Just a song before they go…
January 30, 2016
After the premiere/special event of "American Epic" at Sundance, I hurried home to dust off the stacks of my inheritance. I had for years considered them of little value, yet too sentimental to throw away. The heavy records with the labels from Decca, Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Bluebird had new meaning. No longer did I view them as relics from my grandparent’s days, played on a machine that was abandoned for a generation or even two. I saw them now as history, of stories not just of music but the people who played that music in styles that reflected regions of our country and issues of the day.
Narrated by Robert Redford, who introduced the evening and shared he comes from a family of "five or six generations" of string musicians, he said "the role music has played in the development of America, are stories about America herself."
The snippets we watched starts when radio began in 1926 and radio companies figured the way to sell music to poor people was to record their music. And so, throughout the country but largely in the rural south, music companies held auditions to find musicians. We later learned, from the British director of the film, Bernard MacMahon, that these competitions were financed, in part, by furniture companies who were creating a need for folks to have a phonograph that could be disguised as a cabinet. I have that piece of furniture from my grandparents, complete with the pull-out drawer for the record player and the pull-down radio with the push buttons.
The film clip followed the career (and mostly the lack of it) of John Hurt, better known as Daddy John, whose recordings from 1920s were abandoned in the depression and uncovered in the early ’60s when he was invited to appear at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
There was another snippet that showed us the record composed to be sent on the NASA Voyager mission, destined to fly past Jupiter and end up somewhere in the Milky Way. It was called "The Sounds of the Earth." The curator of that record shares that yes, there is some Bach and Beethoven there, but included, too, is a vocal piece with no words by Blind Willie Johnson. It is a haunting piece and in it you hear the soul of the south but also the rise and fall of human emotion and somehow, night and day.
In the last film clip we see Jack White, and later Nas, using the same in-studio recording technique of the ’20s: a big microphone in the center of the room and the most special effects being a washboard and a jug. In a panel following the film, musical legend T Bone Burnett, an executive producer on the series, along with Redford and White, shared "that technology far surpasses anything we have today to create the most durable and stable sound." Jack White added that recording like that made the musicians relate to the microphone in a whole different way, coming in close and stepping back to create the right mix. Taj Mahal, also featured in the series and on the panel, said records were a part of his growing up in South Carolina, all kinds of music all the time .except Sunday. "That was Mama’s day, all gospel all day, from the time you could smell the biscuits coming up the stairs."
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And then came the performance with Taj taking the simple stage and knowing he wanted to play something from his hero, the aforementioned Daddy John Hurt. "I knew whatever he is, I want a double." And that molasses-voiced bluesman took us on a journey. After two long songs he shuffled off stage to be replaced by the young but oh so retro-looking Avett Brothers (also featured in the series). Circled around the stand-up mic, they could have been a hundred-year-old band — not one of the hottest of this decade. There were yodels and harmonies and a moment of the gospel song "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," where it was hard to tell if that was the music Taj heard on Sunday morning from his mama’s records or if I remembered it from my grandparent’s piece of furniture playing in their bungalow home in the ’50s.
Because music will do that — take you on a journey back in time in the most real way, where you can smell the breeze and feel the warmth on your skin and maybe a pair of lips brushing your cheek ever so softly. Music makes you shake your thing or elevate your mood or get right down in the bottom of the glass of sadness.
Thinking about how the history of an entire country could be told thru her music was never something I had considered until Redford put it quite that way. And it seems like a daunting project just to cover 100 years of that. But I think we all left eager to experience the PBS series and to get lost in vibrations that become the songs, with harmonies and melodies and haunting memories of hard lives lived simply. And celebrated with joy.
I plan to buy myself one of those new fancy turntables and give my grandparents’ records a spin soon, maybe this very Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.