Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The American Epic Sessions (Lo-Max Films, Thirteen Productions, PBS, 2016)

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

I watched the show I really wanted to see last night: the final episode of the American Epic series, The American Epic Sessions, consisting of a remarkable project undertaken by the series’ producer-director-writer, Bernard MacMahon, and modern-day singer, songwriter and guitarist Jack White. It involved reconstructing a recording machine of the late 1920’s (as nearly as I could make out it actually meant assembling a cutting lathe from one source, an early Western Electric amplifier from another and condenser microphones from still another), getting it in working order and hiring living musicians to record on the old equipment, with all the limitations inherent thereto. That meant not only no overdubs, no multi-tracking, no mixing but also no editing: the musicians would have to perform a single song in real time and keep to the three-minute limit of a 78 rpm master, dictated not only by the size of the master disc they were cutting on but also the length of the canvas ribbon connecting the ground weight to the recording lathe. That’s right: though the machine depended on electrical current to run the amplifier and cutting head, they were not depending on electricity to power the turntable because in the 1920’s electric service was still too variable to give the constant speed they needed to avoid minor but annoying fluctuations in the pitch of the recording, known today as “wow” and “flutter.” So they went back to medieval technology and powered the turntable the way Galileo had with his clocks: a falling weight to provide the energy, a pendulum to regulate its fall, and a clockwork mechanism to propel the turntable via gravity. 

There was only one way in which I could tell they “cheated,” and that was though they still referred to the master discs on which they recorded as “waxes,” instead (judging from the visual evidence of the machine in operation in the show) they used lacquer masters. The early cylinder machines had recorded on hard wax, which allowed the cylinder to be played back instantly — indeed cylinder phonograph makers, in their long and ultimately losing battle against competition from discs, ballyhooed that their machines could be used to make amateur recordings, not just play pre-recorded material — but Émile Berliner, the inventor of the flat-disc phonograph, had first etched his discs with acid and then realized that use of a soft wax master would produce better-quality sound. Only wax came with a whole host of problems. First, it meant the masters were very delicate (“You could ruin the wax with a toothpick,” recalled John Hammond, one of the great record producers of the 1930’s and later, in his autobiography). Second, their delicacy meant that they had to go through an elaborate set of metallurgical processes before they could be turned into a playable record (though made after lacquer masters replaced wax, the 1936 short Record Making with Duke Ellington at shows the highly elaborate metallurgical processing used by the record industry to turn a master record into a playable disc), and this meant literally weeks of waiting before the producers and the artists themselves could hear what was recorded. (Some producers worked around this by simultaneously recording the session on a cylinder phonograph or an amateur disc recorder using acetate blanks so they would have something they could play back for the artists immediately.) 

Lacquer masters could be played back immediately after the recording was made, and the giveaways that the technical crew on The American Epic Sessions were using lacquer instead of wax are: 1) the black color of the master discs (the wax discs used before lacquer were usually either tan or light brown, the natural colors of beeswax); 2) the absence of the warming oven needed in studios using wax to keep the master blanks soft enough to make good records (many 78 rpm discs have a high-frequency whine that starts about midway through the record and gets louder as it progresses: this is what happened when a wax master sat too long at room temperature and cooled too much before it was used); 3) the absence of a technician wielding a soft-bristled brush and holding it over the cutting lathe to sweep off the wax removed from the master disc as it was inscribed (with lacquer, the cutting stylus merely etched a groove into the master disc without removing any material from it); and 4) that after Elton John’s performance the master was removed from the cutting length and transferred to a playback turntable so it could played for him immediately. (Elton John is also told as he’s entering the studio — the old Vox Recorders in L.A., which wasn’t being used when the producers stumbled on it and outfitted it with the antique equipment — that he has four minutes to record, while the other artists were given only three; this probably means that they gave him a 12-inch master instead of the 10-inch ones everybody else got. Well, maybe that’s the privilege you get when you’re a knight.) What’s more, MacMahon and White insisted that, while they had the studio miked separately to catch between-songs chatter and false starts, what you hear when the musicians are actually playing comes from the masters being cut on that old machine — which, if true, is quite remarkable evidence that the recording machines of the late 1920’s were capable of capturing far more sounds than the playback machines of the time could reproduce. By using lacquer masters, pressing on vinyl instead of the noisier shellac-and-clay mix used to make 78’s, and playing the vinyl 78’s on modern equipment, they were able to showcase that old recorder at its very best; compared to modern recordings the sound is a bit congested and doesn’t have a full frequency range, but it’s also honest, noise-free and quite a bit better than even the best-sounding reissues of actual 1929 recordings. 

As for the performances themselves, the producers assembled quite an illustrious mix of modern-day artists (as well as one deceased one, Merle Haggard; they’re coy as to just when these sessions were done but Haggard is listed as being on the last one, which means they must have taken place before April 6, 2016, when Haggard died; it would be ironic indeed if it turns out Haggard made his last record on this old equipment!): Jack White, rapper Nas, the band Alabama Shakes, Los Lobos, Elton John, Ashley Monroe and the Americans, 1960’s blues artist Taj Mahal (Black, not East Indian as you might think from his appropriation of India’s famous landmark), Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (yes, that Steve Martin, who in addition to a comedian and actor is an accomplished bluegrass banjoist and frequently teams up, as here, with Mrs. Paul Simon), a new blues artist named Jeroen “Blind Boy” Paxton (I couldn’t tell whether he actually is blind but he had apparently never recorded before, and the last verse of his song contains an ironic reference to the colored lights above the control-booth window there to tell the artists when to start and stop), The Hawai’ians, Bettye Lavette, the Avett Brothers, Mexican singer Ana Gabriel, Beck (I couldn’t help but joke that Jack White recruited him by telling him, “Let’s see what you can do with one turntable and a microphone!”), Rhiannon Giddens, Raphael Saddiq and, for the finale, Haggard duetting with Willie Nelson on two songs, one new and one old. The artists seemed evenly split on their sources for material, with some of them doing actual songs from the period dramatized on American Epic and some doing their own originals written to be compatible with the older musical styles. Jack White kicked off the proceedings with a piece called “Matrimonial Indiscretions,” lamenting that his current girlfriend is telling him to “keep your hands to yourself” unless he’s willing to make his commitment permanent and exclusive; it was the subject of quite a number of blues “in the day” but White’s use of multisyllabic words throughout the song marks it as new. Then Nas did a cover of the Memphis Jug Band’s “On the Road Again,” complete with the “N-word,” and in a clip that was also used in the first episode of American Epic itself defends rap (or “hip-hop,” since he used the euphemism favored by those who like it) as an extension of those old blues that described street life in graphic terms, with all its violence and sex included. I’m not sold on that point — it seems to me the older singers merely described raunchy scenes of sex and violence and didn’t celebrate them the way modern rappers do — but the old song shook a better performance out of Nas than his own material does. 

I was hoping Alabama Shakes, with their heavy-set Black singer/lead guitarist/frontwoman Brittany Howard, would cover something by Sister Rosetta Tharpe — perhaps it’s just because I first heard Alabama Shakes on an Austin City Limits episode shown by KPBS right after a PBS documentary on Tharpe, but I’ve thought ever since then she’d be the perfect person to play Tharpe in a biopic — instead she did “Killer Diller Blues,” originally recorded by the great Memphis Minnie in 1946 (which means Minnie probably recorded her version on considerably more sophisticated equipment than Howard and band recorded theirs!) and tore into it with searing electric guitar riffs and a vocal delivery that did her, Minnie and the song justice. Los Lobos did a Mexican folk song called “El Cascabel” and sounded pretty much like they always do when they reach back to their roots and record Mexican folk material in Spanish. Then Elton John came in to record a piece called “Two Drinks of Whiskey” under unusual circumstances; his long-time lyric writer, Bernie Taupin, gave him a sheet with the words printed out and John was obliged to work out a melody on the spot, then record it. (Jack White gave him support on guitar during the final performance.) Elton John gave a remark to the effect that this would be the first time Taupin would witness him record a song they wrote: usually, as dramatized years ago in a TV special called Two Rooms, Taupin merely mailed John his finished lyrics and didn’t hear what John had done with them until the records were released. The song is quite a nice piece of material, reminiscent of the similarly titled one Bono Hewson of U2 wrote for Frank Sinatra with the hope of getting the Chairman to record it. Afterwards came one of the nicest pieces of material in the whole show, Ashley Monroe (a blonde slip of a girl with a voice that sounds like someone tried to cross-breed Sara Carter and Joan Baez) and a neo-bluegrass group called The Americans doing a song called “Jubilee” which is new (I think) but certainly seems credible as a bluegrass oldie. 

Then Taj Mahal did a cover of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” a blues about the Mississippi River floods of 1927 (as I pointed out in my comments on the first American Epic program, a lot of blues songs about the Mississippi floods of 1927 exist because the Melrose Brothers, two whites who ran a music publishing company in Chicago, did a nationwide contest for them that was won by Bessie Smith with her masterpiece, “Backwater Blues”). After that came a real surprise: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell doing a song called “The Cuckoo” which they credited to blues singer Clarence “Tom” Ashley from 1929 but, according to various online sources, it might be even older and may have its origins in British folk traditions. What startled me is that my only previous encounter with this piece was as one of the bonus tracks added to Janis Joplin’s first album with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company when her later label, Columbia, took over the master from Mainstream, the company that made it originally. Then Jeoren “Blind Boy” Paxton came on and did “Candy Man,” credited to Rev. Gary Davis but, given the sexual salaciousness of the lyrics, written well before Gary Davis became a Rev. (It’s on a 1961 album called Pure Religion and Bad Company, recorded for Folkways Records, and it seems as if side one of the LP was about bad company and side two was about pure religion; it also seems as if Bob Dylan bought the album almost as soon as it was released, because a version of “Candy Man” is on one of his early amateur tapes.) Afterwards a group called The Hawai’ians came out and did Sol K. Hoopii’s “Tomi, Tomi,” one of the most infectious of the late 1920’s Hawai’ian records and a lovely song. 

It was followed by blues singer Bettye Lavette doing “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business,” not the professionally published one by Clarence Williams that Bessie Smith recorded in 1923 and Billie Holiday, Jimmy Witherspoon and many others later covered, but the version recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in 1928 by Frank Stokes which, though it was done five years later than Bessie’s version, probably reflects an older, “folkier” version of the song. Then the Avett Brothers came on to do a version of the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” that reflected the technical glitches that frequently afflicted the old recording processes; in the middle of their performance one of the mikes cuts out and the machine develops a ground-loop hum that drowns out the music, forcing them to retake. (Despite all the ballyhoo about the old artists having to get everything “right” in one take, retakes were a frequent feature of 1920’s record sessions — though producers were probably less patient with folk performers than they would be with a major star like Paul Whiteman who had the clout to insist that his band and the record technicians cut a song again and again and again, no matter how much money got spent in the studio, until they’d come up with a version he felt was worthy of his formidable reputation.) Finally the technicians got the equipment up and running again, and the delay actually improved the Avett Brothers’ performance — instead of performing the hymn with just one guitar and otherwise a cappella, as they’d originally planned, they started jamming with piano, a second guitar and two string basses, one plucked, one bowed, and came up with a much more appealing version (though the definitive “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” for me remains the masterpiece cut by Louis Armstrong with the Dukes of Dixieland on state-of-the-art stereo equipment in 1960). 

After that Ana Gabriel came on and did a song that was one of the highlights of the American Epic documentary: “Mal Hombre,” recorded by Lydia Mendoza for Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary in 1928 and sounding for all the world like a Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht lament by a ruined woman tearing into the man who’d ruined her. The title literally means “Bad Man” but was rendered in the subtitles as “cold-hearted man,” and I was glad it was subtitled but not sure why this song merited translation while “El Cascabel” and “Tomi, Tomi,” the other non-English songs in the program, hadn’t. Then Beck came on with a pseudo-gospel chorus to do a song called “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods,” and after various problems with the arrangement and the balance between his voice, his guitar and the chorus, racked up no fewer than 13 takes before he finally got it down (so much for “no retakes”!). Afterwards Rhiannon Giddens, one of the modern singers I like best, did one of the more disappointing songs of the night, a pastiche of old blues called “One-Hour Mama” featuring a sentiment better expressed by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin when they wrote “A Guy What Takes His Time” for Mae West in 1933 (and I think Giddens would have been better advised to cover that song than write one of her own along the same lines). Things looked up a bit when Raphael Saddiq came up to do “Stealin’, Stealin’,” originally cut by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929, which I liked better than Nas’ version of “On the Road Again,” partly because it’s simply a better song but also because he and his bandmates did it “straight” without Nas’ rap affectations. 

For the finale Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard came out with two songs, a new one called “The Only Man Wilder Than Me” (it was a great song, though along the lines of much of what both artists had done before, jointly and severally — its most ironic moment was when Haggard sang, “I’ve never done time,” when it was a major part of the real Haggard’s legend that he had served time: he was arrested for robbing a roadhouse in Bakersfield in 1957, paroled in 1960 and finally given a full pardon by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972) and an old one, “Old-Fashioned Love,” which they identified as a Bob Wills cover. That’s probably where both of them learned it, but it’s actually a Black pop song, written by piano giant James P. Johnson (also the composer of the famous “Charleston”) and “Shine” writer Cecil Mack in 1923 — yet more indication that the interchange of musical ideas and song materials between white and Black American musicians was considerably more complicated than posited by the extreme racialist readings on both sides would have it. All in all, the American Epic project was superb, bringing to life folk-music traditions of both Black and white Americans, profiling artists both well known (like the Carter Family) and largely forgotten (like the Memphis Jug Band) as well as figures like blues legends Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt that live in the netherworld between known and unknown (Hurt through his late-in-life comeback on the folk-music circuit and Patton through the number of later bluesmen he influenced, including Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf) — and this appealing adjunct of new musicians recording on the old equipment and having to create great music within its limitations added to the project even if none of the new recordings created for The American Epic Sessions seemed to me to hit greatness.