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AMERICAN EPIC

This new star-studded TV documentary series and film about field recordings of artists from the USA’s distant past has revived some long-lost record-production technology. Jonathan Webster meets the people behind a pioneering project…
Jack White and Elton John both used loving recreations of ancient machinery to record to shellac for the American Epic: The Sessions film project

It’s been a full decade now since an Anglo-American team of documentary filmmakers, led by producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, set out on an epic journey to explore the huge variety of folk, rural and regional music recorded in the United States during the late 1920s.

That was the first time, thanks to new electrical recording technology, that Americans had heard each other in all their richness and variety. And it reshaped the whole concept of popular music.

What triggered that journey – culminating in a magnificent BBC TV series called American Epic, which had just started airing as this issue went to press – was a visit to a UK blues festival by the aforementioned MacMahon.

The director heard that three veteran blues musicians (David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood Jr.) were going to be performing. “I thought, ‘I really need to film these guys’”, he tells Long Live Vinyl. “They were all in their 90s, and clearly weren’t going to be around for much longer. And so I got together a good-quality film crew and did two-hour interviews with each of them. Some of that footage is contained in the blues section of American Epic.”

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