Jack White helps revive an ancient technology, and the musicians it captured, in a series of films broadcast transatlantically in May.
An upcoming film series on US popular song of the ’20s and ’30s, American Epic is also a recording project where, with help from Jack White, names including Willie Nelson, Elton John, Taj Mahal and Nas cut songs old and new on a vintage Scully lathe! Jack tells all on this extraordinary retro-modern endeavour.
There’s a priceless moment in American Epic: The Sessions, the final instalment of a group of films slated for broadcast on BBC Four and PBS in mid-May. Jack White has helped persuade a procession of star musicians to pop into a Los Angeles studio and cut tunes straight to a vintage Scully lathe – just the type of machine that would have recorded
folk, blues and country artists in the 1930s. Trouble is, the webbing strap which holds the weight that descends to spin the lathe at a fixed RPM, suddenly snaps. Disaster! Except… not when the session’s prime mover is a former master upholsterer. White jumps into his car, film-makers in attendance, and races to a local cleaner/tailor, commandeers a sewing machine and effects the repair himself. The day is saved. And nothing could better underline a point White makes about the history of American popular recording and its grounding in good old opportunism and ingenuity. “What’s great about America is, someone will work hard in some garage or basement somewhere and invent something incredibly cultured and life-altering for everybody to experience,” says White. “The next step is to figure out how to monetise it. And that’s the part that starts to get really interesting… because once you are aiming to try to make money off of a format of some kind, then happy accidents start happening. And that’s how we accidentally got all these amazing artists to record, who never would have been recorded.” American Epic, directed by Bernard MacMahon, produced by Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, and co-produced by the BBC’s Arena, WNET and PBS (with executive production credits for White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford, who narrates) is an expedition to rediscover some of those amazing artists. The first three of four films are straight documentaries, delving into the stories of American archetypes The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt and The Memphis Jug Band, and tracing musical threads including the Hawaiian steel guitar boom and its impact on the development of country, and the songs of West Virginia’s coal-mining country – music all originally aimed at local markets. “We are extremely lucky in the 1920s and ’30s that rural artists were recorded that would have never been recorded had these companies not wanted to sell records to rural people,” explains White. “And a lot of these songs have changed the world, really.”
“RECORDING STUDIOS HAVE SORT OF BEEN CHURCHES FOR MUSIC.”
The story of the pioneer phase of the US recording industry runs alongside that of the artists, culminating in American Epic: The Sessions, where contemporary acts discover kinship with America’s recording originals, with stars including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens, Alabama Shakes, Taj Mahal, Bettye LaVette, Beck and rapper Nas cutting tunes from the ’20s to the ’40s plus contemporary songs in a vintage style, overseen by White and Burnett, using 1920s microphones and the Scully lathe. In one of the series’ most extraordinary moments, Elton John arrives toting a box-fresh lyric by Bernie Taupin and works it up in an instant, the song materialising in front of the viewers’ eyes before John and Jack White go for the take. There’s the magic right there. “Recording studios in general have sort of been churches for music,” says White. “You had to come rehearsed with your songs ready to go. This is your one moment to do that. And all the recordings since the beginning of this recording technology were like that. You came to the room prepared for this moment. So that’s like going to church; that’s likegetting on your best clothes and going to church for this moment to happen. You can’t fix this later. Any mistakes that happen are going to be there, in the finished record, which is a great place to be. It’s a scary place to be for some people too.” American Epic has also inspired a batch of audio releases. May 12 sees the emergence of American Epic: The Collection – a 5-CD, 100-song box set of restored original recordings – and American Epic: The Soundtrack –a 15-song highlights set on Sony Legacy. Recordings from the Sessions instalment are also due, in 1-CD and 2-CD deluxe packages on Columbia, while Jack White’s Third Man outfit plan vinyl compilations of artists featured in American Epic, including The Memphis Jug Band, and a Sessions soundtrack. An American Epic book is published by Simon & Schuster on May 2.