Last weekend, Sydney Film Festival screened the Australian premiere of American Epic, a wide-ranging new BBC and PBS TV series about the multicultural roots of American pop music. American Epic premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is narrated by Sundance don Robert Redford. Its expansive history and the fabulous early recordings of country, blues and other traditional forms that became pop music as we know it – as well as the accompanying modern takes by Jack White, T Bone Burnett, Nas and others – should find wide appeal amongst music fans and doco lovers.
American Epic covers that epochal era in the late 1920s when record labels, faced with competition from radio and looking for new product, sent mobile recording crews out to the hinterlands to capture the music of isolated and marginalised communities. For many poor and rural Americans, especially people of colour, it was the first time their musical traditions had ever been recorded. The resulting recordings of blues, folk, country, gospel and Hawaiian music became massively popular, triggering a seismic explosion of gritty, soulful Americana that changed history and reverberated around the world.
The first episode, “The Big Bang,” well establishes the show’s historical and cultural scope, exploring the contrasting musical styles of rural white Americans and their urban black counterparts, embodied in the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band. Both were first recorded by Victor Talking Machine Company agent Ralph Peer in the late ’20s.
The Carter Family hailed from a poor, remote “holler” in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. The story of their all-day drive on dirt roads in a Model T Ford, with 18-year-old guitarist Maybelle Carter heavily pregnant, so that Peer could record them is the sort of real-life legend that inspired the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which also featured Burnett’s music). Those sessions made the Carter Family one of the most iconic country acts of all time – famously a chief influence on Johnny Cash, who married into the family and who appears in a terrific archive performance with an elderly Sara and Maybelle Carter.
That same year, Peer set up his studio in Memphis, Tennessee, a rowdy urban centre on the Mississippi and a hotbed of nightlife and African American blues and folk music. Memphis was especially known for jug bands, whose players fashioned instruments from household goods because they were too poor to buy real ones. The Memphis Jug Band was prominent in this scene; their humourous, sometimes raunchy takes on jazz and country blues were massively influential on R&B and rock ’n’ roll.
American Epic misses a few notes. The stock footage illustrating the life of the era is wonderful, but is relied on too heavily to fill gaps in rare footage of the musicians. A few of the talking-head interviews are distracting, especially Jack White’s vague and unhelpfully grandiose musings. Redford’s narration tends to shy away from some of the thornier issues raised. I wanted to know whether the musicians felt exploited. The commodification of African American culture during the era of segregation is fraught with complexity, but, in the first episode anyway, it’s as though American Epic doesn’t want to go there. At one point, Redford seems to indicate that Elvis Presley invented rock ’n’ roll – a conflation that’s been a sore topic with African American music critics and historians for decades.
But with a subject this rich and fascinating, it’s ultimately hard to go wrong. The show’s overarching theme, that the bubbling wellspring of traditional American music and culture is still a relevant influence on today’s pop, is compelling. The interview with rap hero Nas about how much the Memphis Jug Band’s sometimes explicit lyrics have in common with modern hip hop is especially lucid. The wall-to-wall music alone makes the price of admission worth it; and if you’re a vinyl junkie like me, the extensive archive footage of records being cut and pressed in the late ’20s will make you dizzy with excitement. Judging by the first episode, the rest of the series should be more than worthwhile.