I had a weird 24 hours where I slept all day and couldn’t sleep all night, so I watched the first hour of PBS’ American Epic. [How would anyone know from that title it has anything to do with music?]. I love this period of music, when American record companies sent music producers and engineers out into rural America in 1927 to find and record new and unheard talent. It’s produced by Jack White, Robert Redford, and T-Bone Burnett, so that was a draw, too. One review I read said that the series focuses on artist interviews and family members rather than critics and historians, and I have to say, that does not help what I saw overall. The debut episode splits in half between the Carter Family and then Will Shade & The Memphis Jug Band [Jimmie Rodgers and WC Handy also get some mention here.] That is, a white half and a black half. Most of these TV music histories get criticized for who they leave out or who they over emphasize (Ken Burns’ JAZZ got a lot of that), but sweeping cultural histories like this with limited time are more or less infomercials to get you to listen to new music or read serious history. You never really get enough music or history in these things.
What bugged so much about American Epic‘s simplified view is that it reduces the Carter family white country music half as this pure, poor folks, backwoods Bible Belt music by simple people struggling to get by in a destitute Appalachia. The Carters were the Fugazi of their day, keeping ticket prices low and never charging widows and orphans for a show. And that’s not wrong as far as the Carters go. In the black half, Will Shade’s world is one of street fights, hookers, murders, drunks, and wild times on Memphis’ Beale Street. And that’s not wrong as far as Will Shade’s life and Beale Street go.
What gets lost in this oversimplification is that Jimmie Rodgers’ songs were as bad ass as anything Will Shade was doing. He sang about broke drifters and rubes in jail and mean drunks hunting their girlfriends down with shotguns. “Blue Yodel,” for example:
You’d be nuts not to cross the street if you saw a Jimmie Rodgers character coming your way. WC Handy also gets glossed for Will Shade here, and Handy wrote Memphis blues, too, but he was also a pre-1927 scholar and intellectual (no points for that in American Epic) who wrote musical histories (on spirituals and other things) and sang about a lot more than whores and knife fights. Like the white music producers who ventured out in 1927, Handy had done the same in the South to recreate that rural music for live shows.
Carter family descendants appear in this episode to talk about the simple innocence of the Carters. Nas appears to talk about Will Shade and connect the Beale Street scene with modern day hip hop’s often violent and crude language. What’s lost in all this is that poor white and poor black musicians had a lot in common, much moreso than American Epic‘s view of whites as churchy, hard-working rural “folk” whose poverty draws families and communities together and blacks as urban thugs whose poverty drives them to crime and drugs and sex. Please see the 2016 presidential election as to how sadly current this view of the US still is today. I’ll watch some more, I think, for the musician interviews and rare clips, but I’m not optimistic this gets better.