Sneak Peek: ‘American Epic’

by Nick Pittman

Before it hits the small screen, an important documentary hits the big screen in Lafayette.

Robert Redford’s assertion that American Epic is this country’s most important untold story isn’t hyperbole. The three-part PBS series — set for release in the spring — follows the efforts by record companies to capture American music’s genesis and share it with the rest of the country. In a bold attempt at updating and making the 1920s material accessible, American Epic also showcases popular bands including the Lost Bayou Ramblers that are revamping these seminal tunes.

This weekend, local audiences and some of the musicians featured in the documentary get a sneak peak at the series at the Southern Screen Film Festival. (The Lost Bayou Ramblers are featured on the “Sessions” episode and bandleader Louis Michot narrates part of “Out Of The Many The One,” which both screen on Sunday.)

British filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty joined American producer Duke Erikson to tell the story of record companies such as Columbia scouring rural America to find its hidden culture, including Cajun and Creole sounds along with the blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian and folk music. Delving through previously unseen film footage, unpublished photographs and interviews, American Epic shows the cultural mining of the late 1920s as it has never before been seen.

Taking their study a step further, the trio reclaimed recording equipment from the original sessions, allowing modern stars like Jack White, Elton John, Beck, Nas, the Alabama Shakes and others to cut records directly into wax just as performers like Joe and Cleoma Falcon (who recorded “Allons a Lafayette,” the first commercial Cajun song) did nearly 100 years ago. The documentary will drive home just how important those recordings were and how they connect to modern music.

“American music has always held a top spot in the global music scene, and the film gives us a better understanding of why,” says Louis Michot of The Lost Bayou Ramblers. In what he calls a surreal experience, his band covered “Allons a Lafayette” using the actual recording equipment the Falcons cut their version on for Columbia. This weekend’s screenings will be the first time the band has seen their role in the film, which also features Michot narrating portions of the film exploring Cleoma’s siblings, the Breaux Brothers — one of Michot’s inspirations. “The complex social and cultural scenarios of which the many American musics were born is not an easy story to tell, but this film, through many hours of footage, makes a great attempt at explaining how it became such,” Michot says.

After recording the musicians from the different corners of our culture, the recording companies pressed and sold records to not only outsiders but also to the regions reflected in the records. It gave local fans a chance to own the music they heard and loved at weekend dances and cultural events. Plus, it no doubt was encouraging for other musicians to hear similar sounds being devoured by out-of-town agencies.

“When the records first came out, it brought tremendous pride and validity to the artists and the cultures they represented and also opened up a dialogue between musicians of different cultures,” says Michot. “American Epic digs deep into this complex storyline”

At the same time, Louisiana musicians were exposed to outside musicians and vice versa — Michot recounts how South Louisiana notable Mayeus Lafleur, who recorded “He Mon” with Leo Soileau, the second commercial recording of Cajun music — hung out and drank with Jimmy Rodgers, one of the most popular musicians of the time.

Says Michot, “It all gives you a sense of how ingrained Louisiana French music really is in the American soundscape, and always has been — both inspiring and being inspired by the popular musics of each era.”

American Epic
Southern Screen Film Festival
Acadiana Center for the Arts

American Epic: The Big Bang: 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 12
American Epic: Out Of The Many The One: 10 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 (features the story of Cajun musicians like the Falcons and Breauxs)
The American Epic Sessions: 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13 (features the Lost Bayou Ramblers)