American Epic with Sandy Miranda

Folk Music & Beyond Playlist for March 3, 2018
American Epic: Catching Lightning in a Bottle with Sandy Miranda

American Epic is a BBC/PBS joint project led by award-winning Director Bernard MacMahon, Producer Allison McGourty, and Musician Duke Erikson about the first recordings of roots music in the United States during the 1920s and 30s—and their cultural, social, and technological impact on North America and the world.

The project is the result of ten years of intensive field research and offers a radically new take on American History—that America was democratized through the invention of electrical sound recording and the subsequent auditions the record labels held across North America in the late 1920s, which were open to every ethnic minority and genre of music. Here were many previously untold stories, a vast amount of rare archival footage, and dramatically advanced restoration of the recordings. It was the first time American heard itself!

The three-part documentary was shown on the BBC and then PBS in 2017. Also released was a book about the making of the film and sessions recordings, ten album releases and an educational program at the University of Chicago. The project is widely considered one of the best music documentaries and set of recordings ever made.

Sample of 2017 awards

  • Froots UK #4 Historical Album of the year
  • A Grammy for Alabama Shakes’ song
  • Froots UK #4 Historical Album of the year
  • Emmy nomination for film
  • Three of the ten CDs are on Robert Christgau’s Albums of the Year list.
  • The Collection is a Blues Foundations 2018 Blues Music Award Nominee for Historical Album of the Year.

The five-CD set that we sample in the first hour today gives us amazing examples of what America sounded like, starting in 1926, when the first field recording with electric, battery-powered equipment was used. These original recordings have been cleaned up with state-of-the-art techniques and sound startlingly great, especially since some are over 90 years old.

In the second hour, we’ll listen to new recordings made on the same equipment, now carefully pieced back together and restored from recovered parts.

First, we’ll visit:

Disc 1: The Southeast

1.  “The Coo-Coo Bird”—Clarence Ashley (rec. Johnson City, TN 1929, Columbia)

2.  “On the Road Again”—Memphis Jug Band (n-word use by African-Americans) (rec. 1928 Memphis, Victor)

9.  “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”—Bascom Lamar Lunsford (very clean) (rec. early in 1928, Ashland KY) The Old Weird America

15. “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”—Carter Family (1927, Bristol, TN, Victor)

16. “Old Dog Blue”—Jim Jackson (1928, Memphis, Victor)

Disc 2: Atlanta—The Origin of Commercial Field Recording

1.  “My Heart Keeps Singing”—Elder J.E. Burch (rhythm of sanctified church) (1927, Victor)

7.  “Rocky Road”—Alabama Sacred Harp Singers (aka shape note singing, 1928, Columbia)

17. “Mamma, ’Tain’t Long Fo’ Day”—Blind Willie McTell (1927, Victor)

Disc 3: New York City / East Coast—The Birthplace of Electric Recording

4.  “Lovesick Blues”—Emmett Miller (1928 NYC, with Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, et al.

12. “Hilo Hula”—Mike Hanapi and Ilima Islanders (1932, NYC, one of the first to bring Hawaiian falsetto singing to the mainland)

Disc 4: The Midwest—Chicago, St. Louis, Richmond, Grafton

3.  “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home”—Banjo Joe (Gus Cannon & Blind Blake 1927, Chicago played medicine shows)

10. “Last Kind Words Blues”—Geeshie Wiley (discovered in Houston, rec. 1930 Grafton, WI)

14. “Someday Baby Blues”—Sleepy John Estes (1935 Chicago, Al Capone was a fan of shows)

17. “Bull Doze Blues”—Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” (hobo sang on trains for free rides)

22. “My Black Mama” (Parts 1 & 2)—Son House (Death Letter Blues, 1930 Grafton, Muddy Waters: “You couldn’t get me away from listening to him, night after night!”)

23. “Cypress Grove Blues”—Skip James

Disc 5: The Deep South & The West—Birmingham, Jackson, Hattiesburg, New Orleans, Shreveport, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco

8.  “Tomi Tomi”—The Aloha Serenaders Featuring Sol K. Bright

9.  “Sittin’ on Top of the World”—Mississippi Sheiks (I recorded in Rarotonga)

14. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”—Blind Willie Johnson (Performance)

15. “E, Mama Ea”—Sol Ho’opi’I and His Novelty Trio

19. “Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta” (Parts 1 & 2)—Los Madrugadores

20. “Denomination Blues” (Parts 1 & 2)—Washington Phillips

Total for part one = 1:18

Total for part two = 0:33 total 1:51

The American Epic Sessions is a film and two-CD release in which the engineer, Nicholas Bergh, restores the long-lost first electrical sound recording system on which the 1920s field recording sessions were made from long-lost parts, and 20 contemporary artists pay tribute to the momentous machine by recording songs on it for the first time in 80 years. Jack White and T-Bone Burnett were invited to produce the album with many of today’s greatest artists, including Nas, Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Jack White, Taj Mahal, Beck, Steve Martin, et al.

In this beautifully filmed and recorded musical feature, and two-CD set, these artists are given the chance to pass through the portal that brought the world into the modern era. Americans sometimes do not realize the enormous impact our music had and has on the world.

The recording system:

A single microphone, a six-foot amplifier rack, and a record-cutting lathe powered by a weight-driven pulley system powered by clockwork gears.

The musicians have roughly three minutes to record their song direct to disc before the weight hits the floor. These are all recorded live, with no editing or enhancements.

In the 1920s, they called it “catching lightning in a bottle,” and our team has really done that here.

American Epic: The Sessions

  1. Alabama Shakes, “Killer Diller Blues,” 4 Grammys since 2010
  2. Nas, “On the Road Again,” top American Hip Hop artist, son of Olu Dara
  3. Elton & Jack, “2 Fingers of Whisky,” E Final tour, Jack
  1. Willie & Waylon, “Only Man Wilder Than Me”
  2. Jack White, “Matrimonial Intentions,” 12 Grammys
  3. Los Lobos, “El Cascabel,” Rock band East LA, David Hidalgo
  4. Bettye Lavette, “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” Michigan
  1. Pokey LaFarge, “St. Louis Blues,” Illinois
  2. Taj Mahal, “High Water Everywhere, Pt 2,” Harlem 3 Grammy, Charlie Patton
  3. The Hawaiians, “Tomi Tomi”
  4. Christine Pizzuti, “Last Kind Words”
  5. The Hawaiians, “Hilo Hanakahi”