Monday, May 22, 2017

American Epic, part 1: “The Big Bang” (Lo-Max Films/PBS, 2015-2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday, May 16, PBS nationally broadcast “The Big Bang,” the first part of a three-part miniseries (each episode lasting only an hour, unfortunately — they could have been considerably longer!) called American Epic, about the movement among American recording companies begun in the mid-1920’s to broaden the market for records and record players by going out into the country and recording both Black and white “roots” artists, the people who would eventually form the bedrock of the genres we now know as blues and country music, respectively. The version of the story told here is that record sales were beginning to fall in the mid-1920’s because of the growing competition of radio, which offered music for free once you invested in a receiving set, and so record companies sent talent scouts to parts of the country — mainly the Deep South — where there was very little broadcasting and therefore radio hadn’t penetrated yet. The truth is a bit more complicated; both Black and white “roots” artists had been mainstays of the record business since its earliest days, and two of the most enormous record hits of the early 1920’s were Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” — produced by Ralph Peer for Okeh Records (Peer is a very important part of American Epic) — and Vernon Dalhart’s “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Both of those records sold over a million copies and showed the commercial viability of recording blues and country music, respectively. 

The record business was aggressively challenged by radio, and was so decimated by the 1929 Depression that there were quite a few people who thought it would never recover (it did, starting in 1934, as the overall economy recovered as well). The show mentions Ralph Peer and also his great rival at Columbia, Frank Walker, who in 1923 discovered and signed Bessie Smith (and in 1945, driven out of Columbia by parent company CBS’s mandatory retirement policy, he joined MGM Records and there signed Hank Williams), and includes archive audio interviews with both of them as well as film footage of their sons. The real story was that in 1925 Peer quit Okeh Records in a dispute over salary and set his sights on the biggest record company of all (at the time), Victor. The only problem was that Victor didn’t want to pay him. Fine, said Peer: he’d sign with Victor and produce records for them for free as long as he and his newly formed music publishing company, Peer Music (now Peer-Southern and still run by the Peer family) got ownership of the copyright of any original songs Peer’s artists recorded. Peer had seen that the real long-term income possibilities in the music business weren’t in recording artists, who came and went (Peer told one of his most important artists, pioneering blues-country singer Jimmie Rodgers, that he shouldn’t expect to be a big record seller for longer than three years), but in ownership of the songs themselves, which meant he would get royalties not only from the original recordings but from anyone else who covered them. (“You may forget the singer, but don’t forget this song,” goes a line in one of the Carter Family records Peer produced.) One quirk of this arrangement was that Peer’s artists weren’t allowed to cover other people’s songs because then Peer wouldn’t make any money from them — Rodgers broke the rule when he recorded “Frankie and Johnny” in 1929 and a furious Peer blocked release of the record until 1938, when Rodgers had been dead for five years and Victor was putting out just about everything they had on him. They could only record their own compositions, old folk songs they’d tweaked enough to claim them as “originals” for copyright purposes, or other songs owned by Peer’s company.

In August 1927 Peer took portable recording equipment (which wasn’t all that portable; at the time professional-quality recording equipment was heavy and massive, and because the engineers couldn’t count on a steady enough electrical current to keep the cutting turntable running at a constant speed, the turntable ran on power generated by falling weights controlled by a pendulum like an old grandfather clock) to Bristol, Tennessee and advertised for anyone who wanted to sing and play for his microphones to give this recording business a trial. The biggest artists he landed were Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were more or less extensively profiled on this program (I say “more or less” because while they were the principal focus of the first half of “The Big Bang,” PBS did an earlier documentary on them that was longer and did a much better job of telling their interesting story) even though when they showed up in Bristol the Carters had never performed professionally. Like a lot of the other artists who showed up before Peer’s microphones, the Carters — A. P. (Alvin Pleasant) and Sara Carter, who were both first or second cousins (accounts differ, but it’s known that “Carter” was both Sara’s birth name and her married name) and husband and wife; and Maybelle Carter, who was A.P.’s sister and Sara’s cousin — had previously thought of music as something you did for fun, picking and singing on your porch for your own amusement or for your relatives and friends. The idea that you could actually make money off it was totally foreign to them. A. P. persuaded his reluctant womenfolk to make the journey from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee — one reason for their reluctance was Sara had just given birth and Maybelle was reaching the end of a pregnancy — to try out in Bristol, and Peer heard an electrifying quality in Sara Carter’s voice and signed them instantly. Under his arrangement with Peer, A. P. Carter realized he’d have to keep him supplied with a steady stream of “new” songs, and when the Carters had established themselves as recording and radio stars (sometimes accompanied by Lesley “Esley” Riddle, a Black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee) A. P. would tour the South looking for folk songs he could take, tweak and offer to Peer’s company as copyrightable “originals.” Nolan Porterfield,  Jimmie Rodgers’ biographer, noted in his book that grabbing folk songs, changing them a bit and copyrighting them as your own work might seem exploitative, but it did mean that a lot of songs that might otherwise have been lost forever were preserved. 

The Carter Family finally broke up in 1944 after A. P. and Sara separated over Sara’s affair with yet another member of their extended family — A. P.’s cousin, Coy Bayes (Sara wrote a song for the group, “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” as a love song for Bayes, and every time the group sang it on the radio it was a signal to him that she wanted them to get together after the show), and A. P. ended up leaving show business and running a two-bit grocery store in the middle of nowhere. The previous PBS documentary on the Carters showed a photo of this rather sad-looking store with a sign out front reading “A. P. Carter, Prop.”, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone who shopped there associated that A. P. Carter with the male member of the original Carter Family that had sold millions of records and largely established country music as a viable genre. Maybelle Carter became a major solo artist on the Grand Ole Opry and her offspring continued the tradition: Maybelle’s daughter June Carter married Johnny Cash and June’s daughter Carlene (not from Cash but from her previous husband) also became a country star in her own right, while up until the 1980’s various combinations of Carter generations toured either as “The Carter Family” or “The Carter Sisters.” This show also doesn’t mention (though the previous documentary did) that Maybelle Carter invented a way of playing lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously that became known as the “Carter Scratch” (it means picking lead parts on the lower strings and chords on the upper ones) and is still one of the basic techniques used by country guitarists. Ralph Peer, Frank Walker and the other great record talent scouts of their generation (including probably the greatest record producer of all time in terms of discovering and incubating new talent, John Hammond) said that what they listened for in a potential new signing was an electrifying quality that moved them on an intense emotional level and they felt would move other people as well — and as crude as they are (by comparison not only with the recording artists since but even with contemporaries like Jimmie Rodgers who had performed professionally before they recorded), the Carter Family’s records hold up beautifully because of their simplicity and direct, heartfelt emotion. (The Carter Family seem to me to be strongest in their religious songs, including what’s probably their most covered piece, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”[1]; virtually all African-American music is rooted in the Black church tradition, and quite a few white artists from the South also had their roots in the church, including the Carters, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.)

The second half of American Epic’s first episode, “The Big Bang,” focused on a Black group considerably more obscure than the Carter Family (and also, quite frankly, sounding considerably more dated even though a surprising number of their songs were covered by folk and rock bands in the 1960’s): the Memphis Jug Band, described on their Wikipedia page as “an American musical group active from the mid-1920’s to the late 1950’s.[1] The band featured harmonica, kazoo, fiddle and mandolin or banjolin, backed by guitar, piano, washboard, washtub bass and jug. They played slow blues, pop songs, humorous songs and upbeat dance numbers with jazz and string band flavors. The band made the first commercial recordings in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded more sides than any other prewar jug band.” The musical legacy of Memphis is one of the most famous and yet most bizarrely misunderstood of that of any major American city, largely because the current Memphis city government has turned their city into a virtual theme park for Elvis Presley and in the process crowded out just about any other commemoration of their town’s rich musical history. (The converted movie theatre in which the Stax company recorded some of the greatest soul records of the 1960’s and 1970’s was torn down and is now a vacant lot.) I would go so far as to say that Memphis was to rock ’n’ roll what New Orleans was to jazz: the place where the various styles came together and fused into something new and appealing to millions of people around the world. (One of my favorite photos from Memphis shows Elvis and B. B. King hanging out together behind a Memphis movie theatre at a time when virtually no one outside of Memphis had ever heard of either of them.) Various players came and went in the Memphis Jug Band — its records were made in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s but the band remained a live attraction until the late 1950’s — but the key figures were singer-guitarist-songwriter-harmonica player Will Shade (who according to the Wikipedia page on the group also was known as Son Brimmer, sometimes spelled Sun Brimmer) and guitarist and second vocalist Charlie Burse (pronounced “Bursey”). Like a lot of Black groups of the period (including Duke Ellington’s band, who also recorded as “Connie’s Hot Chocolates” and “The Harlem Footwarmers”), they honored the “exclusive” part of their record contract more in the breach than in the observance, recording under such alternate names as the Picaninny Jug Band, the Memphis Sanctified Singers, the Carolina Peanut Boys, the Dallas Jug Band, the Memphis Sheiks and the Jolly Jug Band. (The “Memphis Sanctified Singers” name probably came about so they could record religious material and sell records to a market that was not only disinterested but morally repulsed by blues.)

What holds up about the Memphis Jug Band’s records today is not so much their music as their lyrics, particularly their dispassionate descriptions of dissolute lifestyles: “Cocaine Habit Blues,” “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake” (the title is a reflection of the internal racism within America’s Black community at the time, in which lighter-skinned Blacks were considered higher-class and more moral while darker-skinned Blacks were considered lower-class and dangerous: one can see this division in a lot of the “race” movies of the time, made with Black casts for Black audiences; usually “race” movie producers, both Black and white, cast lighter-skinned actors as the heroes and darker ones either as villains or as comic relief) and “Stealin’, Stealin’.” The American Epic show depicts rapper Nas covering “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake,” rapping the lyric instead of singing it the way Shade did, and using it as a defense of rap (or “hip-hop,” the euphemism for rap generally used by people who like it) by saying that he’s working in the same tradition that Shade was when he wrote the song. I think there’s a difference — and I’m well aware much of my distaste for rap may be a simple generation gap: I’ve now become the representative of the older generation muttering about the awful music the kids are listening to — and I think the difference was that the older musicians who wrote songs about the darker sides of life were simply describing them, whereas the rappers actively take pride in doing all those dirty, disgusting things like raping women, beating Queers, committing armed robbery and murder and collecting aggressively ugly and tasteless jewelry (“bling”). Rap really doesn’t have its roots in older forms of African-American music (though the cadences of most rap do derive, in a weird and twisted way, from the cadences of Black ministers in the ways they preached) as much as it does in “The Dozens,” an old street-corner word game played by Black men in which the idea was to boast as much as possible about your own physical, financial and sexual prowess and come up with as many put-downs of the person you were “dozening” with as you could think of.

One odd thing about the periodic rediscovery of “roots” music is that it’s not always the most interesting artists that get rediscovered and hailed as the masters. I thought of that when the American Epic producer-director-writer, British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon (who whimsically named his production company “Lo-Max Films,” after Alan and Louis Lomax, the pioneering Black folklorists who traveled the South with portable recording equipment in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, recorded “folk” artists and gave them $20 each as a token payment — earning the gratitude of amateurs like Dockery’s Plantation sharecropper McKinley Morganfield, who later moved to Chicago and became a blues star as Muddy Waters; and the ire of Blind Willie McTell, who responded to the Lomaxes’ payment with, “What is this $20 shit? When I was on Victor I used to get $100 a side!” It was an ironic choice because MacMahon consciously avoided noncommercial field recordings and concentrated on artists who were signed, however tenuously, to established record companies whose executives hoped to make money from them) included a bit of “Old Jim Canan’s” by Robert Wilkins, a classic-era blues artist whom I regard as one of the most unjustly neglected blues musicians of all time. (I think he was better than the more highly hyped Robert Johnson, but maybe that’s just because I find Wilkins so much more admirable as a human being. Johnson begged his record producer for a nickel because the cheap prostitute he wanted charged 50¢ and he was a nickel short; Wilkins quit the music business altogether in 1936 when a crowd in a juke joint he was playing rioted, became a born-again Christian minister and faith healer, and when he returned to music in the early 1960’s it was as a gospel singer.) Ironically, the illegal nightclub Wilkins recorded the song about is the only one of the old Memphis blues clubs that hasn’t been torn down, but the place where Wilkins boasted you could get “beer and cocaine” is now — get this — a police station. (Wilkins’ masterpiece, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” was covered by the Rolling Stones using his more Biblically-themed rewrite of the lyric, “Prodigal Son,” but he’s never achieved the cachet with the rock audience Johnson has.)  

American Epic has come with the PBS hype machine (such as it is) working hard; they got Robert Redford to narrate it (though his voice is not distinctive enough to be recognizable if you can’t see him as well) and in addition to selling the show itself on DVD and Blu-Ray they’re also selling a five-CD compilation of the artists represented and a two-CD album of modern artists, including Jack White, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Alabama Shakes, rapper Nas, East L.A.’s Los Lobos and more, not only recording the old songs but recording them on reconstructed 1930’s equipment, direct-to-disc on fragile wax masters that had to go through an elaborate set of electroplating process so they could be turned into molds from which records could be pressed. (Methinks it occurred to whoever was in their marketing department to ask themselves, “What can we possibly do to attract people like Mark Conlan to our project?” If that’s what they were thinking, they were right!)

[1] — For some reason most of the covers of this — including the one by Willie Nelson depicted on American Epic — change the first word of the lyric to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”