PBS revisits the birth of modern music in “American Epic”

Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford are exec producing the three-part PBS and BBC Arena documentary (pictured) about early recordings that led to the development of modern music.
April 8, 2015

PBS and BBC Arena are teaming up with executive producers Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford on the three-part documentary series American Epic (pictured).

Due to air in the U.S. and the UK this fall and directed by Bernard MacMahon, the series examines pivotal musical recordings of the 1920s that led to the development of the blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk genres. The doc will include previously unseen footage and photographs and interviews with witnesses to that era in music.

Co-creators MacMahon and Allison McGourty also reassembled the original recording machines, with original microphones, amplifiers and other equipment from the era, so White and Burnett could produce new material based on the old techniques with a roster of guest artists.

Columbia Records will release a companion album, which will include performances by Beck, Alabama Shakes, Bettye LaVette, Los Lobos, Elton John, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others. Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings will release archival recordings of restored 1920s and 1930s recordings by Lo-Max Films, Nick Bergh and Peter Henderson.  White’s Third Man Records will also release a deluxe box of vinyl records.

“In American Epic we can examine how important the fact is that when phonograph records were invented, for the first time ever, women, minorities, poor rural men and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear, shockingly without much censorship,” White said in a statement. “What they were allowed to say on phonograph recordings, they were not allowed to speak in public or in person. That is an astounding thought.”

American Epic was backed by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, PBS and PBS viewers. PBS Distribution is handling worldwide distribution and will release the series on DVD and Blu-Ray, and as a digital download following the broadcast.

Watch the trailer below:

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.