Steven C. Tracy, Distinguished Professor of Afro-American studies and one of the leading authorities on the intersection of African-American literature and blues music, is an advisor on the upcoming three-part PBS historical documentary on American roots music, “American Epic.”
The series, which begins May 16, takes a groundbreaking look at American music and the American recording industry in the 1920s, with previously unseen photos and films, restored 78s from the 1920s, and appearances and recordings on vintage recording equipment by Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal, Merle Haggard, Jack White, Elton John and others.
In the 1920s, talent scouts with recording machines were scouring the country for undiscovered artists and in the process captured the sounds of all the ethnic groups in America. The recordings would lead to the development of country, blues, gospel and Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music.
The series has a companion feature-length film, “The American Epic Sessions,” that will air on June 6. The film, executive produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, includes performances by contemporary artists of original American roots music made on a restored 80-year-old recording machine.
“This is important history, but above all it is entertaining and enjoyable,” Tracy said.
“I became involved in the program when I was contacted by Bernard MacMahon, the producer and director of ‘American Epic,’ almost a decade ago. The project originally was to do a reissue of the hugely influential Harry Smith Anthology, a watershed document in American roots music.”
That anthology is a six-album compilation released in 1952 of eighty-four American folk, blues and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1927 to 1932.
“We talked pretty extensively about Cincinnati blues, and about jug bands in Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville, and I sent him copies of my first two books (‘Langston Hughes and the Blues’and‘Going to Cincinnati: A Historyof the Blues in the Queen City’),” Tracy said.
“It became clear that this was outgrowing the idea of updating the Harry Smith Anthology. New photos and films, new information, refurbished vintage 1920s recording equipment, and a new process to revolutionize the re-mastering of vintage materials–this was its own watershed moment in history,” Tracy said.
“The documentary is not just about the blues, or just about country, or just about Hawaiian music, or just Native American Indian music: this is the whole she-bang, the big she-bang of American music, told more specifically, with more visuals, better sound and a lineup of contemporary artists like Nas, Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal, Jack White, Edie Brickell and Elton John, among others, crowding around the microphone,” he said.
“American Epic” will air on Tuesdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 9 p.m. “The American Epic Sessions” will air on Tuesday, June 6 at 8 p.m.
Program details and clips: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/american-epic/