American Epic: The Collection seems destined to win a Grammy award for best historical album. A box set in a bound book format containing five CDs and 100 recordings, The Collection is a handsome companion piece for the PBS documentary music series, American Epic.
In the 1920s, producers and engineers and their newly developed portable electronic recording machines journeyed throughout the United States. They recorded regional musical styles performed beyond the nation’s big metro areas. The recordings included blues, gospel and jug bands and string bands from the South; Cajun and Creole musicians from Louisiana; country performers in Appalachia; Tejano performers in Texas; and Native American chants and Hawaiian songs.
Despite the age of the American Epic recordings and their engineers’ early technology, the audio quality is impressive and immediate. The talent is undeniable.
There are such obvious choices from the ’20s and ’30s as the Carter Family (“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”), Jimmie Rodgers (“Waiting for a Train”), Robert Johnson (“Cross Road Blues”) and Mississippi John Hurt (“Louis Collins”).
Most of the artists, however, are obscure. Some of them—especially the Bentley Boys (“Down on Penny’s Farm”) and Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”)—reveal the roots of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The collection also features Emmett Miller’s rendition of “Lovesick Blues,” a hit 20 years before Hank Williams’ version; “Blue Doze Blues,” the splendid original recording by Henry Thomas that inspired Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country”; and “Walk Right In” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the song that became a hit 30 years later for the Rooftop Singers.
Although early jazz is noticeably absent from American Epic, Louisiana is represented by Atlanta and New Orleans sessions featuring Cajun and Creole musicians, including Cleoma Breaux, Joseph Falcon and the duo of Amédée Ardoin and Dennis McGee. Shreveport’s Lead Belly appears, too.
Across its five discs, American Epic: The Collection takes a vast musical journey. A single-disc version, American Epic: The Soundtrack, is also available.