On the 90th anniversary of its construction, a team of dedicated filmmakers rebuilds America's original electric recording device - and captures "lightning-in-a-bottle" single-take performances from some of today's top musicians.
In the multi-award-winning follow up film to the American Epic series, Jack White and T Bone Burnett invite today's greatest artists to test their skills against the long-lost machine that recorded their musical idols and forebears, 90 years after it was invented. The producers spent nearly a decade rebuilding an original 1920s recording system - now the only one left in the world - timed by a weight-driven system of clockwork gears. Stripped of the comforts and security of modern technology, Nas, Elton John, the Alabama Shakes, Steve Martin, Taj Mahal, Ana Gabriel, Ashley Monroe, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard are among the artists who have three minutes, and one chance, to get their music etched into a revolving wax disc before the weight hits the floor. Conceived as a sonic experiment to attempt to recreate the conditions of the early record company field teams, the result is a series of career-topping performances by familiar artists pushed to meet the standards of their heroes....
One of Merle Haggard's last recorded performances before his death in April 2016. See more »
The producers of this show said they sought to recreate the recording art as it stood in 1929, but in one respect they "cheated." Instead of recording on wax masters, they used lacquer masters, which were introduced into recording in the mid-1930's. Lacquer had three advantages over wax: it sounded better, it was more durable and the masters could be played back immediately. A wax master had to go through elaborate metallurgical processing before it could be made into a playable records, and artists in the wax-master days couldn't hear their recordings until about three weeks after they were made, when the record companies sent them test pressings. See more »
If The River Was Whiskey
Composed by Charlie Poole and Norman Woodlieff
Performed by Frank Fairfield Frank Fairfield: Vocals and Slide Guitar Zac Sokolow: Banjo
Produced by T Bone Burnett
Published by Charlie Poole Publishing, Inc. and Original Rambler Music Inc., admin. by Bluewater Music Services Corp.
Courtesy of Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment See more »
All recordings should be done this way from now on!
That's an exaggeration, but "The American Epic Sessions" documents a remarkable project undertaken by the "American Epic" series' producer-director-writer, Bernard MacMahon, and modern-day singer, songwriter and guitarist Jack White. It involved reconstructing a recording machine of the late 1920's, getting it in working order and hiring living musicians to record on the old equipment, with all the limitations inherent thereto. That meant not only no overdubs, no multi-tracking, no mixing but also no editing: the musicians would have to perform a single song in real time and keep to the three-minute limit of a 78 rpm master, dictated not only by the size of the master disc they were cutting on but also the length of the canvas ribbon connecting the ground weight to the recording lathe. That's right: though the machine depended on electrical current to run the amplifier and cutting head, they were not depending on electricity to power the turntable because in the 1920's electric service was still too variable to give the constant speed they needed to avoid minor but annoying fluctuations in the pitch of the recording, known today as "wow" and "flutter." So they went back to medieval technology and powered the turntable the way Galileo had with his clocks: a falling weight to provide the energy, a pendulum to regulate its fall, and a clockwork mechanism to propel the turntable via gravity. There was only one way in which I could tell they "cheated," and that was though they still referred to the master discs on which they recorded as "waxes," instead (judging from the visual evidence of the machine in operation in the show) they used lacquer masters instead of wax ones.
By using lacquer masters, pressing on vinyl instead of the noisier shellac-and-clay mix used to make 78's, and playing the vinyl 78's on modern equipment, the producers were able to showcase that old recorder at its very best; compared to modern recordings the sound is a bit congested and doesn't have a full frequency range, but it's also honest, noise-free and quite a bit better than even the best-sounding reissues of actual 1929 recordings. As for the performances themselves, the producers assembled quite an illustrious mix of modern-day artists (as well as one recently deceased one, Merle Haggard). Jack White kicked off the proceedings with a piece called "Matrimonial Indiscretions," lamenting that his current girlfriend is telling him to "keep your hands to yourself" unless he's willing to make his commitment permanent and exclusive; it was the subject of quite a number of blues "in the day" but White's use of multisyllabic words throughout the song marks it as new. Other highlights included Alabama Shakes doing "Killer Diller Blues," originally recorded by the great Memphis Minnie in 1946 (which means Minnie probably recorded her version on considerably more sophisticated equipment than Howard and band recorded theirs!); they tore into it with searing electric guitar riffs and a vocal delivery that did her, Minnie and the song justice. Los Lobos did a Mexican folk song called "El Cascabel" and sounded pretty much like they always do when they reach back to their roots and record Mexican folk material in Spanish.
Elton John came in to record a piece called "Two Drinks of Whiskey" under unusual circumstances; his long-time lyric writer, Bernie Taupin, gave him a sheet with the words printed out and John was obliged to work out a melody on the spot, then record it. (Jack White gave him support on guitar during the final performance.) One real surprise was Steve Martin and Edie Brickell doing a song called "The Cuckoo" which I'd heard before only as one of the bonus tracks added to Janis Joplin's first album with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company when her later label, Columbia, took over the master from Mainstream, the company that made it originally. Blues singer Bettye Lavette did "'Tain't Nobody's Business," not the professionally published one by Clarence Williams that Bessie Smith recorded in 1923 and Billie Holiday, Jimmy Witherspoon and many others later covered, but the version recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in 1928 by Frank Stokes which, though it was done five years later than Bessie's version, probably reflects an older, "folkier" version of the song. The Avett Brothers did a lovely version of the hymn "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" after they overcame the technical glitches that frequently afflicted the old recording processes. Ana Gabriel did a song that was one of the highlights of the American Epic documentary: "Mal Hombre," recorded by Lydia Mendoza for Victor's Bluebird subsidiary in 1928 and sounding for all the world like a Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht lament by a ruined woman tearing into the man who'd ruined her. Rhiannon Giddens' segment was disappointing, but things looked up a bit when Raphael Saddiq came up to do "Stealin', Stealin'," originally cut by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929s. For the finale Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard came out with two songs, a new one called "The Only Man Wilder Than Me" and an old one, "Old-Fashioned Love," which they identified as a Bob Wills cover. That's probably where both of them learned it, but it's actually a Black pop song, written by piano giant James P. Johnson (also the composer of the famous "Charleston") and "Shine" writer Cecil Mack in 1923. The new recordings created for "The American Epic Sessions" created pleasant and appealing music even though few, if any, actually touched greatness.
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