Jack White knows which direction his obsessions with American folk, blues and country steered him as an artist. “When you get back to Howlin’ Wolf, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson – it basically begins there, and that’s the best it ever was and the best it’s ever going to be,” White declared Thursday night onstage at the Sundance Film Festival, following a preview of the ambitious six-hour American Epic documentary series for PBS.
Along with Sundance founder Robert Redford, White and producer/musician T Bone Burnett are executive producers of American Epic, which recounts how early recording devices captured a variety of regional sounds for the first time — from Delta blues to Hawaiian, Cajun to folk — and established the foundation of what became modern popular music. “I’ve often remarked that music to the United States is as wine is to France,” Burnett told Rolling Stone. “It’s one of those never-ending stories.”
The screening drew a full house to the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, where Redford introduced a 45-minute excerpt that included a look at the life and influence of Mississippi John Hurt. In 1928, Hurt released several songs for the Okeh label before going silent for 35 years and working as a sharecropper, until his rediscovery during the early Sixties folk movement. He was tracked down at home in tiny Avalon, Mississippi, by young musicologist Dick Spottswood, who recounts telling Hurt: “Don’t you know how famous you are?” Hurt didn’t even have a guitar.
Making the documentary “was like a journey of discovery to find out what was exactly the most important thing in recording music, and the things we most value,” director Bernard MacMahon said of the project, which he co-created with producers Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson. (PBS will broadcast the series in the fall.) “Its immediacy and energy and a moment, what they used to call ‘lightning in a bottle.'”
“I’ve often remarked that music to the United States is as wine is to France. It’s one of those never-ending stories.”— T Bone Burnett
At the podium, Redford said the documentary shares a history of sound recordings that “allowed America to hear itself, telling stories about America itself. It started in small pockets in this country and then it spread.”
In the late 1920s, Burnett said, “the record industry collapsed because radio had proliferated in the big cities and people could get music for free; [they] didn’t want to pay for it anymore. So the record companies went down South and began recording the poorest people in the country, which led to this extraordinary explosion of blues, country music and rock & roll … everything we know today.”
The screening included a look at how the mournful “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson was chosen among other recordings by NASA to represent humanity and soar across the cosmos onboard the Voyager space probes launched in 1977. There was also a glimpse of the series’ final chapter, where Burnett and White gather contemporary musicians from the Alabama Shakes to Elton John to record with the same ancient equipment, including the very first amplifier, first condenser microphone and acetate cutting machine.