American Epic – Reviving Record Production's Past

This new star-studded TV documentary series and film about field recordings of artists from the USA’s distant past has revived some long-lost record-production technology. Jonathan Webster meets the people behind a pioneering project…

It’s been a full decade now since an Anglo-American team of documentary filmmakers, led by producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, set out on an epic journey to explore the huge variety of folk, rural and regional music recorded in the United States during the late 1920s.

That was the first time, thanks to new electrical recording technology, that Americans had heard each other in all their richness and variety. And it reshaped the whole concept of popular music.
What triggered that journey – culminating in a magnificent BBC TV series called American Epic, which had just started airing as this issue went to press – was a visit to a UK blues festival by the aforementioned MacMahon.

The Scully Lathe, back in action in the modern day

The director heard that three veteran blues musicians (David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood Jr.) were going to be performing. “I thought, ‘I really need to film these guys’,” he tells Long Live Vinyl. “They were all in their 90s, and clearly weren’t going to be around for much longer. And so I got together a good-quality film crew and did two-hour interviews with each of them. Some of that footage is contained in the blues section of American Epic.”
“What emerged,” says MacMahon, “was that these artists were the real deal. ‘Honeyboy’ had met Charley Patton back in 1931. Homesick talked about seeing Blind Lemon Jefferson play in Texas, and Robert was a protégé of Robert Johnson no less, who was also his stepfather. What a history!
“Allison (McGourty), my production partner, saw this footage and said: ‘This is great… We need to make this into something larger’. So we set out to make a series that celebrated the pioneers and artists of American roots music – encompassing the blues, gospel, folk, Cajun, Appalachian, Hawaiian, and Native American – without which there would be no rock, country, R&B or hip-hop today.
“But we had a big logistical problem: there was so little information on this era, and very little was known about many of the artists. On the recording side, there were old shellac discs, but no pictures of the recording equipment used to make them. I was aware of this huge historical musical jigsaw puzzle, but we only had a few pieces of that jigsaw.”
At this point, McGourty joins the conversation. “In the early years, we weren’t working on the project full-time, and, instead of having holidays, we were both going back and forth to America whenever we could, to do our research.”

“This is an account of a cultural revolution” – Robert Redford

The project became full-time in 2011, after McGourty set up a meeting with Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan’s manager and a lover of old-time music. Rosen was excited by what he heard, and became a guardian angel of the project, setting up, in turn, meetings with the BBC and with T Bone Burnett. Robert Redford came onboard as an executive producer soon after, proclaiming: “This is America’s greatest untold story. It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”

The Memphis Jug Band recorded over 80 albums in the 1920s and 1930s

Needle in a haystack

MacMahon remembers how T Bone also connected the pair up with “other great roots-loving musicians, like Jack White and Elton John. Elton said to us: ‘T Bone has been talking about this. And if you’re happy to work with an old queen, then I would like to contribute something musically, as well!’”

To their delight, the series was commissioned by Anthony Wall, executive producer at the BBC, and the man responsible for backing Scorsese’s celebrated Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. But although they were off and running, the really hard work was just beginning. McGourty recalls: “We must have travelled a quarter-of-a-million miles by air and driven at least 10,000 miles across the USA in our quest.”
Nevertheless, despite meticulous planning, tracking down surviving family members of those early great musical pioneers was often like trying to find a needle in a haystack. “We couldn’t simply Google them,” says MacMahon. “But we doggedly persevered.”

An original Scully Lathe on location

McGourty chips in: “Luckily, our job was made a little easier, as we have lots of friends who are involved in the music business, who were able to point us in the right direction for some of the interviewees.
“For example, it was music writer Garth Cartwright who introduced us to Charlie Musselwhite, the electric-blues harmonica player and bandleader; and John Tefteller, who introduced us to a lot of the 78 collectors for the music. Mostly, though, it was just old-fashioned detective work – from scanning ancient microfiches in dusty libraries to phoning funeral parlours and even, in one case, hiring a private detective.
“Fortunately,” she continues, “in most cases, people were happy to talk to us.
I think it helped that I’m a Scot and Bernard’s of Irish descent. Everyone loves talking to the British. “In almost every case, people were hugely intrigued by what we were trying to do,” adds MacMahon, “and then very emotional and delighted that their musically pioneering ancestors were at long last getting recognition.”

“These often one-take field recordings captured ‘lightning in a bottle’

In the end, there was enough footage for at least 15 episodes. But that was impractical, and so MacMahon scaled the final series down to five-and-a-half hours of edited film, culminating in a rich, but tight, four-part presentation.
American Epic is, however, just as much about the birth of the modern recording industry, when electric recording took off.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson recording for American Epic: The Sessions

The documentary’s creators set out to follow the paths of the early record company scouts, who – because of the competition from radio – were sent out across America in the 1920s in search of new styles of music and new markets to sell it in.
McGourty definitely agrees that there’s something heroic about those early record producers who went out into the field to capture the vast array of native and rural American musical talent in the raw.
“If it wasn’t for those pioneering producers in the field, like Ralph Peer and Frank Walker, we wouldn’t have the music we have today. They are the pioneers, who – using their early electric recording machine, their cutting lathe, and mastery of microphone technique and where to place the mic to get the best musical results – shaped our world.
“Those American roots musicians were recorded right there and then, straight onto shellac, the early, brittle forerunner of vinyl. Often, they were recorded in one take, and that often resulted in wonderfully pure, unadulterated performances. Or ‘lightning in a bottle’, as Bernard likes to say. Furthermore, the records were sold locally to music lovers with wind-up gramophones.”

The Carter Family, literally in the field

So, does McGourty suspect that these early performances will transfer better to vinyl – and sound better on vinyl than on CD? “Vinyl will always generally sound better than CD. What makes our music from the American Epic collection and the series so special is that, after a decade of research, we came up with the ultimate way to restore the sound from these vintage shellac 78 discs.”
Nick Bergh – American Epic’s brilliant sound supervisor and recording engineer – came onboard about three months before the first test-session recording shown in the film. Although he didn’t accompany the shoot, he was clearly a busy man.
“My role,” he says, “was threefold: transferring all the vintage recordings, recording the new musicians using the old equipment, and general sound supervision – to help ensure authenticity of the original sound for the songs and instrumentals featured in the released recordings.”

A Word From Jack White

The Third Man supremo extols the virtues of analogue

“I think a lot of us who’ve loved music recorded in… the 20s and 30s always wondered what it would be like if we could record our songs in this way. It really does change your perspective. I love the look on people’s faces when they first hear the playback from the record…

“It’s strange at first, because it doesn’t sound like a digital recording… there’s frequencies that aren’t there for modern recording, and you’re dealing with hearing the vibrations out of a mechanical object, not the digital ones and twos of computer recording, or even a tape recording. This is an actual physical, mechanical means by which you are reproducing the sound, and that colours the sound in a beautiful way. It really has its own life.”

An epic restoration

Bergh, MacMahon and McGourty soon realised that if they were going to authentically record contemporary musicians, they would have to find or rebuild a real Western Electric recording rack. And since there was not one to be found anywhere in the world, the only option was a rebuild. This was a hugely painstaking, but ultimately rewarding task, as Bergh explains.

“My goal was to somehow locate – anywhere in the USA or the world – each of the main components of a Western Electric, get them working on their own, and then integrate them back into a complete system. Sort of like the restoration of an extremely rare classic car, where maybe the body, the motor, rear-end and transmission all come from different places.
“However, in the case of the Western Electric system, the components are: microphone, microphone pre-amp, equaliser, line amp, monitor amp, level meter and (the Scully Lathe) cutting head.”

Mississipi John Hurt features on an American Epic 12″ ‘audiophile’ vinyl album from Third Man Records

In the feature-length companion film American Epic: The Sessions, Bergh has a chance to take a Western Electric recording machine and Scully Lathe into a studio and use them to record, produce and cut shellac records of performances by a whole host of contemporary artists, including Elton John, Willie Nelson, Jack White, Beck, the rapper Nas, and Taj Mahal. We wonder what the logistical challenges of doing this were.
“The gear is very old and can be troublesome,” Bergh explains. “There are also many pieces, and beyond the parts seen in the film are all the spares, like mechanical-electrical tools, and special oils and greases. Having said that, the equipment held up very well.”
We put it to Bergh that it must have been difficult getting these contemporary artists to feel comfortable with such wonderful yet old-time recording technology. “To their credit, I think the musicians got into it fairly quickly. I actually had my hands so full on the technical side that we left it to Jack White and others to help on the performance side.”
As an engineer first and foremost, it’s no surprise to hear what Nick Bergh’s highlight was.
“It’s amazing to see something that I used to study in old grainy photos actually shown onscreen. It’s almost unbelievable that it could be put back together and used. I hope it helps foster interest in this early era of recording, and the importance of understanding the technology when trying to understand the recorded music of now.”

Taj Mahal performs for the American Epic: The Sessions film

From old, hissy shellac tracks to digital versions, through audio restoration and then, finally, to high-quality vinyl/CD tracks is quite a journey. And the main man responsible for the final, sensitively cleaned-up versions of the music heard on the boxsets is Grammy Award-winning record producer Peter Henderson.
When quizzed about her longer-term hopes for how American Epic is received, Allison McGourty is resolutely clear what she, MacMahon and the broadcasters involved (the BBC and PBS) want to achieve.
“I hope that American Epic will instill in viewers a love for the songs that came out of America and for the people who made the music. Furthermore, we’ve always believed from the off that the show would only be a success if it appealed to both the cognoscenti and the general music lover. I hope we’ve succeeded in doing that!”

Edie Brickell and Steve Martin perform The Sessions

With wins and nominations already earned at various film festivals, including Calgary and Sydney, it’s a safe bet American Epic is going to carve a niche in the pantheon of TV’s great documentaries; while the accompanying vinyl releases on Third Man look set to further cement the accolades.
American Epic is available to watch on iPlayer, though you’ll need to be fast as at the time of writing (16 June) the first episode is only available for 8 days. American Epic vinyl compilations will be released via Third Man Records.
The companion book is published by Touchstone and available from all good bookshops. Be sure to follow us on Facebook where we’re currently running a like and share competition where 2 lucky winners could win a copy of the companion book (UK only). Competition ends 14 July 2017.