NEW YORK (CNS) — Robert Redford narrates director Bernard MacMahon’s exceptional documentary “American Epic,” a chronicle of the lasting impact of American roots-music recordings made in the 1920s.
The series, which premiered on PBS stations Tuesday, May 16, continues Tuesday, May 23, 9 p.m.-10 p.m. EDT and concludes Tuesday, May 30, 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m. EDT.
Fans of this genre also will enjoy MacMahon’s “The American Epic Sessions,” a feature-length film airing on PBS Tuesday, June 6, 8 p.m.-11 p.m. EDT and featuring contemporary artists such as Nas, Willie Nelson and Alabama Shakes replicating the original records. Additionally, Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings has released a companion soundtrack to the series, a 100-song box set.
“American Epic” contains nothing genuinely offensive. But the songs it showcases frequently describe adultery, murder, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and general matters of sexuality — their lyrics often based the artists’ own experiences.
Taking these realities into consideration, “American Epic” is suitable viewing for discerning adults. As outstanding popular history, and particularly if set in a proper educational context, however, the program might also be considered appropriate for mature high school students.
With the ascendancy of radio during the 20s causing a slump in record sales — both media catered primarily to the urban middle class — recording labels had to look for new talent that they hoped would draw fresh audiences. So they sent scouts to the more remote parts of the United States to audition “thousands of everyday Americans.”
Performing as the Carter Family, A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle were prominent among the resulting discoveries. On Aug. 2, 1927, the Carters, who hailed from an Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia aptly named “Poor Valley,” created what the filmmakers call one of American music’s “big bangs.”
The man responsible for this breakthrough was Victor Records scout Ralph Peer. With a knack for catching “lighting in the bottle,” Peer had previously recorded Louis Armstrong and Fiddlin’ John Carson. The latter is credited with the first country-music hit record ever made.
The way “American Epic” rescues pioneers like Peer from obscurity is one of its strengths. So, too, is the fact that it uses rare recordings to enable long-dead figures — not only performers but people like Peer who worked behind the scenes — to speak to a contemporary audience.
Peer, who died in 1960, for example, strikingly describes the first time he saw the Carters, when they walked into his makeshift studio in Bristol, Tennessee, that fateful August night: “They looked,” he says, “like children dressed in rags.”
“But,” he continues, “once I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I built around it.”
Interviews with the performers’ descendants also distinguish “American Epic,” and their deep, personal connections to the people who made the music will enrich viewers’ appreciation of songs they’ve heard all their lives, like the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The odyssey of another musician the filmmakers profile, Mississippi John Hurt, represents, in their words, “the saga of ‘American Epic’ in microcosm.” After making his original recordings for Okeh Records in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1928, the Delta blues guitarist spent the next 35 years eking out a living as a sharecropper and cow minder in Avalon, Mississippi.
Yet his career was to come full circle. After discovering a rare recording of Hurt’s “Avalon Blues,” musicologist Dick Spottswood dispatched colleague Tom Hoskins to track Hurt down. Hurt went on to become the surprise star of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
Stunningly evocative, the largely black-and-white film footage and still photographs enhance stories such as Hurt’s and the Carters’. Other memorable numbers besides those already mentioned include “Mal Hombre,” a fiery hit for Tejano music’s first superstar, Lydia Mendoza, “Jolie Blonde,” the so-called Cajun national anthem, performed by the Breaux Brothers, as well as Hurt’s plaintive “Frankie.”
Despite poverty and hard lives, culturally diverse musicians such as these made music from the ground up. In doing so, the filmmakers note, they “shaped our world.” “American Epic” is a fitting tribute to their achievements.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.