We categorize music to emphasize the differences, yet for all their stylistic dissimilarities, early American roots music shared considerable common ground. Although they incubated separately in socially and geographically distinct regions, they all harken back to those old murder ballads and sea shanties. Most importantly, you can always hear that old-time religion in there somewhere. Plus, just about everyone was well acquainted with Stagger Lee and John Henry. The birth of American music as we now know it is chronicled in Bernard MacMahon’s three-part documentary series, American Epic (promo here), which premieres this Tuesday on PBS.
Robert Redford’s stirring introductory narration explains “the first time America heard itself” was in the 1920s, when record companies dispatched representatives looking for new artists to appeal directly to under-served demographic groups. Frankly, that by itself is an insight worth further exploration. The result of this scouring for talent was the discovery of seminal artists, like the Carter family, who are the dominant figures of the first episode, “The Big Bang.”
The Carters literally lived in Poor Valley, Virginia, but they would become the first family of country music. Their influence on country music long pre-dates Johnny Cash marrying into the family. They were arguably the most popular group to come out hill country, but they also played a formative role in the early development of numerous other performers, including Chet Atkins, the greatest guitar virtuoso in the history of country music (and just about any other musical style).
In addition to the Carters, episode 1 also gives a thumb nail introduction to traditional jug bands and chronicles the early history of Beale Street. One of the highlights of the entire series comes courtesy of the great Charlie Musselwhite when he performs “I’ll Get a Break Someday” in one of the last surviving original Beale Street clubs, ironically now re-purposed as a police station.
There are a number of the good old good ones reinterpreted by modern ensembles sparingly sprinkled throughout Epic, but most of the contemporary performances will be heard in full when the companion program The American Epic Sessions airs next month. Instead, MacMahon focuses on the celebrated and unsung originals.
Episode two, “Blood and Soil” is arguable the strongest installment, because it showcases what MacMahon and co-writers Allison McGourty, Duke Erikson, and William Morgan do best—make connections. What starts as a hunt to find any information on Elder J.E. Burch, who recorded a handful of sides with his gospel choir eventually leads MacMahon to the ancestral home of one of the most important jazz artists ever (and that’s no exaggeration).
However, the bulk of the program draws parallels between the lives of sharecropper bluesmen like Charley Patton and coal-mining folk singers, such as the Williamson Brothers and Curry. It would be truly fruitless to argue whether life was harder in the Mississippi Delta or Logan Country, West Virginia. Instead, MacMahon and company emphasize the similarities between the hard-working, God-fearing people. It also ends strong, featuring performances by the late nonagenarian bluesmen Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Honeyboy Edwards, apostolic links to first generation bluesmen Patton and Son House.
Although “Out of the Many, the One” is the longest episode, it serves as a bit of a scattershot lightning round for the diverse ethnic musical traditions that were finally waxed at this time. Of course, it is nice to see the Breaux Family, sort of the Carters of Cajun music, get their due. Yet again, the strongest segments are those that make connections—in this case linking Hawaiian music back to blues and country through the steel guitar invented by eleven-year-old Joseph Kekuku. “Out of Many” ends with the re-emergence of Mississippi John Hurt during the Blues Revival. It is a logical way to bring the series full circle, but it will be a familiar story to anyone who has seen more than one blues documentary (indeed, it greatly parallels the experiences of Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose own documentary recently aired on PBS World).