American Epic

Truly Epic
179
The Carter Family: Maida Vale Music.

This three-part documentary chronicles the early days of modern electrical recording in the 1920s and 1930s. Many seminal rural blues, country, Cajun, Hawaiian, norteño, and gospel acts were first recorded during this era in early studios or on then-revolutionary portable equipment in makeshift studios around the country. Recordings from the series are being issued in numerous packages; the five-disc, 100-song collection is lavishly illustrated and thoroughly documented; the clear, remastered sound is breathtaking. And the artists are both known and obscure.

Son House, Mattie Delaney, and Others
American Epic
Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty with Elijah Ward
American Epic: The Companion Book to the PBS Series

Disc one covers Southeastern field recordings, showcasing Booker White’s brilliant Delta slide work on “Panama Limited.” Bluesmen Garfield Akers and Joe Calicott become a powerful guitar team on “Cottonfield Blues.” Just as impressive is Delta blueswoman Mattie Delaney’s playing on “Tallahatchie River Blues.” The Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow” offers Maybelle’s famous guitar picking, clear and undistorted.

Disc Two compiles material from Atlanta sessions that brought forth Julius Daniels’ amazing fingerpicking on “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” Barbecue Bob’s quirky approach to the 12-string guitar and Blind Willie McTell’s “Mama, ’Tain’t Long Fo’ Day.” The skills of the young Gary Davis flow on a noise-free version of “I Am The Light Of The World.”

Disc Three samples material recorded in New York City, beginning with “Lovesick Blues” (the future Hank Williams hit) by white minstrel singer Emmett Miller accompanied by jazz greats including Eddie Lang. Big Bill Broonzy’s fretboard virtuosity comes forth on “Long Tall Mama” and Mississippi John Hurt’s gently flowing picking can be appreciated on “Louis Collins.” Mike Hanapi’s spritely steel guitar dominates “Hilo Hula.”

Disc Four delves into Midwestern field recordings with a clean version of Charley Patton’s famous “Down The Dirt Road Blues” and “Hastings Street,” teaming Blind Blake’s stellar picking with Charlie Spand’s boogie piano. Son House’s “My Black Mama” with his haunting, dramatic Delta slide guitar is included along with “Cypress Grove Blues” by Delta great Skip James.

Disc Five focuses on Deep South and Southwest sessions with Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” “Mal Hombre” features brilliant vocals and 12-string guitar of Tejano singer Lydia Mendoza as well as Truett and George’s eerie guitar-steel instrumental duet on “Ghost Dance.” “E Mama, Ea” showcases Sol Ho’opii’s Hawaiian guitar mastery.

The gorgeous companion book to the series offers an array of photos – many never before seen – and further details on the history of the artists and recording technology.

The point of the series was to celebrate what became the first shots of a technological and musical revolution that nearly a century ago, brought regional American roots music to the nation – eventually, the world – as a whole. Heard in this context, it’s easy to understand why it endures today.


This article originally appeared in VG November 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.