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Editor's Choice: 'American Epic: The Companion Book to the PBS Series'

“American Epic: The Companion to the PBS Series” by Bernard McMahon and Allison McGourty with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 277 pages, $29.99).

The PBS Series “American Epic” just completed its first run on Channel 17. Consider, just to begin with, those listed as the names “presenting” the series -- T-Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White. That should tell you most of what you need to know.

The idea was “to explore the vast range of ethnic, rural and regional music recorded in the United States during the late '20s.” It was, says the series, the first time that Americans “could hear each other in all their richness and variety. And it reshaped the whole concept of popular music.”

Ken Burns’ “Jazz” is the obvious template of PBS TV films, albums and companion book. What a wonderful list of subjects both widely known and obscure: Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, The Carter Family, Elder J.F. Burch, Dick Justice and the Williamson Brothers, Charley Patton and the Mississippi Delta Blues, The Hopi Indian Chanters, Joseph Kekulu, Lydia Mendoza, The Breaux Family and Mississippi John Hurt.

“In a very real way,” admits co-author Bernard MacMahon “Hurt changed my life. When I was fourteen years old, I round a record of his recordings from 1928 in the library  on an obscure British label called Spokane. I was entranced by it...that was the first time I ever owned a record by an elderly person.” The line he loved was “‘when my earthly trials are over, cast my body out to sea/Save on the undertaker’s bill--let the Mermaids flirt with me.’ That just completely touched my soul.”

To Mary Hurt he was “Daddy John.” On the day of his fatal stroke, he was squirrel hunting. The gun just lay on his lap and, she says, he never recovered.

This is primal stuff in any form.


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