In the 1920s, the record business was collapsing.
Radio had come to the cities of the Northeast and gramophones and their pricey discs were being abandoned in droves in favor of newfangled devices that provided an unlimited stream of free music.
So labels like Columbia, Victor and Paramount came up with a new plan to stay alive -- exploit rural America, where no electricity meant no radio.
“Those were tough days, mister. Especially when radio started to come in,” Paramount Records producer and talent scout Art Satherley said in a 1970 interview. “And you can put this on record for all times: the thing that saved the record industry of the great America was what is now commonly known as the rhythm and blues and country and western. That’s what saved the industry, and that is it.”
Salvation came via talent scouts, like Satherley and Ralph Peer, who took to the roads with a then-new electronic recording system, setting up in hotels and warehouses and inviting in musicians to play their early blues, hillbilly, gospel, Cajun and Hawaiian songs.
Those records were distributed around the country, then the world, becoming the roots of contemporary music from country to rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop.
That story of “The First Time America Heard Itself” is told in “American Epic," a multi-medium effort that began with Friday’s release of a five-CD boxed set that contains 100 of the 1920s recordings.
Tuesday, the first of a three-part documentary series will begin airing on PBS (It begins at 7 p.m. Friday on NET because the high school girls soccer championship airs Tuesday). A companion book is already in stores as is the soundtrack.
All of it is the culmination of more than a decade of work by British filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, a Lyons native and Wayne State graduate who plays in the band Garbage and records and produces music at his Madison, Wisconsin, studio.
“I’m working on a rather long-term project,” Erikson told me back in 2012 when Garbage played the Maha Music Festival. “It’s kind of an American history thing. I think it is going to be very good.”
Indeed it is -- and very valuable, historically and musically.
That’s because the producers are able to present the music heard on battered 78 rpm shellac records as it sounded just after it was recorded.
That’s possible courtesy of engineer Nick Bergh, who spent years putting together an original Western Electric recording system used by the talent scouts -- compiling original amplifiers microphones and the weight-driven cutting lathe that inscribed the music being played in the studio onto a wax cake.
That alone is fascinating for recording geeks, like Jack White, who serves as an executive producer along with T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford.
But it is even more compelling to watch the likes of Alabama Shakes, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, rapper Nas and Taj Mahal cut songs on the old system -- starting with a flashing light and ending three minutes later when the weight has dropped. Those recordings will be seen in “The American Epic Sessions” set to air on PBS in June, when they also will be released on CD and vinyl.
The sound of the vintage recordings could then be compared, via reverse engineering, to the new recordings, allowing the engineers to “remaster” them to the original sounds -- which, even with the hiss -- are strikingly immediate.
The documentary series begins with “The Big Bang,” an hour-long episode that tells the familiar story of the Carter Family, the founders of country music who were one of the biggest discoveries of the record men, and of Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, the latter primarily told by Charlie Musselwhite, the blues harmonica-playing, storytelling master, who grew up in Memphis and learned from Shade.
In episode two, “Blood and Soil,” the “American Epic” team tracks down the unknown Elder J.E. Burch, who recorded a few sanctified gospel numbers with his church members, then disappeared but had a powerful influence on jazz decades later; finds coal miners of Logan, West Virginia, who cut their songs, then returned to the mines; and looks into the story/myth of Charley Patton, the source of the blues who taught and influenced bluesmen from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters.
The final installment, “Out of the Many, The One,” a 90-minute program tells the stories of Hopi snake dancers, who were forced to perform their secret ceremony in Washington, D.C., to prevent the dance from being banned; the first Tejano star, Lydia Mendoza, who performed into the 80s; Mississippi's John Hurt, who became a blues star in the '60s after being forgotten for four decades; Cajun music and its founding Breaux family and of the invention of the steel guitar by 11-year-old Hawaiian boy Joseph Kekuku.
Each of those stories is fleshed out by the book, presented in oral history fashion, with the filmmakers discussing the process of finding the music, excerpts from old interviews and additions to the on-screen talk.
And all the performers and many, many more can be heard on the indispensable boxed set.
The five CDs aren’t arranged chronologically or by genre -- there’s no disc of all hillbilly or all blues. Rather, it’s organized by where the songs were recorded -- the Southeast, Atlanta, New York City/East Coast, the Midwest and the Deep South and the West.
That technique makes the set highly listenable, like an old-time radio station that never existed, filled with ear-catching juxtapositions of sounds and styles. To wit, on the New York disc, the finger-picked blues guitar work of the great Blind Gary Davis (also known as the Rev. Gary Davis) is followed by gospel, a Hopi Indian chant and a Hawaiian song.
The songs were also smartly picked, with a single song from each artist. That means there’s just one example of the work of better-known artists like Carters, Son House, Skip James, Dock Boggs, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Willie McTell and on the The Deep South" disc, the back-to-back classic combo of Robert Johnson's “Cross Road Blues” (which Cream turned into “Crossroads”) followed by “Mal Hombre,” the signature song of Mendoza.
But most of the tracks are obscurities, pretty much all of them great, some of which have survived in different forms via more modern artists.
Hank Williams, for example, took “Lovesick Blues” from Emmett Miller, a minstrel show singer who had a high falsetto.
And if you want to know where Canned Heat got the quill pipes, catchy melody and rhythm for its 1968 hit “Goin’ Up The Country,” listen to “Bull Doze Blues” by Henry Thomas, a guitar-playing hobo who recorded the song in 1928 in Chicago.
Then there’s “On The Road Again,” not the Willie Nelson song, but the blues copped by Canned Heat (again) and the Grateful Dead, presented in its original form -- or at least one of them -- as done by the Memphis Jug Band.
The field recordings died out in the 1930s. The Great Depression again nearly wiped out the recording industry, taking away any extra money that the rural folk would have used to buy records.
Many of the recordings then were lost or destroyed during World War II as the war effort took up the nation’s shellac supply and many of the metal master discs.
Some records, like those of Hurt, were rescued in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s folk and blues revivals. Others have been rediscovered more recently. Now, they've have been preserved in fine form and their stories told in what is truly an “American Epic.”