What does it sound like?:
In the 1920s, the record industry was in crisis. New-fangled technology had been introduced that effectively streamed music for free, with an adverse effect on sales. It was called the radio. Companies sent scouts out across the U.S. searching for talent in the hope of striking gold. They travelled far and wide and unearthed a diverse plethora of talent willing to step up to a microphone and perform their songs. That talent was the great unwashed. They scratched a living tilling the fields, picking cotton, digging the mines, drilling the oil, catching the fish. They were young, old, men, women and children. They were white, black, Native American or Hispanic. Some managed to get by singing their songs for their contemporaries, going from town to town. None were formally trained.
Their story is told in an Arena documentary three episode series starting Sunday 21st May at 22:00 on BBC Four. Sony Legacy Recordings have released a 5CD “Collection” of one hundred songs and a fifteen track single disc summary called “Soundtrack”. The Soundtrack includes the more familiar names; The Memphis Jug Band, Mississippi John Hurt, The Carter Family, Charlie Patton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Jimmie Rodgers. However, it is the sheer, indiscriminate breadth of The Collection that really captures the scale and the power of the music. It is the record industry’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
These people had nothing but bits of string and wood and some household utensils for percussion but they had their hearts and their souls and a desire to express themselves in song. They sing with joy, they sing with sorrow, they sing about their miserable, impoverished lives, they sing of love and the thrill of the dance. They were completely uncensored and could as bawdy or as political as they liked, without fear of recrimination. Across one hundred songs performed by a hundred different acts, the commonality of their humanity shines through. Every one of them stands tall, head held proud, lungs full and voices strong for a single take. Some of them may not have been able to share the same bus, but they share so much else in their hopes, their dreams, their fears and in the ways they manage to get by. None of them thought they would be famous. They all made music for love more than money. Listening today, almost a century later, it is remarkable how much there is to relate to. The experiences and feelings documented in these recordings arise from the very fabric of human existence. They are carved in the woods, etched on stone, tattooed on our hearts, fashioned from mud and bone. Listening to them is humbling.
Sony say the recordings have been restored, like a classic painting, and it has to be said the sound quality is excellent. T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White are executive producers. The documentary took ten years to put together by British director, Bernard MacMahon. The whole project is truly a labour of love. The focus is on the unifying magic of music, which cannot be denied listening to these strange, beautiful recordings from a different era. Much is made of links to the present. Herein lies the roots of most modern music, blues, country, soul, Appalachian, Cajun, R & B, rock’n’roll. Charlie Patton was a pioneer of the blues, teaching Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf everything they knew. The Carter Family were the first vocal group to become country stars. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s high voice is a short step from a male falsetto. Richard Rabbit Brown arguably invented pop with his topical ballads. Ma Rainey’s overtly sexual lyrics and demeanour predate the lesbian cultural movement by nearly fifty years. Reverend J.M. Gates popularised the recorded sermon by exploiting rhythm and cadence, just as rappers do today. Even The Memphis Jug Band can been seen as a prototype rap act with their gangsta attitude.
Sadly, very few of these acts benefitted from their encounter with the recording industry. Mississipi John Hurt, probably the original song and dance man, continued work as a sharecropper until his rediscovery in 1963. Columbus Frugé was a child prodigy on accordion. He only ever had four songs recorded and disappeared into obscurity. Blind Willie Davis was so true to gospel that he refused to engage with record companies for fear of having to perform secular material. Robert Wilkins, who was part Cherokee, gave up the blues when he witnessed a murder and joined the church. Henry Thomas continued his life as a hobo, completely unaffected, though his songs have been ‘interpreted’ by Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Canned Heat, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Taj Mahal. Jaybird Coleman’s records sold well but he was never paid and resorted to busking on street corners. Geechie Wiley stabbed her husband to death. Ernest Stoneman endured dire poverty until he won a TV quiz show in 1956. Hoyt Ming farmed potatoes all his life, playing fiddle in his spare time.
There is the rub with this magnificent collection. The white men left New York with their new machines to seek their fortune. Mississippi John Hurt was terrified when they knocked on his door. He thought they were a lynch mob. They might not have meant any harm but they weren’t doing him any favours either. They exploited him and most of the people on The Collection, catalogued them, categorised them, labelled them, put them on certain radio stations and not others and placed them in particular charts. Listening to them all together is overwhelming because of the creativity, ingenuity and imagination on display but to do so you have to pay around £45 for the box or £12 for the Soundtrack. That’s steep for such old material, much of which has been issued previously, no matter how well restored it is.
Still, American Epic: The Collection should be a cornerstone of any self-respecting music fan’s, erm, collection. I just hope the documentary does the stories behind the music and the people who performed it the justice they deserve.
What does it all *mean*?
The record industry has always been a cut-throat business but witnessing music making in the raw is magic.
Goes well with…
A good bank balance and an open mind.
Might suit people who like…
Ancient history, mankind or music of any type.