PBS’s “American Epic”: The 1920s Technology That Changed Popular Music Forever



Without registration turn, Willie Nelson would never have heard the Carter family sing. Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash either. These portable machines toured the country in the 1920s, visiting rural communities like Poor Valley, West Virginia, and introducing musicians like the Carter Family to new audiences. This remarkable technology forever changed the way people discover and share music, but it was almost lost in history until music legend T Bone Burnett and a few friends decided to bring it back.

Much like iTunes and streaming, the tour democratized music. Back then, recorded music was written by professional composers, recorded by professional singers, and marketed to affluent audiences. “It was a very elitist thing, the music,” says Bernard MacMahon, director of American epic, a three-part documentary on the early days of audio recording that premiered last night on PBS. “Record sales were concentrated in the big cities, to people with money.” But the boom in radio has plunged the recording industry into crisis. Record sales fell 80 percent in 1926 alone. The industry therefore began looking for artists who could attract new listeners and invested in the technology needed to record them outside of New York studios.

Columbia Records and Victor Talking Machine Company targeted listeners in rural America who could afford hand-cranked record players, but not electric radios. Instead of hiring professional songwriters and musicians, they rented portable recording equipment from Western Electric and sent “song catchers” to travel the country. Their recordings have captured musicians and genres rarely heard beyond regional pockets. Ralph Peer recorded country music legends Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter family and the Johnson brothers for a single week in Bristol, Tennessee.

The record companies planned to sell specific genres to regional audiences: Cajun music in Louisiana, bluegrass records in West Virginia, etc. “At the time, the record companies had no idea that New Yorkers would be interested in recordings made by rural Mississippi musicians,” says MacMahon. But the records have proven to be immensely popular. Millions of people bought them, fundamentally changing the nature of popular music. The tours first recorded gospel, delta blues and bluegrass. Recordings by Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Robert Johnson laid the foundation for late 20th century music.

“It brought about the advent of the American singer-songwriter, of people recording songs about their own lives, about what was going on in the world,” MacMahon explains. “For the first time, America suddenly got along – and began to communicate with herself – through music.”

File sharing, 1920s style

The portable electrical system allowed people to record directly to a 78 disc and quickly share their music with large audiences. Seems familiar? He created a model of music discovery and distribution that is widely used today. “We are living in its wake now,” MacMahon said. “It’s really a trailblazer for people to share something on SoundCloud immediately after capturing it.”

The tour democratized music production and distribution, as did mixtapes, file sharing, streaming services, and platforms like Bandcamp. And musicians have rediscovered it. For American Epic Sessions, a PBS program airing on June 6 and a CD landing on June 9, 20 artists, including Merle Haggard, Alabama Shakes and Nas, recorded on a Western Electric system. “Putting the musicians around a focal point, getting them to tell this story – what comes out is a deep document,” says T Bone Burnett, who produced Epic sessions with Jack White and Robert Redford.

Bringing the tour into the 21st century

Finding a working lap turned out to be almost impossible. The record companies that rented the machines from Western Electric paid a royalty on each record sold, prompting them to design their own recording towers in the early 1930s. The weight towers of the 1920s gave way to powered models. electric, which allowed a longer recording time. When MacMahon started to research American epic, he discovered that the original electric towers — up to 20 of them — had been lost. “There was no known film footage of how it worked, nor any photographs,” he says. “It was all speculative.”

Then MacMahon met Nicholas Bergh, who had rebuilt one.



Comments are closed.