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The first time America heard itself sing

The first time America heard itself sing

An unmissable new trilogy of documentaries, “American Epic”, uncovers the origins of popular music

An unmissable new trilogy of documentaries, “American Epic”, uncovers the origins of popular music

Michael Watts | May 20th 2017

In the 1920s Arnold and Ervin Williamson (above, centre) played fiddle-and-guitar music in the coal country of West Virginia. Among the tracks they performed was “Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand”, a folkloric working-man’s song better known as “John Henry”. Their recordings were few – they were miners first and foremost, with grim day jobs in the pits of Logan County – and no one believed their music would live on. Now they are among the pioneers of American popular music being celebrated in “American Epic”, a trilogy of music documentaries for the BBC’s “Arena”, co-produced with PBS.

It has taken Bernard MacMahon, a British director and producer, six years to complete what Robert Redford, the narrator, calls “America’s greatest untold story”. The documentaries weave together the origins of blues and country with the steel-guitar music of Hawaii and the cajun of Louisiana’s bayous. Most of today’s Western song-music, from hip-hop to heavy metal, ultimately derives from rural communities in the impoverished South, where musicians, both black and white, would travel hundreds of miles to be recorded and distributed. As Redford says, it was during the Roaring Twenties that America heard itself for first time.

The lives of many of these musicians remain shadowy. There is only one photograph of Charley Patton, the founder of Mississippi Delta blues and a showman in the manner of Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes advertised as “the Masked Marvel”, he could play guitar with his teeth, behind his back or while crawling across the stage. Patton, along with Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, a sacred trinity in the blues canon, spent time on the Dockery Farms plantation in Mississippi’s Sunflower County, where they were paid in the plantation’s own coinage. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, a guitarist and the grandson of a slave, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, was one of Dockery’s survivors. In a priceless scene (below), he’s filmed sitting and reminiscing with two other frail musicians, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood Jr. James declares that white men can’t sing the blues because they never had to “holler at a mule” in the cotton fields. 

 

One of the strengths of the films is that they resurrect the forgotten and obscure. Hardly anyone remembers J.E. Burch, a preacher from South Carolina who, in 1927, recorded 11 tracks of “sanctified” music with his church choir that presaged the rage for gospel. Fewer still know that he inspired another musical giant, Dizzy Gillespie, who was raised a block away from his church in the town of Cheraw. Joseph Kekuku (below), another unfamiliar name, is reported to have invented the steel guitar when he accidentally dropped an iron bolt on his strings. The lonesome sound that he discovered, like wind soughing in telegraph wires, would eventually revolutionise blues, country and even African music. 

Guitar hero Joseph Kekuku, inventor of the steel guitar

This is also a story of a technological revolution. Searching for new acts, producers travelled to towns like Bristol, Tennessee and recorded regional artists in warehouses, offices and ballrooms using innovative equipment: an electric microphone and amplifier, together with a pulley-driven lathe to power the turntable and a recording arm to transfer sound to a wax master-disc. It took roughly three minutes for the 90-pound pulley-weight to descend – supposedly the origin of the three-minute song that became the standard duration for pop singles.
 
Although the recording process was primitive, the musicians were so impressed by its immediacy that they described it as “catching lightning in a bottle”. In a bold attempt to recreate the process, MacMahon has filmed a fourth and final documentary, lasting two hours, called “American Epic: The Sessions”. In a run-down Los Angeles studio, contemporary musicians including Elton John, Beck and Willie Nelson record songs on salvaged equipment. Nas, a rapper from New York, connects the sound of life on the streets of Depression-era Memphis with the racy vernacular of current hip-hop. His song for the sessions is in the style of the Memphis Jug Band, who used a mixture of conventional and home-made instruments including a stone whiskey jug which you blew into. Its presiding genius was Will Shade, a black musician who lost his home and money in the Depression and was buried in an unmarked grave.

It’s heartening how many of these pioneers have been rewarded posthumously. The series finishes with “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. It’s a shivery, hymnal instrumental accompanied by Johnson’s low moans and hums – the sound of nightfall with no place to sleep, which Johnson faced many times in his life. In 1977, when NASA selected a recording of earthly sounds to send into space on board the Voyager capsule, this song was among them. It’s still going, spinning out into infinity from the Big Bang that created popular music. 

American Epic May 21st, BBC4

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