BBC4 has run some excellent music documentary series in the last couple of years in the ‘Britannia’ string. There was Folk Britannia, Jazz Britannia, Pop Britannia, Dance Britannia and, most recently, the frequently hilarious stand-alone doc Prog Rock Britannia. All have followed a straight forward formula of telling a particular genre history through archive footage and relevant talking heads. No gimmicks, no flash – just letting the reminiscences and film tell the story.
The focus shifts across the pond for this latest three part series that tells the story of American folk from its recorded beginnings at the dawn of the twenties through to the boom of the early sixties. The first episode of Folk America looked at the extraordinary period between around 1925 and 1929 when the whole blueprint of twentieth century American music was established. A booming economy meant money in people’s pockets, and that led to the huge rise in demand for consumer goods including phonographs and records.
The record industry was transformed. Prior to the twenties, most recorded music was either classical (Caruso et al), from music hall and vaudeville, or ethnic music designed to appeal to European immigrants (polkas, Yiddish music, Irish sentimental ballads and the like). The American South was an unexplored and unexploited terrain. That changed in the twenties when all the major companies went on a signing frenzy. It was like lifting up a paving slab on a hot day, uncovering a myriad of bustling life.
The film looked at the stories of many of the major artists of the era – Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family among many others. These were fascinating stories of cotton pickers, mill workers, hobos and miners who struck lucky and managed to break away from the grind through their extraordinary talent.
The interviewees were an impressive mix of big names (Pete and Mike Seeger, Tom Paxton, Steve Earle), family members of some of the old legends, respected historians like Tony Russell and a few of the remaining old timers. David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and Slim Bryant are both active and in their nineties. Banjoist Wade Mainer is 101, and can still pluck a mean tune out of his instrument.
The boom didn’t last. The Depression came, and the record industry was virtually wiped out. The lucky musicians returned to their former jobs. Some ended up as street performers. Many died young in extreme poverty.
This was an exemplary documentary. It was hard to believe they managed to cram so much into an hour, and yet still give the music and the artists due attention. The next episode airs on Friday 30th, and covers the Depression era politicised folk music of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White and others. In the meantime, those of you in the UK can see episode one on the BBC iPlayer for the next week. If you can, you really should.