"An unmissable new trilogy of documentaries, American Epic, uncovers the origins of popular music."
- Michael Watts, The Economist -
"The Lawrence of Arabia of music documentaries."
- Steve Appleford, Rolling Stone -
American Epic is a journey through American history, geography, and cultures—very much in the plural. In the 1920s, record companies sent scouts around the United States looking for regional and ethnic music that would expand their markets beyond the urban mainstream. It was the birth of a true popular culture, spreading styles from the smallest mountain hamlets and poorest neighborhoods throughout the country and then around the world.
American Epic traces the journeys of the recording pioneers, exploring where the music came from, what it meant to the people who made it, and how it changed the world. Some of the stories are of artists who became famous: The Carter Family, who laid the bedrock of commercial country music; the Memphis Jug Band, whose records shaped the future of blues and R&B; Lydia Mendoza, the founding foremother of Tejano music; and the Breaux Brothers, whose "Jole Blon" is still known as the Cajun national anthem.
Others stories reveal forgotten histories of communities that had been ignored or even hostile to outsiders. A recording of Hopi singers led to previously unseen film of a delegation of snake dancers on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, defending their right to perform their holy rituals. In Cheraw, South Carolina, the story of Elder J.E. Burch and his singing congregation shows the seeds of the civil rights movement and the roots of jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie. A previously unseen interview with Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival finds him talking over the faint sound of Bob Dylan revolutionizing popular songwriting. The story of Joseph Kekuku, who invented the Hawaiian slide guitar style as a teenager in the 1890s, traces the growth of Hawaiian music into a national, then worldwide craze.
American Epic goes beyond standard documentary sources, speaking with people who have never been interviewed before and finding materials that had not been previously broadcast or even archived. Over the course of ten years, director Bernard MacMahon and co-writers Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson traveled across the U.S., visiting the homes of these legendary artists and meeting their families. The descendants of Delta bluesman Charley Patton linked his music to hip-hop. The families of Dick Justice and the Williamson Brothers told of the coal mining wars that underpinned their haunting ballads.
With the recordings of the 1920s, America truly heard itself for the first time. American Epic connects that world-changing experience to our modern global conversations, exploring the richness or our differences and the importance of hearing one another.
The American Epic Sessions