Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 1

So I was taken a bit by surprise by the launch of American Epic. Apparently it's been in the works for years - but I've been out of the Old Time circles, alas.

And I was pretty excited - finally, a chance to see pre-war music get a shot in the public eye! The magic, the mystery. That incredible moment when the music industry met vernacular music on its own terms - and captured the diversity and depth that was out there far better than well-meaning folk song collectors like Lomax were able to. Charlie Patton and Geeshie Wiley. Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. Skip James. Furry Lewis. All recorded commercially. All sublime.

And maybe, just maybe, Robert Redford and Jack White and T Bone could conjure some of that up - put it in context, and show why it mattered. Where it came from and how it grew. And what it tells us about the intersections, the seams, in our fabric.

And. Well. They tried. There's a lot to like in Episode 1. Split between the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band - they let the songs roll where appropriate (instead of just short clips). There's some great old footage - particularly of the record cutting machines. And the story of Peer going to Bristol to record is well told.

[First, though, a confession. I've never really liked the Carter Family. I get why they're important. But I find the fingerpicking repetitive and dull. And, aside from say Single Girl, I never really connected with the songs emotionally. Certainly not the same way I do when hearing Clarence Ashley or Bascom Lamar Lunsford or Frank Hutchison. Heresy, I know. And I don't care.]

That aside though, it makes sense to start the story with the Carters. In Bristol. But the story they tell is full of banal cliches. At one point Redford actually says: "Though poor in material goods, the mountain folk are rich with tradition. And none more than the Carter Family." What does that even mean? They were the poorest? The richest with tradition? Whatever they were, they didn't just appear. Where's the story of where this music came from? The mash-up of british isle murder ballads and the blues? Ghosts and vegetables and death?

Later, there's an assertion along the same lines - that the Carters had "no influences." Really!? All while failing to mention Leslie Riddle - A.P. Carter's African-American friend and fellow song-collector (who taught Maybelle her finger-picking technique). There's a great story to tell here - how A.P. pulled together and synthesized a wide range of song styles (and then took credit for them). But that's not in here.

There's a certain treacly nostalgia that creeps in. Assertions the Carters were "about music and not about money" (noting they didn't charge widows and orphans to see their shows) - when A.P. drug his pregnant wife from rural Virginia to Bristol to get a shot at a record deal? The list goes on.

So, do things improve with the Memphis Jug Band? Yes and no. Jug band music is dealt with as a fully-formed thing - without discussion of where it came from, or that it existed well beyond Memphis. Will Shade is given some well-deserved attention. There's some good discussion about how bands like the MJB played a bit of everything from Broadway showtunes to blues, but not nearly enough.

But then Nas - and Redford as narrator - keep repeating more cliche banalities - this time about the crime and violence and danger of Memphis in the 20's. And it's as false a fetishization as the spin on the Carters. The clip of Nas covering "On the Road Again" is interesting - but what does it really do to help us understand the jump from pre-war blues to Illmatic?! Or is it just a teaser for the separate film / concert / video / CD / stream of the "American Epic Sessions"? I blame T. Bone Burnett (his soundtrack to the concert for the film of Inside Llewyn Davis is pure hucksterism. No matter how good Rhiannon's performance was). [But I can't stay mad. T Bone will always have a spot in my heart for Rolling Thunder 76. Always.]

The preview for next week mentions Charlie Patton. I'm holding my breath. There's real magic possible here - a world just waiting to be put into context and explored with actual intellectual depth and rigor. Amazing, explosive stories about how our country came together (and didn't, and haven't). Stories of Love & Theft. And they're waiting to be told. Still.

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