For Lovers of Recorded Music and its History, "American Epic" Is Must See PBS TV

Last year while in Los Angeles I was invited to a cramped Culver City editing studio where I got to see extraordinary footage of a then unfinished sprawling documentary series called "American Epic" subtitled "The First Time America Heard Itself" presented by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White.

What I saw on a flatbed editing system was footage of T-Bone and members of Los Lobos standing in front of a single microphone and performing live in a cramped studio containing a fully restored Western Electric 78rpm cutting lathe—the only one known to still exist.

It was the first electrical recording system and it changed the world. Driving the lathe platter was a weight-driven clockwork-based pulley system.It takes approximately three minutes for the weight to hit the floor, after which the platter stops. That's how long the musicians have to record their song.

The visual was primitive but the sound was superb. I exclaimed "Ok, so that was re-recorded in a modern studio, right?" I should have known better. What I was hearing was playback of the cut wax (unless the lathe was modified to cut lacquer).

I was then shown literally mind-blowing footage of Mississippi John Hurt backstage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Hurt, who had recorded in New York and Memphis for the Okeh label in the 1920 but returned shortly thereafter to Avalon, Mississippi had literally been tracked down that year by musicologist Tom Hoskins using Hurt's song "Avalon Blues".

The footage was an outtake from "Festival", Murray Lerner's indispensable 1967 documentary. In it, Hurt is seen talking about the need for older artists like himself to teach and nurture youngsters. In the background you can hear twenty two year old Bob Dylan singing onstage.

What I got to see was a snippet from "American Epic" a the sprawling three part documentary directed by Bernard McMahon and produced by Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson and audio engineer Nicholas Bergh, who restored the lathe and situated it in the very studio in which it (or one like it) resided during the 1920s and '30s in a building on Melrose Avenue across the street from Paramount Studios (this is based on my recollection of conversations I had back then with people associated with the project, not from the press releases).

The three part series that will run Tuesdays on PBS, May 16th, 23rd and 30th at 9PM (check your local listings) narrated by Redford explores the adventures of music scouts who traveled around America with these cutting lathes and recorded musicians they'd discovered in their travels. The series will also air in the U.K. on BBC.

The narrative describes how as radio overwhelmed the record business, the companies had to leave the cities and studios in search of talent. They found Delta blues, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex, you name it. And they recorded and released it. Very little footage exists and nearly ninety percent of the recording masters have been lost or destroyed.

The documentary's ten year long mission was to track down obscure, long forgotten musicians and restore the music they recorded. In the process the team discovered previously unseen film footage and photographs and they interviewed those still living musicians as well as their families ands those who were eyewitnesses to the events.

It's all about the phonograph records and the newly recorded live performances on the restored lathe. A second documentary, "The American Epic Sessions" airing beginning June 6th features the new lathe recordings performed by Alabama Shakes, The Americans, Ana Gabriel, Ashley Monroe, The Avett Brothers, Beck, Bettye LaVette, Bobby Ingano, Elton John, Frank Fairfield, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Los Lobos, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Nas, Pokey LaFarge, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Taj Mahal, Jack White, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

About the project Taj Mahal, who performs, said “The same machines my heroes and mentors have played on, and that this industry got jump-started from? I’d certainly like to be a part of that. As far as I’m concerned it’s the sound, and I don’t think you can get any better than vinyl. You can get clean, pristine, but you can’t get that juice.”

Speaking of which, there will be both a 100 song CD box set from Sony/Legacy Recordings, Columbia Records will issue new studio performances, while Third Man Record will release on vinyl "The American Epic Sessions" soundtrack and a selection of archival recordings. There will also be a companion book.

Dorian Workman's picture

Can't wait to watch. I do hope you have recovered from your mind literally being blown though - not many do.

"I was then shown literally mind-blowing footage of Mississippi John Hurt backstage..."

Michael Fremer's picture
"jaw dropping"! I watched and reviewed the Murray Lerner documentary so to see that footage, which was an outtake, was mind-blowing. How could that have not been used?
Dorian Workman's picture

It was your misuse of 'literally' that I was being anal-retentive about. That is literally the most misused word in the English language today!

Thanks again for your excellent reporting as always, can't wait to watch this one.

virtualbryan's picture

Actually, to the dismay of many the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011 updated their entry for literally to include
“c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as' (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

JohnG's picture

Sure would like to see that movie "Festival." I've seen pieces of it used in Dylan movies. It's not on Netflix or Amazon, natch.

Montpier's picture

Thanks for the heads up. Wonder if our local PBS stations will be offering vinyl sets for the pledge drive? BTW - if ever in the vicinity of Bristol, VA/TN (one of those towns that straddle a border) worth a detour to stop in at the Birthplace of Country Music museum.


BTW - Thirdman now offering both Rise & Fall of Paramount Records sets bundled for $150 off. The most amazing record collections I've ever encountered. Almost literally mind-blowing...

kruhlin's picture

I had forgotten about this - no scheduled on my DVR.

tommyr's picture

Here's a link to the BBC for this programme:

It's scheduled to be broadcast 10pm-11pm from 21st May (and then presumably same time in the subsequent weeks)

avanti1960's picture

educational and entertaining. i will never sneer at country music again in my lifetime.
can't wait to see how they cover the roots of jazz (hopefully) although i have a feeling we are all going to wish this series were much longer when it's over.

Jancuso's picture

Michael so glad you highlighted this. I am incredibly grateful that such care has been given to American musics roots. Can't wait for the direct-cut vinyl Epic Sessions to be issued and so pleased that we're being offered many choices in purchasing the video and the music from this program.
Ralph Peer's name comes up often, with good reason, and last year a book about his life was published. It may be too esoteric for many but for some of us, it's a tremendous, if dry, account of the life of this instrumental (lol) man in recognizing and recording regional roots music. Also founding the principles of the music publishing business world-wide. He did a lot! The book is "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music" by Barry Mazor.

Howard's picture

Interesting that the 100 song compilation will be issued on a CD but apparently not vinyl???