Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thoughts on American Epic - Episode 2 - Blood and Soil

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn't have particularly high hopes for the rest of the American Epic series. It seemed trite, half-baked. Simplified.

But, well. A lot can change in an hour. The second episode - Blood and Soil was tremendous. It dug in deep and got it. Let the music speak for itself, and made genuine connections (mostly) - showing how these slices of vernacular music captured (magically!) by record companies in the 20's reached far and wide.

Elder J.E. Burch

The first segment was anchored, neatly, in the sanctified church movement of the early 20th century (who can forget the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers?) - and looked smartly forward and backwards from there.. The role of preacher records, gospel music - all centered around Elder J.E. Burch and the quiet fervor of "My Heart Keeps Singing."

The filmmakers actually show the work - dig in the archives. Travel to Cheraw, SC. And talk to people who knew Burch. (They could do more of this - the story of the search).

Connections are nicely made to the civil rights movement, and Aretha Franklin and Dizzie Gillespie (who grew up next door to Burch!). Nimbly, niftily done. And letting Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Up Above My Head roll for a while at the opening? Spot-on. It frames the whole section perfectly - old and new; secular and spiritual; sensual and gospel and political and oh so powerful.

And, blissfully, no celebrities pontificating.

Coal Country

Just hearing the opening chords of Henry Lee made me smile, deeply. We're firmly on Anthology territory. This segment focused on Logan County - the land of Dick Justice and Frank Hutchison. Some great footage of the mines (including a great juxtaposition at the end of mine cars full of workers matched against an engineer in a lab coat watching a record get cut). Excellent discussion of music as a hobby - and a quick (too quick!) mention of the battle of Blair Mountain and Union struggles.

Could have used a bit more discussion of the connections between this music and the blues - the cross-cultural, cross-regional pollination - the broad range of song styles and traditions. It could have gone deeper into the connections between music and labor struggles. And it could have used a bit more on how these folks were "discovered" by the record companies - and how they saw making records. But these are quibbles, really. We're blissfully spared the Episode 1 nonsense about the Carter's being some sort of purist hillbilly music monks.

Notably this segment includes the first mention of the Anthology. It's well out of scope - but this story could be told again from the other side - from the perspective of the Blues Mafia and that wave of white college kids who went south to "rediscover" this old music. And the canonization of those discoveries in things like the Anthology.. But another time, another film (or book!).

Also, Springsteen doing John Henry did very little for me. I mean, I love the man dearly. But why was this tacked on here?


Probably the best segment yet. The opening was simply brilliant. May 1965. Shindig. Mick Jagger doing Red Rooster, transitioning to Brian Jones introducing Howlin' Wolf.

Then on to archival footage of Dockery with Wolf describing Patton. A line drawn through time in a great, simple, set of segues.

And then we're deep into the legend of Patton. As a friend pointed out, more could have been done with the poetry of his lyrics (see Chapter 2 of Robert Palmer's Deep Blues - Heart Like Railroad Steel) or their context as laid out in Elijah Wald's excellent piece . But there's plenty to love here from the lengthy clips (High Water!) and the interviews with those who knew him. The biggest thing I got from the interviews was just how key the role of working with mules in the fields was - to the lope of the rhythm, to the roughness of the voice. Lots of great stories about Patton's showmanship - he was an Elvis. A Jerry Lee. Playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his back. On the ground, kicking dust in the air.

And the links forward were nicely done - to Son House (that footage of him doing Death Letter!) and Robert Johnson and the world. All neatly placed into the context of Dockery Farm - a way of life with its roots before the Civil War.

Simply amazing footage. And hearing Robert Lockwood cover Robert Johnson's immortal Love in Vain reminded me how that song is about the best 2:20 imaginable:

When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station, was two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.
All my love's in vain.

And again, no celebrities in sight. Thank g-d.

Next week looks to cover the field - Cajun and Hawaiian and who knows what else. I've ordered the Book (apparently it's quite helpful for context - and reams of unpublished interviews). I may be along for the ride despite myself...

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