American Epic First Installment:The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1927) Nov. 19.

This past June I wrote about a BBC film documentary project, American EpicThe supergroup collaborative on this project includes Robert Redford (Sundance – London), T-Bone Burnett and Jack White as co-producers.

“It’s the story of the American recording industry from 1926 to 1936, this incredible occurrence. In 1926 the record industry fell off 80 per cent in one year because of the proliferation of radio in the big cities. The middle-class people and the wealthy people who were able to buy radios no longer wanted to buy records, because they could get music for free – why buy a record? So the recording companies, having equipment and nothing to do, decided to go down south, where people didn’t have electricity, and therefore didn’t have radios. So they started recording people down south – they started recording the poorest people in the country and broadcasting their voices all around the world.” – T-Bone Burnett


It’s important to take note that certain patterns or trends repeat over time. The record industry is at the “tipping point” with digital download revenues beginning to enter the negative range as sales are down 1% and will probably continue downward from there. Record companies are circling their wagons by making investment stakes in cloud music streaming services, most notably Spotify. So the effect that radio had on record sales is happening again with streaming. The one bright spot is vinyl sales which are up significantly, 30%+. People love specialty vinyl, 180/220 grade vinyl recordings.  Just ask Jack White 😉

Elton John noted that he was recently working with T-Bone Burnett, and Jack White to record a direct to analog recording . “I just did a thing with him the other day for ‘American Epic,’ a six-episode program about the history of the blues,” said John. “I got to use the original machine from 1934 that Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong recorded on, and I wrote a special song with Bernie [Taupin], and Jack White played on it. So it went straight to analog.

Jack White is deeply involved with music preservation and specialty vinyl. The Music of Our Heart has blogged about his increasing role as our Saviour of Sound. His record company, Third Man Records has manufactured and is selling the definitive preserved music volumes that will go with and expand upon the American Epic documentary.  The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1 at $400.

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932,’ this epic, two-volume omnibus of art, words and music housed in a limited-edition, hand-sculpted cabinet-of-wonder, to be jointly released by Jack White’s Third Man Records and John Fahey’s Revenant Records. ‘Volume One,’ covers the label’s improbable rise from 1917-1927.

The ‘Rise and Fall’ wonder-cabinet gives equal status to page-turning narrative and new scholarship; original and newly created graphic art; industrial design; and compelling analog and digital music experiences. ‘Volume One’ contains the following:

* 800 newly-remastered digital tracks, representing 172 artists
* 200+ fully-restored original 1920s ads and images
* 6x 180g vinyl LPs pressed on burled chestnut colored vinyl w/ hand-engraved, blind-embossed gold-leaf labels, housed in a laser-etched white birch LP folio
* 250 page deluxe large-format clothbound hardcover art book
* 360 page encyclopedia-style softcover field guide containing artist portraits and full Paramount discography
* Handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with lush sage velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware
* First-of-its-kind music and image player app, allowing user mgmt of all tracks and ads, housed on custom-designed USB drive

If you seek to know more about music archives and their importance to our history and culture, I recommend today’s NPR column the Record by Ann Powers, “Holding Music History In Your Hands: Why Archives Matter“.

Music is not a thing, but things are important to music. You can’t really understand 1920s blues without learning how to shimmy and slow drag. Gospel becomes richer once you hold the songbooks, and the prayer books, that created a holy framework for its squalls and deep harmonies. – Ann Powers

I also refer you to companion content on NPR the Record and the Weekend Edition, “Paramount Records: The Label Inadvertently Crucial To The Blues” and the audio segment which will feature an interview with Jack White (available starting at Noon today)

Courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

We have a very rich heritage to explore, listen to and learn about with the American Epic project. I love the supporting music volumes, music authorities like Ann Powers, Tom Cole, Jack White increasing our insights and the next level initiatives of the American Epic project producing a worldwide concert tour, music releases, a book, an exhibition, and an educational outreach program.

As an educator and amateur musicologist I can’t wait to get immerse myself in this music history experience. The first installment of the BBC American Epic The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1927) will be broadcast on November 19th. Check with your cable provider to see if they offer the BBC program channel (Optimum offers BBC on Channel 101).

American Epic – The first time America heard itself

Jack White and T Bone Burnett are producing a documentary about the American recording industry during the 1920s and 1930s.

The film, which Burnett says is co-produced by Robert Redford and the BBC, will be called American Epic. It is an ambitious project that has been seven years in the making.


American Epic is a multi-media arts project based around the history of American music, which includes a documentary series, a worldwide concert tour, music releases, a book, an exhibition, and an educational outreach program.
Allison McGourty is the creator, producer and co-writer of American Epic.  Bernard MacMahon is the creator, director and writer of American Epic. Together they co-founded Lo-Max Films and launched the independent label Lo-Max Records.


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