American Epic Episodes

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, music scouts armed with cutting-edge recording technology set out across America to capture the breadth of American music and discover the artists that would shape our world. The recordings they made of all the ethnic groups of America democratized the nation and gave a voice to everyone. It was the first time America heard itself. As told by music pioneers, their families and eyewitnesses, we travel back in time to the “Big Bang” of modern popular music with the Carter Family, Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band.

Musicians featured: The Carter FamilyMemphis Jug BandCharlie Musselwhite, Jack WhiteNas, and Taj Mahal. Narrated by Robert Redford.

From the sanctified shout of the gospel church, to the coal mines of West Virginia, to the cotton fields of Mississippi, music provided relief from tough lives and hard times. New rhythms were born in the echoes of stomping feet, the bite of pick-axes and the ambling gait of tired mules. Almost a century later, the quest for singers remembered only as vague names on battered shellac discs brings those stories back to life.

Musicians featured: Elder J.E. BurchDick Justice, the Williamson Brothers and CurryFrank HutchisonHowlin’ WolfCharley PattonSon HouseRobert Lockwood Jr.Honeyboy EdwardsHomesick James, and Taj Mahal. Narrated by Robert Redford.

Exotic cultures spanning America are captured on record for the first time — inventing new instruments and new cultural identities as disparate voices harmonize in a musical melting pot. The myriad threads of America’s musical tapestry include Hopi priests traveling to Washington to defend their sacred snake dance; an 11-year-old Hawaiian boy who invents the steel guitar; a teenage Tejana shaking the border with a ferocious feminist tango learned from a gum wrapper; the fightingest frères on the bayou turning a lament for a pretty blonde into the Cajun national anthem; and a gentle Delta farmer who sings a nostalgic song of his hometown and inspires the greatest rediscovery of the ’60s folk revival.

Musicians featured: the Hopi Indian ChantersJoseph KekukuLydia Mendoza, the Breaux FrèresMississippi John HurtTaj MahalCyril Pahinui, and Louis Michot. Narrated by Robert Redford.

In THE AMERICAN EPIC SESSIONS, the American Epic team has reassembled the very first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s, and invited Jack White and T Bone Burnett to produce an album of recordings by twenty of today’s greatest artists. In this beautifully filmed musical feature, these artists are given the chance to pass through the portal that brought the world into the modern era.

Engineer Nicholas Bergh has reassembled this recording system from original parts and it is now the only one left in the world. The system consists of a single microphone, a towering six-foot amplifier rack, and a live record-cutting lathe, powered by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears. The musicians have roughly three minutes to record their song direct to disc before the weight hits the floor. In the 1920s, they called this “catching lightning in a bottle.” All the musical performances in this film are live. The audio you hear is taken directly from the discs they were recorded to, with no editing or enhancements.

Starring: Alabama ShakesThe AmericansAna GabrielAshley MonroeThe Avett BrothersBeckBettye LaVetteBobby InganoElton JohnFrank Fairfield, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Los Lobos, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Nas, Pokey LaFarge, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Taj Mahal, Jack White, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.