It might sound like a bit of a reach on the surface, but the first thing that listening to American Epic reminded me of was my university experience and how music like that which can be found on this box set changed my life. My first full-time year, I took – in addition to the classes which were requisite for a bachelor’s degree in Communications – a class called Music in Popular Culture. I was a bit of an audiophile at the time and was already given to listening to a bit of almost everything, and figured the class would be a fun way to get an easy A.
I figured that “Music in Popular Culture” would likely begin with the first explosion of rock icons (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) and then move through the British Invasion before touching on metal, punk and hip hop as well as the multitude of turns that pop music had taken (which all touch blues, folk and jazz) up through present day (which would have been 2002 – at the time).
On the first day of the class, however, the professor (dearly departed Terrance Cox) laid out what would actually be covered in the syllabus: the intention of the class was to investigate each major cultural movement from the beginning of the twentieth century forward and how it would all eventually shape and inform the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century. That meant everything I expected to be present in the course would certainly be, but so too would be ragtime, country and western, classical and much, much more. The reach of the class was enormous and exhausting but it totally enriched and further informed what was already a near-obsessive love of music in me. The class picked through some portions of the developments of both blues and jazz that I had never even considered before and really showed me what I was missing.
It was absolutely fantastic and, looking at the tracklisting on American Epic, the songs and sounds included here appear as though they could play as an excellent companion piece for such a class. Disc-by-disc, the set examines a great sampling of field recordings from all around the United States (with attention paid particularly to city centers including Memphis, Louisville, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Jackson, New Orleans and Los Angeles – to name only some) and featuring such venerable names as The Carter Family, Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and a directory of others.
On first sight, the amount of care and effort to present a comprehensive collection of American music is obvious and some potential listeners will be able to feel their anticipation build before they even hear a note from any one of the CDs included. But after they do begin listening, they’ll really get a sense of how devoted to this cause those who produced it must have been.
No matter which disc listeners choose to begin with, they’ll be absolutely amazed at just how bright and clear these recordings are – with the application of digital re-finishing and post-production so clearly in place. Here, each song leaps from speakers to surprise listeners. Personal favorites like “Tain’t Nobody Business If I Do” by Frank Stokes, “Mama, Tain’t Long Fo’ Day” by Blind Willie McTell, “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Cool Drink of Water Blues” by Tommy Johnson and “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by Mississippi Sheiks all glisten better and brighter than anyone has ever heard before. Throughout these one hundred songs, there are no flaws – no pops or proverbial cracks can be heard anywhere – and that meticulous attention to detail makes this set easy to fall in love with whether one approaches it as previously familiar with the music or not. It all just glows here, and is impossible to not appreciate.
After they’ve begun with this American Epic box set, listeners may find that, whether they expected to or not, they’ll have eventually worked their way through the entire collection of songs and feel refreshed rather than exhausted. Why? Well, the funny thing about American Epic is that it’s virtually impossible to turn away from such works of beauty and classicism. Through these one hundred songs, listeners will discover that not one doesn’t address a classic theme and each is played in a manner which is instantly accessible and easy to appreciate. How can that be? Each is a building block which helped to erect a canon of popular song which continues to get refined in 2017 – that’s how! In this music are the seeds which grew the entire popular music scene, and listening to it is still infectious.
Listening now can win fans as easily as it did twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five or one hundred years ago. The chorus of male and female voices included here still sound fresh and as though they could have come from any time period. Not only are they classics – they are timeless. They need hearing, reader, so do yourself a favor: go get this set and start listening.
(Legacy/Third Man/Columbia/Sony Music)