American Epic: Catching Lightning in a Bottle 3/3/18 – Sandy Miranda

American Epic: Catching Lightning in a Bottle 3/3/18

American Epic:  The First Time American Heard Itself.

March 3, 2018
KALW Folk Music & Beyond
Sandy Miranda

American Epic is a BBC/PBS joint project led by award-winning Director Bernard MacMahon, Producer Allison McGourty, and Musician Duke Erikson about the first recordings of roots music in the United States during the 1920s and 30s–and their cultural, social, and technological impact on North America and the world.

The project is the result of ten years of intensive field research and offers a radically new take on American History–that America was democratized through the invention of electrical sound recording and the subsequent auditions the record labels held across North America in the late 1920s, which were open to every ethnic minority and genre of music.  Here were many previously untold stories, a vast amount of rare archival footage, and dramatically advanced restoration of the recordings.

The 3-part documentary was shown on the BBC and then PBS in 2017.  Also released was a book about the making of the film and sessions recordings, ten album releases and an educational program at the University of Chicago.  The project is widely considered one of the best music documentaries and set of recordings ever made.

The 5-cd set that we sample in the first hour today gives us amazing examples of what America sounded like, starting in 1926, when the first field recording with electric, battery-powered equipment was used.  These original recordings have been cleaned up with state of the art techniques and sound startlingly great, especially since some are over 90 years old.

In the second hour, we’ll listen to new recordings made on the same, now painstakenly restored, equipment by our team.

We’ll hear selections from

  • Disc 1: The Southeast
  • Disc 2: Atlanta – The Origin of Commercial Field Recording
  • Disc 3: New York City/East Coast – The Birthplace of Electric Recording
  • Disc 4:  The Midwest – Chicago, St. louis, Richmond, Grafton
  • Disc 5: The Deep South & The West – Birmingham, Jackson, Hattiesburg, New Orleans, Shreveport, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco

In the second hour:

The American Epic Sessions is a film and 2-cd release in which the engineer,  Nicholas Bergh, restores the long-lost first electrical sound recording system on which the 1920s field recording sessions were made from long-lost parts, and 20 contemporary artists pay tribute to the momentous machine by recording songs on it for the first time in 80 years.   Jack White and T-Bone Burnett were invited to produce the album with many of today’s greatest artists, including Nas, Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Jack White Taj Mahal, Beck, Steve Martin, et al.

In this beautifully filmed and recorded musical feature, and 2-cd set, these artists are given the chance to pass through the portal that brought the world into the modern era.  –Americans sometimes do not realize the enormous impact our music had and has on the world.

The recording system:
A single microphone, a six-foot amplifier rack, and a record-cutting lathe powered by a weight-driven pulley system powered by clockwork gears.

The musicians have roughly three minutes to record their song direct to disc before the weight hits the floor.  These are all recorded live, with no editing or enhancements.

In the 1920s, they called it “catching lightning in a bottle, and our team has really done that here.

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