An ‘Epic’ Journey

The Avett Brothers perform as a foursome with viola upright bass, banjo and guitar.

Hillbilly rock elegy: the Avett Brothers perform in the Emmy-nominated “American Epic Sessions” episode of PBS’ four-part American Epic series. (Photo courtesy Lo-Max Records Ltd.)

In the 1920s, a nascent radio revolution changed popular culture by offering a new way to disseminate music. In search of new styles and markets, record company executives began reaching out beyond city confines in search of new styles and markets. Traveling the mountains, prairies, rural villages and urban ghettos, this intrepid band of early A&R men discovered a wealth of talent and set the stage for American Epic, the Emmy-nominated music series produced for PBS that chronicles our nation’s early music heritage.
What was initially a hobby on the part of director Bernard MacMahon — going to heritage concerts and recording interviews with the performers — triggered the 10-year odyssey that he calls “the Lawrence of Arabia of music documentaries.” The British filmmaker, who also wrote and produced, “became very obsessed about finding the origins of American popular music and crisscrossed America tracking down the families of the musicians who made those first blues, country and gospel records in the ’20s.”

The result is a feat of cultural archaeology accompanied by a five-and-a-half hour film and a killer soundtrack. Twelve-time Grammy nominee Jack White signed on as executive producer, along with T Bone Burnett (13 Grammys), and Robert Redford, who narrates the first three documentary installments. Part four is the two-hour “The American Epic Sessions,” a series of recordings that took place in Hollywood, bringing together the likes of Beck, Elton John, the Alabama Shakes, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
It’s part four that is nominated for Outstanding Music Direction, competing against specials featuring Tony Bennett, the music of the Bee Gees and the Lady Gaga Super Bowl halftime show, among others. “As soon as I saw the extraordinary footage, photographs and stories Bernard was unearthing I knew we had an important film,” said writer-producer Allison McGourty, who met MacMahon at a Taj Mahal performance when she was working at the BBC in London. The blues musician, now 75, is among those who perform on “The American Epic Sessions.”

Trio of American Epic producers stand in a dimly lit recording studio with instruments scattered about at their feet.

Lo-Max Films principals (from left) Duke Erikson, Allison McGourty and Bernard MacMahon at Vox Recording Studios in Hollywood.
(Photo courtesy Lo-Max Records Ltd.)

When MacMahon founded Lo-Max Records in 2003, he tapped McGourty to run it. Two years later they were joined by Duke Erikson, bassist for the alt rock band Garbage, to launch Lo-Max Films. The trio “traveled the length and breadth of America, from Cleveland, Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, and from New York to Hawaii, to discover the identities and stories of America’s earliest recorded musicians,” McGourty said.
“We tracked down the families of the musicians who made those first blues, country and gospel records in the 1920s.  I became very obsessed about finding the origins of American popular music,” recalled MacMahon, who began making 8mm films when he was 12. “We were able to interview some of the last living witnesses and direct descendants of America’s musical pioneers. This is the last time their story can be told before everyone who was there is gone,” McGourty added.
They essentially retraced the paths of the music scouts that canvassed the nation at the height of the Roaring Twenties, traveling with what was then cutting-edge recording technology. The Carter Family, Blind Willie Johnson, Lydia Mendoza, Blind Willy, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson are among those whose music is featured — artists who would have a global influence on music over the course of the century, paving the way for Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones. It was in 2006, when Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood died shortly after he filmed an interview with them that the filmmakers realized if they didn’t make a concerted effort to archive this material it would likely disappear forever.

The Carter Family trio sit on the front bumper of car in a field.

The Carter Family appear in PBS’s American Epic
episode one, “The Big Bang.” (Photo courtesy Lo-Max Films Ltd.)

Lost, But Recreated

Sadly, 90 percent of the record masters from that period have been lost or destroyed. MacMahon and his team tracked down the best surviving masters from around the world. “We struck gold when we unearthed an extraordinary cache of these records in the EMI Archive Trust in the UK” explains MacMahon. Audio engineer Nicholas Bergh spent a decade reconstructing the technology that created those records. When McGourty and MacMahon located an original 1924 pulley-driven lathe in Connecticut they decided to use it the refurbished gear to re-record the classics during a month-long marathon at Vox Recording Studios in Hollywood. Founded in 1936, the studio nearly dates back to the era being homaged.
“The more we found out about these recordings, the more we realized how little was known about how they were recorded,”Erikson said. “We became obsessed with figuring it out, with actually finding the machine that was used to record this amazing music.”

The machine didn’t actually exist in one piece. Having done the forensic research, Bergh reassembled it from vintage parts, internationally sourced, and it is now the only one left in the world. The system consists of a single microphone, a towering six-foot amplifier rack, and a live record-cutting lathe, powered by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears. The musicians have roughly three minutes to record their song direct to disc before the weight hits the floor. “In the 1920s, they called this ‘catching lightning in a bottle,'” Bergh said, explaining, “All the musical performances you hear in this film are ‘live.’ The audio was taken directly from the discs they were recorded to, with no editing or enhancements.”
Beyond the pop culture angle, there is a sociological aspect to the music of the day. “It’s the story of one of the great moments in American history – when the voices of working people, minorities, and rural people throughout the country were first heard,” MacMahon said. “It celebrates all I admire about the country – its rich culture, technological innovation, entrepreneurialism and its freedom of speech.”
“When phonograph records were invented, for the first-time ever women, minorities, poor rural men and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear, shockingly without much censorship,” explained Jack White, whose  interest in Americana music is both musical and academic. “What they were allowed to say on phonograph recordings, they were not allowed to speak in public or in person. That is an astounding thought.”
In addition to meticulously documenting the music, the program explores the technology with which the music was made. Rolling Stone detailed how White, a one-time upholsterer, MacGyvered the ancient recording apparatus back to life after it broke during one of the “Sessions” jams.

Like a Swiss Watch

Robert Lockwood, Jr. in porkpie hat, plays an acoustic guitar.

Robert Lockwood Jr. playing “Love in Vain” Appearing in “American Epic: Blood and Soil.” (Photo courtesy Lo-Max Ltd.)

Since record scouts often traveled to areas without reliable electricity in their quest to find “the next big thing,” the recording lathe was powered by a weight-and-pulley much like a Swiss watch. It took approximately three and a half minutes for the weight to hit the floor which is why today modern pop song is still three minutes long. From country singers in the Appalachians, blues guitarists in the Mississippi Delta, gospel preachers across the south, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, Tejano groups from the Texas-Mexico border, Native American drummers in Arizona, and Hawaiian musicians — all were recorded.

Suddenly, women having their hair-done in Manhattan and California ranchers were exposed to the thoughts and feelings of cotton-pickers in Mississippi, Virginia coalminers and Tennessee tobacco farmers. Radios and records players in living rooms across the country made a cultural mash-up of the nation. Or as MacMahon so deftly puts it: “It was the first time America heard itself.”
The films have spawned an assortment of recordings, created under the auspices of Lo-Max Records. “American Epic: The Sessions,” produced by White, Burnett, Erikson and MacMahon features contemporary artists recording on the 1920s equipment and is released on Columbia Records. It is available on vinyl on White’s Third Man Records

The Lo-Max team also curated the 15-song American Epic: The Soundtrack, while a 100-song boxed set, American Epic: The Collection, is available as a five-CD set from Legacy Recordings, Sony’s catalog division. And of course the series DVD is available in a variety of configurations from PBS which, along with the BBC, Sony and Lo-Max Records, provided the majority of funding.

Sony Music Legacy Recordings president Adam Block described the effort as “a celebration of the men and women who established the foundation of virtually everything that we as an industry do today. Legacy exists in no small part to preserve and perpetuate our country’s musical heritage.”

McGourty credits Bob Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, with introducing the Lo-Max team to BBC Arena’s Anthony Wall, which lead to the film being commissioned. “Jeff believed in what we were doing and put his neck on the line to champion these films,” she said. “The same passion and courage that sent those A&R men out into the wild in the 1920s still exists today if you look hard enough.”

Jack White looks stylish before the cameras in a suit and tie with his trademark fedora.

He loves that old-time rock and roll: executive producer Jack White on location for the Emmy-nominated “American Epic Sessions” at Vox Recording in Hollywood. (Photo courtesy Lo-Max Records Ltd.)


3 Responses to "An ‘Epic’ Journey"

  1. Pingback: Emmy News: Music Nominees React | MaxTheTrax

    • Staff Report  July 21, 2017 at 3:50 am

      Glad you find it intriguing. They had me at educational. The fact that it is entertaining and fun, too, is a big bonus!
      – Paula

  2. Johnny Lin  July 21, 2017 at 3:19 am

    Thanks for the recommendation. I steamed the first two films on Amazon this evening and they are amazing. The archive footage is incredible and the stories are wonderful. So much passion has gone into this film and I can’t wait to see the rest!


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