T Bone Burnett Robert Redford Jack White Present American Epic is a project of many parts. There’s (1-3) the three-episode, three-hour documentary, directed by Bernard MacMahon, on the emergence of recorded vernacular music in the U.S.A. in the 1920s and 1930s (BBC Arena/PBS), a (4) single-CD The Soundtrack (Sony Legacy), a (5) book by MacMahon and producer Allison McGourty, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone), and the (6) two-hour film The Sessions, where contemporary musicians are seen recording on a (7) reconstructed 1928 Western Electric machine. There is (8) a magnificent 100-track compendium, paralleling Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music but expanding on it, with a remastering I can only call profound. Performances you might think you knew sound as if you’ve never heard them before — never apprehended them. There are (9) seven redundant individual artist and genre best-of LPs from White’s Third Man label, and the (10) startling three-LP The Sessions (Third Man), drawn from highlights and outtakes from the record-machine film. (The Sessions and the best-ofs are also available digitally from Sony; the documentary and Sessions film are streaming through PBS.)
There are many dead spots and more highlights. The documentary, organized around occasionally eloquent and sometimes stultifyingly empty commentary by descendants of the now deceased people we’re being told about, is dragged down by clichés that are embarrassing to quote (“Though poor in material goods, the mountain folk were rich in tradition”) and a flat narration by Redford, which incorporates the time-honored PBS American Masters trick of making unlikely stories seem obvious. There is also the thrilling discovery of a picture of a radiant Ma Rainey as a young woman (“from an extraordinary photo album compiled by a Chicago-based African-American Twenties/Thirties concert promoter,” MacMahon said when I asked about the source), a bone-chilling 1968 Son House performance of “Death Letter Blues” so relentless it’s hard to listen to, and a revelatory search for Elder J.E. Burch — the overwhelming power of whose 1927 “My Heart Keeps Singing” throws a weakness of the entire filmic approach into relief. We learn about his life, his Triumph church, its message of uplift, and the connection to the civil rights movement, but the music is not simply biography and sociology. It’s also the singularity of a man who led a congregation that, on one day in 1927, caught a spirit so rich as to shame the poverty of ordinary life. Why is it so great? Among its other voices the film needs critics, people who if they can’t answer the question can at least raise it.
The book is a making-of account that often rescues material from interviews that can be muffled in the film, as with the Columbia record man Frank Walker, speaking to Mike Seeger in 1962 of the auditions he held throughout the South in the Twenties: “You got everything you thought they were capable of doing well and would be salable, and that was it — you forgot about them, said goodbye, and they went back home. They had made a phonograph record, and that was the next thing to being president of the United States in their mind.” Those lines can echo through the Sessions film and LPs. The Western Electric machine — one more fruit of Jack White’s obsessive love for artifacts that represent the first successful effort to solve a question of recording technology — runs by pulleys that allow for no more than three minutes for any live take; you get it or lose it. Producing nearly every number, White and Burnett capture performances so good you can hardly listen without thinking of how close each recording is to not existing at all.
Willie Nelson, so encrusted in shtick for so long, emerges as if out of a lake for a duet with Merle Haggard on Haggard’s “The Only Man Wilder Than Me.” Bettye LaVette’s “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” made with the absurdly handsome Zac Sokolow of the Americans keeping company on guitar, is so snaky you can almost hear Frank Stokes, who recorded the song in 1928, singing softly behind her. The star is Nas, riding Lillie Mae Rische’s gorgeous fiddle as he high-steps his way through the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 “On the Road Again” as if he’s telling the story for the first time. “As long as there was English, and black people,” he says on film, “there was rap.”
The moment that seals the project comes at the close of the third episode of MacMahon’s documentary. We see Mississippi John Hurt, who recorded in 1928 and then, as Walker put it, was forgotten — who, in Hurt’s own words, waited 35 years for Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins to locate him in Avalon, Mississippi, in 1963 and bring him to the Newport Folk Festival that same year. Now it’s 1964, Hurt is again at Newport — and all but alone among all the musicians MacMahon has been seeking, he speaks for himself. He’s being interviewed about folk music. “You didn’t think of it as folk music at the time, did you?” the interviewer asks, referring to Hurt’s first recordings. “Well,” Hurt says, “I didn’t know what folk music was — I began to kind of learn what they meant by folk music….I think it means songs that…what I call, died out. Went back and renew ’em. That right?” It’s somewhere backstage; in a confluence almost too stupendous to believe, as John Hurt speaks, you can hear Bob Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“John Hurt was the inspiration for American Epic,” MacMahon said when I asked if this was real. He described going through Newport footage: “I was reviewing a reel and saw his beautiful face and thought, ‘Wow, this looks like an interview.’ When we projected the film with sound and he started talking, I heard the unmistakable harmonica playing in the background. He must have been behind the main stage. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and then John says, ‘The Bible says the old men teach the younger ones. I’m glad I’ve got something they want.’ I knew then I had the end of my film.”