American Epic, a three-part music documentary series debuting May 16 on PBS, traces the music industry’s early–twentieth century quest to find and record blues and gospel performers in the South, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, country musicians in Appalachia, Tejano bands in Texas and Native American and Hawaiian musicians. Jack White, T Bone Burnett and narrator Robert Redford are the series’ executive producers.
“In American Epic,” White says in a statement, “we examine how important the fact is that when phonograph records were invented, for the first time ever, women, minorities, poor rural men and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear.”
American Epic depicts influential early–twentieth century musicians through previously unseen film and photos, new interviews with their families and the recollections of eyewitnesses. Featured artists include the Carter Family, the Breaux Frères, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, the Memphis Jug Band, Elder Burch, Charley Patton, Joseph Kekuku, the Hopi Indian Chanters, Lydia Mendoza and Taj Mahal.
Director Bernard MacMahon and audio engineer Nicholas Bergh assembled the series during a 10-year period. They uncovered musicians who’d fallen into obscurity, restored their recordings and reassembled the abandoned technology used to record them.
“We traveled the length and breadth of America in our quest to discover the identities and stories of America’s earliest recorded musicians,” co-producer Allison McGourty says. “We captured testimonials from the last living witnesses and direct descendants of America’s musical pioneers. This is the last time their story can be told before everyone who was there is gone.”
“This is the story of a profound act of democracy,” co-executive producer Burnett says, “when the poorest people in our country were recorded and their stories, their songs and their voices were broadcast around the world. These pioneers set a course that led to the extraordinary library of jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop that is our music. This is the story of the United States—a kid leaves home with nothing but a song and conquers the world.”
White and Burnett also collaborated for the series’ companion program, The American Epic Sessions. Debuting June 6, Sessions follows Alabama Shakes, Beck, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Rhiannon Giddens, Taj Mahal, Jack White, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others. White and Burnett produce new recordings of the artists using a reconstructed electrical sound recording system from the 1920s.
Columbia Records will release the soundtrack for American Epic: The Sessions. Sony Legacy will issue the series’ companion albums American Epic: The Collection and American Epic: The Soundtrack. White’s Third Man Records will release multiple vinyl collections in conjunction with the series.
American Epic airs on WYES-TV at 8p May 16, May 23 and May 30.