Think of American Epic: The Collection as a newly definitive survey that captures the fullness of rural American music recorded during the 1920s.
PBS’s three-part documentary American Epic focuses on the American recording industry of the late 1920s when record men with portable recording devices were sent out into “rural America” in search of talent that might reinvigorate the flagging industry. Those record men struck gold in places like Bristol, Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta, and Georgia, introducing such now legendary artists as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Blind Willie McTell. Indeed, these outsider artists revived the record industry for a brief period (until the Great Depression nearly brought the whole industry to total collapse and forced most of the artists back into obscurity). Many of these recordings would be featured on Harry Smith’s three-volume The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, which would set off the urban folk revival and lead to the rediscovery of many of the by-then-forgotten artists first recorded during this period, including Clarence Ashley, Skip James, Dock Boggs, and Mississippi John Hurt.
American Epic is fascinating in its recreation of how these early recordings came about and inspirational in its tales of musical fortitude and creativity. Yet, it’s also troubling when it reveals the unbalanced playing field on which these artists worked and illuminates the desperation of many to escape their lives of rural racism and poverty, not to mention the dangerous and low-paying manual labor of the times. Columbia Legacy and Third Man Records collaborated to create a comprehensive 100-song soundtrack for the documentary, American Legacy: The Collection. Fortunately, album compiler and editor Bernard MacMahon has done a superb job of curating a collection that truly captures the breadth of American rural music of the 1920s (more so, even, than Smith did with his famous Anthology).
The shadow of Smith’s Anthology looms over this set: 17 of American Epic’s tracks also appeared on Anthology and 20 more performers from that collection are represented here by different cuts. As such, this is a testament both to Smith’s influence and his taste. One can speculate that numerous songs featured on the Anthology became classics through the repeated listenings that the collection’s notoriety brought. Smith collected the songs on his anthology with a mix of alchemy and prophecy in an attempt, as he stated later in life, “to change America through music”, and he was arguably successful, particularly in his deliberate blurring of racial identities of the performers and in his subversive, populist song selection.
But Smith’s Anthology is not beyond criticism, nor can it be considered a comprehensive representation of American folk music (a point that American Epic’s producers make in subtle ways). For instance, they organized the music according to its place of recording. This decision serves to emphasize the vastness of the country’s regions while also highlighting the cultural overlapping that was nonetheless occurring within that space. Their multicultural inclusiveness is another key example. It has always seemed odd, for instance, that despite his own deliberate and subversive multiculturalism, Smith did not include any works by Spanish or Latin-American performers on the original three volumes of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Really, the very choice of his title -- which infers a conscious omission of the important contributions to the early recording industry by musicians of Spanish heritage -- is a problematic erasure. The same can be said regarding the absence of indigenous Native Americans. In contrast American Epic: The Collection offers a more thorough sense of the wide net cast by the early record men as they searched for “authentic” American sounds, as well as the importance a broader range of ethnicities played in forming the American folk music experience.
American Epic: The Collection claims a comprehensiveness of representation unmatched by any other anthology of this music. Nearly every well-known artist of that recording era is here, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson to the Carolina Tar Heels and the Memphis Jug Band, and through Charlie Poole and Charley Patton. All of them are often represented by a best-known or favorite track, too. The collection is supplemented by an impressive array of artists often less represented among the major anthologies, such as Los Madrugadores, Lydia Mendoza, Mike Hanapi and the Ilima Islanders, Sol Ho’opi’i, Geeshie Wiley, the Hopi Indian Chanters, and Louisiana’s Breaux family, whose influence upon Cajun music is synonymous of Patton’s with the blues.
Listening to the whole of American Epic: The Collection in sequence is a slightly less flowing experience than that of Smith’s Anthology, but then again, Smith’s carefully selected sequencing was designed to convey a set of defined moods. It's also become so ingrained upon several generations of listeners that it's comparable to hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In other words, one expects to hear Buell Kazee’s “East Virginia” immediately following Clarence Ashley’s “Coo Coo Bird” just like one anticipates “Lovely Rita” will follow “When I’m Sixty-Four”. The American Epic compilers embark upon a different design, setting out to highlight the variety of music regionally available during this early period of commercial recording, and they accomplish this across all five discs of the set, mixing blues, gospel, jug band, hokum, country ballads, jigs & reels, and ethnic recordings. Both sets accomplish their goals, then, and while its juxtapositions can be occasionally jarring, American Epic offers a cohesive and enjoyable extended listening experience.
One thing made plain throughout the documentary series -- and the liner notes themselves -- is that this outsider music now held a market power: there was money to be made. Both the record men and the rural musicians understood that. These musicians saw the recordings as an opportunity to break out of their lives of physical labor and poverty while the labels saw a market ripe for exploitation. An acknowledged, but under-explored element of the documentary and the collection is the perpetually uneven playing field upon which the two sides worked. Like the mine owners featured in the third “Out of Many, One” episode of the documentary, the record men, and the label owners held the upper hand over their workers/talent. Dick Justice’s son, in this episode, talks of how his father, whose version of “Henry Lee” opens Smith’s Anthology and is included among American Epic’s tracks, never spoke of his recordings; it was music scholars who first brought that hidden part of his father’s life to the light. There’s a sense that Justice saw his recordings as a failure because, like Dock Boggs and Frank Hutchinson, they didn’t save him from a life in the mines.
The predatory, condescending perspective of some of the record label men is made plain in a quote from Columbia Records’ Frank Walker, included in the liner notes:
Their repertoire, if we call it such in a dignified way for the South, would consist of maybe 8 or 10 or 12 things that they did well, and that was all they knew. Now you couldn’t bring them down a song and say here’s a song, we want you to record this because they just didn’t know how. They didn’t understand music; they didn’t read music -- many of them, a great many of them didn’t read at all. You might come out with only two selections, or you might come out with six or eight. But you did it at that time, you got everything that you thought they were capable of doing well and would be saleable, and that was it, you forgot about them, said goodbye, and they went back home.
While some of the labels may have paid comparably well for a recording session itself, they were careful in most cases to avoid such complications as royalties and extended contracts. This “American epic”, like so many others, was peopled by a talented underclass who were taken advantage of by a moneyed upper-class.
It is a troubling heritage, and it complicates the joy of the music. A fair question to ask, then, is: Does a history of market exploitation interfere with our ability to enjoy and appreciate this music now? We can see in these early recordings and the narratives of their creation that though the music industry business model was still in formation, its systems of exploitation were already operating. These would only become more predatory and racially-divisive as the rock and roll era formed. Ultimately, of course, the music rises above its origins, maybe more so than any other art form because its listeners personalize it and carry it with them. And perhaps there remains within that process an embedded selfishness, but just as the playing of a great tune can free the player from his present condition, so too can its recording free a listener momentarily from hers.
Another, more practical question that many might be asking since we are discussing the marketplace is: Does this collection represent the best starting point for listeners new to early recordings? I'd say so simply because the options are so plentiful. For someone completely unfamiliar with the wealth of early recordings, American Epic: The Collection will immerse them fully within the broad range of the music, both geographically and stylistically, and will set them on a path to explore many of the artists more deeply. Likewise, the accompanying book, while lacking historical investigations into the performers, nonetheless provides ample context for the music through period quotes, mostly from the performers themselves, that accompany each track. The reprinted lyrics are also an appreciated inclusion and one that is oddly rare among similar anthologies.
There are, of course, other options out there (depending upon the financial commitment one wishes to make). For example, Sony’s 1992 Roots-N-Blues: Retrospective 1925-1950 covers a broader range of time across its 5 CDs and is available at a discounted price. That collection offered good sound reproduction for its time, but it must be noted that the re-mastering of the American Epic tracks show the benefit both of 25 years of technological improvement and the tireless work of the producers; simply said, the songs sound better here than on any other release I have heard. Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music might still be considered the standard, though it remains the priciest as well. For those on a budget, World Music Network’s Rough Guide series offers the most economical option to initiates; its single-disc anthologies of the period’s music (organized by sub-genre such as Delta Blues, Jug Band Music, Gospel Blues, etc.) are well-researched, thorough, and crisply re-mastered. Still, for those interested in a one-stop experience of the wonder and variety that is American rural music from the 1920s, American Epic: The Collection provides an adventurous, satisfying, and ultimately definitive collection.