Clas­sic Record­ings From the 1920s and ’30s. This is my sec­ond-fa­vorite two-disc col­lec­tion from Ya­zoo. The sub­ti­tle says it all. It’s a bunch of great hell­rais­ing blues and hill­billy songs about sex, booze, drugs (Dick Jus­tice’s “Co­caine” kicks off Vol. 2), gam­bling, and mur­der­ers — from StackO-Lee to Billy the Kid to the psy­cho who killed Pretty Polly.

Critic Robert Christ­gau re­cently joked — was he jok­ing? — that “Amer­i­can Epic is a Sony plot to poach/res­cue the Amer­i­can folk mu­sic fran­chise from the Smith­so­nian and the great Harry Smith.”

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