This ambitious project, ten years in the making, has suddenly appeared, with shows broadcast on PBS this past month. It is a new exploration of the fledgling recording industry’s series of field trips that documented the amazing breadth of working peoples’ music in the United States in the late 20’s. A wealth of blues talent was discovered, the birth of country music documented, along with Hawaiian folk, Tejano, most everyone who answered ads in the newspapers was recorded. Originally a labour of love for an English couple, Bernard MacMahon & Allison McGourty, this project quickly acquired the backing of T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford (also the Narrator for the series) and Jack White. The three documentaries are available on Blu-ray & DVD and are accompanied by a hard cover book co-written with Elijah Wald. Sony Legacy has jumped on board with multiple discs incorporating a new technology that brings much better sound to the often well-worn 78 rpm discs that exist. There is a five-disc, 100-song box set, The Collection, with its own book; a single disc The Soundtrack and several new digital-only Best-of compilations: one titled Best of Blues, one Best of Country and Best of sets by The Carter Family, Lead Belly, The Memphis Jug Band, John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson. Having heard and seen the shows, I can attest to the much-improved sound and to the remarkable new interviews and pictures they were able to acquire. They’ve made a special effort to seek out living descendants who shed new light on the Carter Family or Charley Patton, to name just two. There have been numerous documentaries on this era before but somehow they’ve managed to find many never before seen pictures and film. The audio team re-created the recording equipment used for those field trips from the microphone right on down to the cutting lathe. Using the new/old equipment, a dream cast has recorded their own versions of these field recordings and this is to be called American Epic: The Sessions, also available in audio and video this month, featuring Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton, Bettye LaVette, Taj Mahal, Jack White, Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and many more. A single by the rapper Nas re-writing The Memphis Jug Band’s “On The Road Again” has already been released showing how these legendary recordings laid the foundations for today’s music. Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, dating from the early fifties and now available through Smithsonian Folkways introduced several generations of musicians to this treasure trove, this new undertaking is a most welcome addition indeed. The web sites are www.americanepic.com and www.americanepicmusic.com. Jack White’s Third Man Records will be making this music available on vinyl this month as well.

Top Blues - June 2017
John’s Blues Picks June 2017 – CURL