The music business is in crisis. At a click, anyone can listen to music whenever they like, for free. Why would anyone ever spend money on music again? Sounds like 2010, doesn’t it?
Only it’s not, it’s 1925, the year network radio swept across the US with live broadcasts from big city ballrooms that could be heard from Seattle to Miami. A remarkable four-part series, American Epic, tells the story of how this existential moment for the music industry coincided with the arrival of electrical recording. Victor and Okeh Records’ response to the crisis laid the groundwork for popular music as we know it today.
The story goes that some bright spark came up with an idea: let’s make records for people without electricity or radios – the rural poor; with their windup gramophones, they may be our only market left. Thus began the extraordinary saga of turning Mississippi delta blues and Appalachian hillbilly music into commercial products, exposing the country – and eventually the world – to authentic southern roots music. On one afternoon in Bristol, Tennessee, Victor Records producer Ralph Peer discovered both the “yodelling brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, cornerstones of the country music industry. He also recorded the Memphis Jug Band and Blind Willie McTell, while competitors Paramount immortalised Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy and Charley Patton. Other scouts and producers ventured into Louisiana Cajun country, the Hispanic heart of Texas, the Hopi Indian reservation and the island of Hawaii. The reverberations of this avalanche of great recordings have shaped our musical world.
Bob Dylan has spoken of the effect of archivist Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music on him. I, too, was entranced by tracks featured on this compilation of early recordings, such as Henry Lee by Dick Justice and other voices that were, until now, disembodied ghosts, with little context about their lives. Arena: American Epic puts flesh on those sounds.
Film-makers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty have focused on key individuals and archetypal stories, bringing the characters and times to life with great sensitivity and thoroughness. Here, we see the birth of “race records” and country music, two strands of the fast-expanding record industry that converged, in 1954, with Elvis and rock’n’roll. The series shows us how the record industry introduced America to its true self, selling hundreds of thousands of records in cities as well as in the sticks, and creating a worldwide taste for the rural roots of urban music. The headliners between the wars may have been Rudy Vallee, Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley, but the attitudes, accents and frames of reference of today’s most popular artists hark directly back to recordings made far away from Tin Pan Alley.
While the first three parts of the series delve into history, making up for the absence of live footage with great interviews and a stunning assemblage of photographs, the fourth crowns the achievement with something different. T-Bone Burnett and Jack White were involved in the project from the beginning and this climax finds them in a Santa Monica store-front studio hosting an array of contemporary heroes – Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson and Los Lobos among them – recording the old-fashioned way. An obsessive named Nick Bergh reconstructed the original Western Electric amplifiers, cables and cutting lathe of the first electrical recording studios. Prior to this technology, performers would sing and play into a horn, the sound would vibrate a spiralling stylus in a soft wax disc, which would then be coated in metal to stamp the shellac discs for those windup gramophones.
From 1925, the first microphones powered with electricity sent a far more vivid signal into the cutting stylus, rendering those magical moments in Mississippi and Georgia hotel rooms many times more lifelike than the 78rpm discs of earlier years. In the final part of the series, for two hours we revel in filmed performances in front of that single microphone, as the camera lovingly follows the sound through anaconda-like cables to the cutting head. As soon as the blank disc starts spinning, our soundtrack switches from the film-maker’s 21st-century handheld digital stereo to the glorious mono of the single microphone. There are no faders; if Burnett or White want more of this musician and a bit less of that one, they move them closer to or away from the microphone. It’s brilliant theatre, beautifully filmed and makes for glorious television. Miss it at your peril.