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'American Epic' is a treasure chest of folk music

Various Artists, "American Epic" (Lo-Max/Columbia/Legacy, five discs)

What a great idea for a PBS documentary series this was: following the mid-1920s journeys of the first Americans to travel out into the U.S. and record its indigenous "folk music."

The result, from the first years of American radio too, was, as the series made abundantly clear, that Americans from different parts of this vast country could hear each other perform in a way they never could before.

As the series' creators say, "The expansion of the radio in the early '20s changed the way people listened to music forever. If you had a phonograph you still had to buy records, but once you bought a radio, the music came free and you could listen all day long rather than having to flip a disc every three minutes."

"It was a fantastic advance for urban consumers, a catastrophe for record companies whose sales plummeted in search of new markets. They sought consumers in rural areas where the lack of electricity limited listeners to manually cranked phonographs and artists in styles radio broadcasters ignored."

What incredible music there is here. Listeners to folk music in the early '60s – in the period Martin Mull immortally called "the folk music scare when it nearly caught on"– will recognize the primal '20s versions of early '60s hits – The Kingston Trio's "Greenback Dollar" performed by the Weems String Band, the Rooftop Singers' "Walk Right In" sung by Cannon's Jug Stompers.

Not all this music is sunny and welcoming, that's for sure. Try this lyric from Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" – "Oh, I don't like a railroad man/No I don't like a railroad man./A railroad man, they'll kill you when he (sic) can/and dish up your blood like wine."

Before this truly epic box set is finished you've heard the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Gary Davis, Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson.

There are 100 songs on these five discs. It is, by any assay, an American treasure chest.

4 stars (out of four)


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