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The Big Bang

Travel to 1920s Tennessee as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Memphis Jug Band make their first records with producer Ralph Peer on a revolutionary portable recording machine, creating the first recordings of R&B and country songs.

AIRED: 5/16/2017 | EXPIRES: 5/16/2020 | 00:54:13
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Robert Redford: In the Roaring Twenties, two worlds collided: one Southern, rural, and traditional; the other Northern, urban, and industrial.

America was in motion.

Record companies sent scouts across the United States... searching for new artists and sounds.

They traveled to remote regions, auditioned thousands of everyday Americans, and issued their music on phonograph records.

It was the first time America heard itself.

The artists they discovered shaped our world.

[Song starts] The Appalachian mountain range was the western frontier of America'''s first British colonies.

Over the centuries, its isolated rural communities preserved and evolved their own dialects, customs, and music.

Woman: ♪ Oh, I'''ll twine with my mingles ♪ ♪ And waving black hair ♪ With the roses so red and the lilies so fair ♪ ♪ And the myrtle so bright with the emerald hue ♪ ♪ The pale amanita and eyes look like blue ♪ Redford: Though poor in material goods, the mountain folk are rich with tradition, and none more so than the founders of modern country music, the Carter Family.

Dale Jett: My name is Dale Jett, and I'''m the grandson of A.P. and Sara Carter, and I'''m sitting on my Great-Aunt Maybelle Carter'''s porch as we speak.

This area has been Poor Valley as long as I'''ve known it, and I grew up half a mile from here.

It may not look like it, but as the name implies, it'''s a poor area.

There'''s not a lot of work here, and it'''s pretty rugged terrain.

Hillside farming is about all that you can do around here.

So, you know, whether we like it or not, we'''re in what a lot of people refer to 'poverty-stricken Appalachia,' and--and we are, indeed.

But in this area, these big porches lend theirselves to people just hanging out and picking music.

Ha ha!

And to me, music-- that'''s probably the most important thing to come out of Poor Valley.

Redford: The mountain folk had always sung and played together, but those familiar sounds were transformed by A.P. Carter into a popular style and a national career.

And, like every great country song, it all started with a love story.

Jett: Clinch Mountain'''s about 3,000 feet, and my grandfather A.P. was over in that area selling fruit trees.

And he went up a holler one evening and, uh, said he heard, uh, the prettiest singing that he'''d ever heard. He-- just angelic, uh, voice.

Sara: ♪ Bring back my boy... Jett: You know, it just pulled him up the holler, and it was Sara.

Fern Salyer: She was sitting out on the porch, and A.P. stopped over there.

He wanted her name and everything because Auntie Sara was beautiful.

She was one beautiful woman, and she had that gorgeous voice, and he just fell deeply in love with her.

Sara: ♪ ...with faded cheeks and hair ♪ ♪ At their old home is waiting him there... ♪ Jett: Sara was actually selling china, you know, mail-order dishes, and A.P. bought all the dishes that he could afford--heh heh-- to try to put himself in good graces.

Oh, her voice was out of this world.

Everybody noticed it.

I mean, she--all she had to do to get a crowd in was to get out and sing on anybody'''s porch.

Sara: ♪ Bring back my boy ♪ My wandering boy ♪ Far, far away ♪ Wherever he may be... Jett: He worshipped her, I--I really believe, from the time that he first heard her singing in that holler across the mountain.

I don'''t think that he ever lost that love.

Sara: ♪ At their old home is waiting him there ♪ Redford: A.P. and Sara married, started a family, and began singing together with Sara'''s teenage cousin, Maybelle.

Salyer: Aunt Maybelle--she was the kindest, sweetest person you ever saw and one of the most talented.

She was a musician and wonderful car driver.

She could do anything.

She taught herself the guitar when she was a 6 year old, I think.

Not much to do, so to pick up an instrument and start playing.

She did it with such ease, it was like it was no struggle with her.

It was just there.

♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern ♪ Oh, tell me, is my darlin''' ♪ Both: ♪ Still true?

♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern ♪ Sweet fern Both: ♪ I'''ll be just as happy as you ♪ Jett: You know, they didn'''t really have any influences, because in Poor Valley, there were no record players, there wasn'''t radio, there wasn'''t television.

I mean, the only influences they had were family and friends, was the people immediately around them that you-- that you heard live and firsthand.

Redford: The Carter Family played only at home and for small local gatherings, but the world outside Poor Valley was about to come calling.

For 30 years, record companies had marketed their music primarily to the urban middle class.

[Jazz music playing] But by the mid-1920s, that audience was switching to the new technology of radio.

Faced with plummeting sales, the record makers turned to rural and ethnic consumers who were being ignored by the national broadcasters.

They sent recording teams south and advertised for musicians to come and audition.

Frank Walker, on tape: Well, this was in about 1927 and the first time that we'''d ever gone out on the road.

So we would decide we'''d record, for instance, in Johnson City, Tennessee.

That would be mentioned in the paper, and the word would get around in churches and schoolhouses that, uh, somebody was gonna come down there to make some phonograph records.

And these people would show up from sometimes 800 and 900 miles away.

How they got there, I'''ll never know, and how they got back, I'''ll never know.

They never asked you for money.

They didn'''t question anything at all.

They just were happy to sing and play.

[Country music playing] They had made a phonograph record, and that was the next thing to being president of the United States in their mind.

Redford: Field recording sessions organized by producers like Frank Walker immortalized Americans from every walk of life.

The Victor Talking Machine Company hired Ralph Peer, a man with a proven track record, to find and develop new talent.

Peer'''s landmark recordings already included the first hit record marketed to an African-American audience, the first hit by a white country musician, and the most important artist in the history of jazz.

He was the man who caught lightning in a bottle.

Ralph Peer, on tape: I have a favorite saying: it'''s the art of being where the lightning is going to strike.

And how in God'''s name you can detect that I wouldn'''t know, but I'''ve always been able to do it.

Michael Brooks: Ralph Peer must have been a visionary, because he-- he saw potential in-- in music and acts that I don'''t think anybody else really did.

And he was very much in favor of ethnic music and also promoted, you know, acts that-- some of which became legendary later on-- that would never have been recorded without his support.

Redford: Ralph Peer recorded the music of everyday working people.

He was using the revolutionary new Western Electric Recording System, which, for the first time, could capture the true sound of voices and instruments.

It was the beginning of modern sound recording.

Craig Raguse: I'''m Craig Raguse.

My grandfather, Elmer Raguse, was a Western Electric engineer, and he helped develop the electrical recording system at Western Electric that Ralph Peer and others took on the road with them.

When they went to these makeshift studios, they couldn'''t just plug it into electricity.

It was not a stable source, so they had to take wet-cell batteries similar to these to run the system.

The artists basically had a single take to record.

If they made a mistake, they had to scrap what they were doing and do it over again.

So there were no overdubs or anything like that because there was no mix.

It was all one take, one microphone, recorded onto a wax disk.

Jack White: What'''s great about America is, uh, someone will work hard in some garage or basement somewhere and invent something incredibly cultured and life-altering for everybody to experience.

Man: ♪ They'''ve invented a new machine... ♪ White: And the next step is to figure out 'how we can monetize and make money off of this,' and that'''s the part that starts to get really interesting, because once you are aiming to try to make money off of a format of some kind, then happy accidents start happening.

And that'''s how we accidentally got all these amazing artists to record, who never would have been recorded.

[Train whistle blowing] Redford: In the summer of 1927, Peer traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, and set up his recording equipment in the empty warehouse of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company.

He placed an article in the local newspaper tempting musicians to come and audition.

So here we have a copy of the 'Bristol News Bulletin' from July 27, 1927, which was just at the start of the Bristol Sessions, and this was typically a way my father, Ralph S. Peer, would look for new talent.

And, uh, so the story reads, 'Mountain songs recorded here by the Victor Company.

'This morning, Ernest Stoneman and Company 'from near Galax, Virginia, 'were performers and they played and sang into the microphone, 'Stoneman receiving 100 and each of his assistants 25.

'He received from the company $3,600 last year as his share of the proceeds from the songs.'

Now, that was a lot of money in those days, and believe me that a lot of people who had talent said, 'Gee, I'''d like to give that a try myself.'

Peer, on tape: After you read this, if you could play a 'C' on a piano, you'''re going to become a millionaire.

Redford: The news of Peer'''s session attracted dozens of performers to Bristol: J.P. Nestor from Galax, Virginia; Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers from Corbin, Kentucky; and an aspiring singer who drove across the Smoky Mountains from Asheville, North Carolina.

His name was Jimmie Rodgers.

[Train whistle blowing] ♪ Doo-da-doo-doo, do-de-oh-do ♪ ♪ Do-de-oh-do-de-oh-do ♪ All around the water tanks ♪ ♪ Waiting for a train ♪ A thousand miles away from home ♪ ♪ Sleeping in the rain ♪ I walked up to a brakeman ♪ ♪ To give him a line of talk ♪ ♪ He says, 'If you'''ve got money' ♪ ♪ 'I'''ll see that you don'''t walk' ♪ ♪ 'I haven'''t got a nickel' ♪ ♪ 'Not a penny can I show' ♪ ♪ 'Get off, get off, you railroad bum' ♪ ♪ And he slammed the boxcar door ♪ [Yodels] Redford: Jimmie Rodgers brought a new bluesy flavor to country music.

[Yodeling continues] Redford: But country'''s deep traditional roots will forever be associated with another group who showed up at the Bristol Sessions.

Salyer: A.P. had been to Bristol one day, and he had heard about this guy, Ralph Peer, looking for new talent.

And, of course, he was insistent on going.

They were, 'Oh, that'''s way out there.

'We don'''t need to do that.

It'''ll--nothing good''ll come of it.'

But he--he persisted.

Jett: It would'''ve been a difficult task to sell Sara and Maybelle on that, 'We'''re gonna go record in Bristol,' which would'''ve been a big journey itself, so he had to coax them to go.

Salyer: Maybelle was pregnant with Helen.

Uncle Eck didn'''t want her to go because she was in her-- close to her ninth month.

Jett: And Sara had Joe, who was still nursing.

Salyer: Of course, A.P. was very persistent.

Jett: It took them all day to get from here to Bristol.

They had to ford creeks, they forded a river, and they were in a Model T constantly fixing flats.

Salyer: There was muddy roads.

You know, they didn'''t even have gravel roads.

It was mud tracks.

So they'''d been trying to get there any way they could, and, you know, Aunt Maybelle was 9 months''' pregnant, didn'''t feel very good, and every time she hit a bump, she didn'''t know, you know, 'We gonna have this baby out here or what?'

Jett: When they got to the studio that day, they said that they went in the back way because they were ashamed of the clothes that they wore.

They didn'''t have stage clothes.

They didn'''t know anything about that.

Peer, on tape: They came in to record and brought the children dressed in rags.

And he'''s dressed in overalls, and the women are-- you know, they'''re country women from way back there, calico clothes on.

And they looked like hillbillies-- that'''s what they looked like.

But on that very first test record, why, I recall distinctly, as soon as I heard Sara'''s voice, that was it, you see.

I began to build around it... and all the, uh, first recordings were on that basis.

Carter Family: ♪ My heart is sad, and I'''m in sorrow ♪ ♪ For the only one I love ♪ When shall I see him?

♪ Oh, no, never till I meet him ♪ ♪ In heaven above ♪ Oh, bury me under the weeping willow ♪ ♪ Yes, under the weeping willow tree ♪ ♪ So he may know where I am sleeping ♪ ♪ And perhaps he will weep for me ♪ ♪ They told me that he did not love me ♪ ♪ I could not believe it was true ♪ ♪ Until an angel softly whispered ♪ ♪ He has proven untrue to you ♪ Oh, bury me under the weeping willow ♪ ♪ Yes, under the weeping willow tree ♪ ♪ So he may know where I am sleeping ♪ ♪ And perhaps he will weep for me ♪ Maybelle Carter, on tape: The second day of August, 1927, was my first record.

Well, they just had an old building that we recorded in.

It wasn'''t a regular studio.

It was just an old warehouse.

They cut on a big wax, and if you make a mistake, you have to shave it off, you know.

You couldn'''t erase it like you do a tape.

And a lot of times we should have done it, but we didn'''t, you know?

[Laughter] I'''d say, 'Please do that over.'

And when it'''d come out, it'''d come out with the mistake on it, you know.

He said, 'Well, it makes people listen, you know, to see what'''s gonna happen next.'

Ha ha ha!

Carter Family: ♪ Tomorrow was our wedding day ♪ ♪ But, O Lord, oh, where is he? ♪ ♪ He'''s gone to seek him another bride ♪ ♪ And he cares no more for me White: We'''re extremely lucky in the 1920s and '''30s that rural artists were recorded that would have never been recorded had these companies not wanted to sell records to rural people.

And a lot of these songs have changed the world, really.

They changed music.

They changed popular music, and they changed, uh, popular culture around the world for the last hundred years.

Carter Family: ♪ Oh, bury me under the weeping willow ♪ ♪ Yes, under the weeping willow tree ♪ So he may know where I am sleeping ♪ ♪ And perhaps he will weep for me ♪ Taj Mahal: Those Carter Family records are treasures that are passed from generation to generation to this day.

If you'''re lucky enough to have good Carter Family 78s that are in good condition?

[Low whistle] And you passed them down along with, you know, great-grandma'''s Victrola?

You--with--with extra needles that haven'''t been opened from back then, you can'''t even imagine what that is.

They were really very popular, you know, and the backbone of, well, any kind of country or old-timey music.

♪ Oh, listen to the train coming down the line ♪ ♪ Trying to make up all of her lost time ♪ ♪ From Buffalo to Washington Jett: After that first trip to Bristol, they recorded 12 places-- like Camden, New Jersey, New York City, Memphis, Louisville, Charlotte, Atlanta.

And after all of that, they recorded 326 songs.

♪ My baby has left me, she even took my shoes ♪ ♪ Enough to give a man these doggone worried blues ♪ ♪ She'''s gone, she'''s solid gone ♪ Willie Nelson: I grew up hearing all their songs.

You know, I was a huge fan of theirs all my life.

♪ Will the circle be unbroken?

♪ By and by, Lord, by and by ♪ There'''s a better home a-waiting ♪ ♪ In the sky, Lord, in the sky ♪ Nelson, voice-over: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family-- they were the founder and the starter of a lot of great artists across the board.

♪ Will the circle be unbroken?

♪ By and by, Lord... Well, I think once you hear the original Carter Family, you--you don'''t have to explain why they were special.

It all was.

Ha ha ha!

Carter Family: ♪ Oh, can the circle be unbroken? ♪ ♪ By and by, Lord, by and by ♪ ♪ There'''s a better home a-waiting ♪ ♪ In the sky, Lord, in the sky I always heard that the Carter Family, that they-- they didn'''t charge widows and orphans, uh, for--at a performance, and--and I--I know that seems odd.

But, uh, there was a gentleman walked up one day.

He said, 'When I was a little boy,' he said, 'I went to a Carter Family concert.'

And he said, uh, 'I paid my 15 cents, and they gave it back to me.'

And so I know it'''s true.

I mean, that--that touched me.

So, I mean... I mean, that-- and I'''m sorry, but that tells me it was about music and not about money, and, I mean... that'''s the way it ought to be.

Carter Family: ♪ Can the circle be unbroken? ♪ ♪ By and by, Lord, by and by ♪ There'''s a better home a-waiting ♪ ♪ In the sky, Lord, in the sky Jett: In the Thirties, during the Depression era, uh, A.P. and Sara separated, ultimately divorced.

He was gone a lot, she was home a lot, and she didn'''t really care that much about going after the music.

She--she liked kind of being at home.

Jett: I think he was brokenhearted because he worshipped Sara.

I mean, I'''m not sure that he ever really wanted a whole lot more so than to make music with her.

Salyer: He didn'''t just lose his wife, he lost his showmanship, and he loved that part of his life.

And he was a sad man, more--more than anything, the fact that they weren'''t working together anymore.

Jett: I mean, that was his passion, and I can'''t help but believe if you were alone that you would have to think back about those times and the songs and, uh, the lyrics and, uh, the love.

Uh, I--I would think that that would be really foremost on your mind.

I know that, uh, Ralph Peer paid them $50 a song and a half a cent a record, and to my knowledge, those royalties never changed.

Of course they--they thought that was great.

Who ever heard of getting paid for something that you really loved doing?

That'''s what they always said: 'Can you believe this?'

You know, yeah, maybe--maybe they should'''ve gotten more-- I don'''t know-- but they got enough.

It was enough to get them through the Depression, and it fed them.

It put clothes on their children.

It put shoes on their feet.

It let grandchildren like me come along.

Heh heh!

Ralph Peer...yes, I'''ve met him.

He came down to the fore once, and we were still little people, you know.

Here comes Ralph Peer in this big Cadillac, and on--that wasn'''t all-- he had a bar inside of it.

Everybody was looking inside that.

They were used to moonshine.

They weren'''t used to having that fancy bar, and that was a big sight for everybody to see.

But, you know, without Ralph Peer, they wouldn'''t have gotten anywhere anyway.

I mean, who'''s gonna come out here from New York and look up people to promote?

But he did that.

After the original Carter Family from 1927 to 1940, Maybelle went on to have her own successful career, and Elvis even toured with her for a time.

And then in Knoxville, she picked up a guitar player by the name of Chet Atkins, and they took him to the Grand Ole Opry.

And, I mean, Chet Atkins changed the whole way that things were done in Nashville.

And then June Carter, Maybelle'''s daughter, she married Johnny Cash, and then that led into yet another love story.

And then June'''s children-- you'''ve got Carlene-- is a successful recording artist, married Nick Lowe.

Roseanne Cash, who'''s a singer/songwriter, married Rodney Crowell.

Cindy Cash married Marty Stewart.

It gets really complicated.

Ha ha ha!

Uh, it'''s hard for me to keep track of, but all of that came from that first recording trip to Bristol, which Johnny Cash referred to as the Big Bang of country music.

[Music playing] Hey, that sound that you hear there... that'''s the sound of the original Carter Family, who were just elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The original Carter Family were A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, and tonight, for the first time together in 27 years, Mother Maybelle and Aunt Sara Carter.

[Cheering and applause] Mama, I'''ve long been a Carter Family fan, as you well know, and I'''d love to take Uncle A.P.'''s part on one of those fine old hymns.

We'''d love to have you, John.

How about that, Aunt Sara?

Sure would. All right.

[Applause] ♪ When my soul is singing ♪ In that Promised Land above ♪ All: ♪ I'''ll be satisfied ♪ Johnny: ♪ Satisfied ♪ Praising Christ the Savior for redeeming ♪ ♪ Grace and love All: ♪ I'''ll be satisfied ♪ Johnny: ♪ Satisfied All: ♪ I'''ll be satisfied ♪ Johnny and Maybelle: ♪ Satisfied All: ♪ I'''ll be satisfied ♪ Johnny and Maybelle: ♪ Satisfied All: ♪ When my soul is resting in the presence of the Lord ♪ ♪ I'''ll be satisfied ♪ Johnny: ♪ Satisfied [Applause] Peer II: Many of the songs that the Carters developed... These songs have become popular throughout time since then.

And you can hear a lot of songs today, that if you listen just a little bit harder, you can understand the original Carter Family songs were at the-- at the root of these.

Johnny, Maybelle, and Sara: ♪ ...satisfied [Applause] Jett: You know, there'''s so much music and so many branches to that tree that came from 3 people piling in a little car in 1927 and leaving here to go to Bristol, and--and leaving pretty much right where I sit.

Carter Family: ♪ Oh, bury me under the weeping willow ♪ ♪ Yes, under the weeping willow tree ♪ ♪ So he may know where I am sleeping ♪ ♪ And perhaps he will weep for me ♪ [New song plays] Redford: A world away from Poor Valley, the teeming city of Memphis, Tennessee, was the commercial and cultural gateway for the South.

Set on the banks of the Mississippi River, Memphis is a rowdy port city famous for its booming cotton trade.

Memphis never closed up then.

Memphis.

The boats would run from Memphis to New Orleans and stop all down through the Mississippi Delta.

They'''d pick up cotton-- bales of cotton-- bring it into Memphis, and, uh, they had men working on the boat.

When they come in, the men with the boat would tie up and they'''d get paid off there.

And then they'''d come uptown, started spending their money, getting drunk.

Memphis was an open town.

It never closed up.

Redford: A wide-open town with one of the highest crime rates in the country, Memphis was home to a vibrant music scene known for its gritty lyrics and rough street rhythms.

The heart of the action was Beale Street.

Taj Mahal: This is a book that was published in 1934.

It'''s called, 'Beale Street: Where the Blues Began,' by George W. Lee.

'Beale Street is where the blues began, 'rising out of the Mississippi River.

'It runs for one mile straight 'through the busy heart of Memphis 'and loses itself in the muddy bottoms of East Street.

'The echoes of its fantastic music 'have been heard around the globe.

'Its fame has penetrated into every nook and cranny 'where sound carries the echoes of the English voice.

'Beale Street, owned largely by Jews, 'policed by Whites, and enjoyed by Negroes, 'is the main street of Negro America.

'Beale Street is more than just a little street prowled 'by midnight marauders and seductive concubines.

'It is also a bustling center 'where men of African descent are waging a relentless battle to make contact with Western civilization.'

That dog will hunt.

Charlie Musselwhite: My name is Charlie Musselwhite.

I'''m sitting in a building-- it'''s on Beale Street-- that once was the--a club called the Monarch, famous club.

Robert Wilkins once recorded a tune called 'Old Jim Kinnane'''s,' about where he used to play, right in this spot.

Robert Wilkins: ♪ I wished I was back at Old Jim Kinnane'''s ♪ ♪ I'''d take my babe back to Old Jim Kinnane'''s ♪ ♪ The men and women runnin''' hand in hand ♪ ♪ Going to and fro to Old Jim Kinnane'''s ♪ ♪ Drinkin''' beer, whiskey, and sniffin''' cocaine ♪ ♪ That'''s the reason why I wished ♪ ♪ I was back at Old Jim Kinnane'''s ♪ Musselwhite: I understand this was-- well, it'''s the last building, I think, on Beale Street that was one of the old clubs, and, uh, I can feel it in here, uh, the good times and the rough times and the wild times and all that music--[inhales]-- mmm, I just got a lungful of it.

Uh, it'''s interesting that today it'''s a police station.

Redford: In the early 1900s, Beale Street echoed to the brassy orchestra of W.C. Handy, often called the Father of the Blues.

[Music plays] By the 1920s, Handy'''s songs were known around the world, and he had left for New York City.

In his wake, a younger generation of street musicians, too poor to afford trumpets and clarinets, picked up homemade instruments and formed groups called jug bands.

[Music plays] ♪ Went downtown to have a little fun ♪ ♪ Bought myself a razor and a shiny gun ♪ ♪ Carried it home, laid it on the shelf ♪ ♪ Doggone hard not to sell it myself ♪ ♪ Oh, that chic foldin''' bed ♪ Both: ♪ Tear it up and tear it down ♪ ♪ Tore it down ♪ Slats and all ♪ Tore it down ♪ You make my babies bawl ♪ Tore it down ♪ Long and hot Both: ♪ Takes baby no time to walk ♪ ♪ Come on out of my foldin''' bed ♪ ♪ And we gonna tear it down ♪ Musselwhite: Well, a jug band is, uh, some guys making music off of--ha ha-- cheap instruments.

You know, they couldn'''t afford, like, trumpets and, you know, fancy brass instruments, so they had, like, a washboard, and they had a kazoo and they had, uh, harmonicas and guitars, just affordable instruments that they could get their hands on.

I came to Memphis in 1947.

I grew up here and, uh, fell in love with the sound of the Memphis Jug Band, and Will Shade was the driving force.

Will Shade, on tape: Well, I'''ll tell you, ladies and gentlemens, My name is William Shade Jr.

I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, born in 18 and 93.

Some people say that I wasn'''t that old, but I am.

I began rigging up a little old three-piece band.

Why, I met a fella by the name of Roundhouse, but his name was Elijah, old man about 65 years old.

He was playing an old whiskey bottle you'''d pick up anywhere.

So finally, we thought it over and said, 'Let'''s get a gallon jug.'

So we got the gallon jug, he come in and play.

Well, I play a harmonica, guitar.

Also, I got a can, and some people call it a garbage can, but it'''s a streamline bass.

I made pretty good rounds with it and kept on playing up and down Beale Street.

Musselwhite: And they started playing in Handy Park and around the corners and the streets, downtown Memphis, up and down Beale Street, and they sounded good.

People liked them.

They started getting a--a following.

Peer II: In February of 1927, my father had been to Memphis, Tennessee, which is not exactly the place you'''d think of as the nicest place to go to listen to music.

But it was here that he made the first recordings of the Memphis Jug Band.

Uh, they had a raw taste to them, they were very unusual, and these recordings made history.

Redford: As the Carter Family'''s music reflects the hills of Appalachia, the songs of the Memphis Jug Band reflect an urban underworld full of drugs, gambling, prostitution, and violence.

When Ralph Peer and his recording crew arrived, they set up their studio in a warehouse just off Beale Street.

One of the first acts to audition was Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band.

Shade, on tape: I was going down Beale Street, playing the 'Memphis Jug Band Blues.'

Charlie Williamson'''s at the Beale Street Palace, he turned me over to Mr. Peer-- R.S. Peer and a Victor recorder-- and, uh, we made the record at McCall building on McCall Street.

Musselwhite: It would'''ve been a sight to see-- Will Shade and his band seeing that strange recording machine for the first time.

Shade, on tape: First record I ever made was 'Newport News,' and that was my first recording.

♪ I'''m going to Newport News ♪ ♪ Mama ♪ Gonna catch a battleship ♪ Across the doggone sea Band member: What you going over there for, boy?

Shade: ♪ I'''m going to Newport News, mama ♪ ♪ Gonna catch a battleship across the doggone sea ♪ Band member: What you gonna do?

Shade: ♪ Oh, Lord, this woman that I'''m lovin'' ♪ ♪ Dear God, partner, do not care for me ♪ Band member: What kind of woman is that?

Shade: ♪ And she'''s got a man, got a man ♪ ♪ Done got a kid man on her, she can'''t kid ♪ ♪ She'''s got a man, got a man ♪ ♪ Done got a kid man on her, she can'''t kid ♪ Redford: Will Shade learned 'Newport News' from an old Memphis musician named Teewee Blackman.

But his musical roots went much deeper.

Musselwhite: I remember Will Shade telling me that he learned harmonica from his mom, and his mom grew up in slavery.

Shade, on tape: I started from a kid up.

The real first one that learned me was my mother'''s.

She learned me how to play 'On The Road Again,' natural-born Eastman on the road again.

♪ I wouldn'''t marry a black woman ♪ ♪ Tell you the reason why Band member: ♪ Why?

Shade: ♪ Black woman'''s evil, do things on the sly ♪ Band member: ♪ No Shade: ♪ You look for your supper to be good and hot ♪ Band member: ♪ Uh-huh Shade: ♪ She never put a neck bone in the pot ♪ ♪ She'''s on the road again ♪ Band member: ♪ Just as sure as you'''re born ♪ Shade: ♪ Lord, a natural-born Eastman on the road a... ♪ ♪ She'''s on the road again ♪ Band member: ♪ Sure as you'''re born ♪ Shade: ♪ Lord, a natural-born Eastman... ♪ Nas: Well, the Memphis Jug Band, it sounds like something today.

And these guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honor, chasing after some woman who'''s done them dirty.

This is not high-society black folks.

This is the down under, you know, street-wild black folk that--that, uh, they'''re singing about, and it'''s the same as today.

It'''s the same as rap music today.

♪ She'''s on the road again ♪ Others: ♪ Sure as you'''re born ♪ Nas: ♪ Lord, a natural-born Eastman ♪ Others: ♪ On the road again Nas: ♪ He'''s on the road again ♪ Others: ♪ Sure as you'''re born ♪ Nas: ♪ Lord, a natural-born Eastman ♪ Others: ♪ On the road again Nas: ♪ Your friend at your house just to rest his hat ♪ ♪ Next thing you want to know where your husband'''s at ♪ ♪ She says, 'I don'''t know, he'''s on his way to the pen' ♪ ♪ 'Come on, mama, let'''s get on the road again' ♪ ♪ She'''s on the road again ♪ Nas, voice-over: This music from Memphis... they were rapping about street life and gangster life and hustling and just a dark side of the world.

♪ I wouldn'''t marry a black woman, let me tell you why ♪ Others: ♪ Why?

Nas: ♪ Black woman'''s evil, do things on the sly ♪ Others: ♪ No Nas: ♪ You look for your supper to be good and hot ♪ Others: ♪ Hot Nas: ♪ She never put the neck bone in the pot ♪ ♪ She'''s on the road again... ♪ Nas, voice-over: It just goes to show me that, like, rapping is a natural, poetic thing.

It'''s always been here.

As long as there was English and black people, you know what I'''m saying, there was rap.

♪ Yeah ♪ Uh-huh ♪ Yeah Musselwhite: The Memphis Jug Band wanted everybody to like what they were doing, so they wanted to have a real wide arsenal of tunes.

Will Shade told me that he once played for the president-- I forget which one-- it might'''ve been one of the Roosevelts.

They got so famous that Mayor Crump used them for his campaign.

Will Shade wrote a tune for Crump, and, uh, it was a big hit for Mayor Crump and for Memphis Jug Band.

It got Crump elected.

I'''m sure that paved the way for a lot of good things for Will Shade.

The Jug Band was just real infectious.

It makes you smile, it makes you happy, it makes you want to dance.

It'''s, uh, it''s good-time music.

And I believe black and white people bought their records, because they played all kinds of stuff like waltzes and blues, popular tunes, but in the setting of a jug band.

Shade: ♪ The woman I'''m lovin'', she'''s just my height and size ♪ ♪ She'''s a married woman come to see me sometimes ♪ ♪ If you don'''t believe I love you ♪ ♪ Look what a fool I'''ve been ♪ ♪ If you don'''t believe I'''m sinkin'' ♪ ♪ Look what a hole I'''m in ♪ ♪ I'''m stealing, stealing ♪ ♪ Pretty mama, don'''t you tell on me ♪ ♪ I'''m stealing back to my same old used to be ♪ ♪ I'''m stealing, stealing ♪ ♪ Pretty mama, don'''t you tell on me ♪ ♪ I'''m stealing back to my same old used to be ♪ Redford: Will Shade'''s success established Memphis as a vibrant new African-American recording center, and as a talent scout for Victor Records, he helped launch the careers of performers like Memphis Minnie, Furry Lewis... and Gus Cannon.

Peer II: My father made a very close personal friendship with Will Shade and, in fact, employed him for a number of years to be his eyes and ears in the Memphis part of the world.

Beale Street was just thriving, colorful, alive, just pulsing with energy, neighborhood.

I mean, it was a poor neighborhood, but, man, there was so much going on.

Like, out in the alley, around where Will Shade played at night, there'''d be these jam sessions-- guys playing guitars and harmonicas and passing the bottle.

It just--it was just rich with the music.

I mean, it was saturated.

But it was rough and wild, no doubt about it, and Will Shade made it way more colorful than anybody I heard describe it.

Shade, on tape: I don'''t know.

There was so much excitement there down on Beale Street, it'''d take me a year and a day to tell you about all that excitement.

It used to be a red-light district and so forth like that.

You could walk down the street in days of 1900 and like that, you could find a man'''s throat cut from ear to ear.

Sometimes you'''d find them with no clothes on or such as that.

Sometimes you find them throwed out of windows and so forth.

Oh, they used to have a wonderful time around here in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nothing but underworld people stealing and snatching, pickpockets, you know, like, dope fiends and cocaine fiends and everything.

[Music plays] Hattie Hart: ♪ Cocaine habit'''s mighty bad ♪ ♪ It'''s the worst old habit that I ever had ♪ All: ♪ Hey-hey, honey, take a whiff on me ♪ Hart: ♪ I love my whiskey, and I love my gin ♪ ♪ But the way I love my coke is a doggone sin ♪ All: ♪ Hey-hey, honey, take a whiff on me ♪ Hart: ♪ It takes a little coke to give me ease ♪ ♪ Strut your stuff long as you please ♪ All: ♪ Hey-hey, honey, take a whiff on me ♪ Band member: Let'''s all take a whiff on Hattie now.

Hart: ♪ Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey ♪ ♪ Hey, hey, hey, hey ♪ Hey, hey, hey-hey ♪ ♪ Hey-hey-hey, hey, hey Taj Mahal: 'Cocaine Habit' cracked me up.

Here'''s the subject: ♪ Cocaine habit ain'''t so-- ♪ It'''s right there-- right on top of that.

♪ Cocaine habit now ain'''t so bad ♪ ♪ It'''s the worst damn habit that I ever did have ♪ ♪ Hey-hey-hey, baby, take a whiff on me ♪ And these other guys are sliding in and out, what with Will going... [vocalizing] ♪ I went to Mr. Lehman'''s Buzzard Lope ♪ ♪ There'''s a sign on the window, say 'No More Dope' ♪ Say hey-hey, honey, take a whiff on me ♪ Nas: So it just tells you something about American culture, American music.

And, you know, when they look down on hip-hop music and look down, um, because of the words that we use and stuff like that, it didn'''t start with hip-hop.

It started--whew-- a long time ago.

It started with America.

Redford: As blues gave way to swing and R&B, the Memphis Jug Band faded from view.

But an old record in a secondhand store caught the eye of a young Charlie Musselwhite.

Musselwhite: Well, I first discovered the Memphis Jug Band, going around looking for 78s.

Then the first one I found was 'Newport News Blues,' and I was just really knocked out by the sound that came out of that 78.

Shade: ♪ She'''s got a man, got a man ♪ ♪ Got a kid man on her, she can'''t kid ♪ Musselwhite: When I met Will Shade, I was 18, and I loved his music.

So I'''m hanging out at Will Shade'''s house every chance I can.

It was this energetic, totally alive, wonderful place to be, and Will Shade was still a great musician, and he became one of my best teachers for harmonica and guitar, and we'''d just play.

He--it wasn'''t, like, one particular tune he would say, 'Now it'''s time for you to learn this.'

We'''d just sit around, and he'''d play whatever he felt like playing, and I'''d play along with him.

I had a little tape that I just made one time.

I rented a tape recorder, a reel-to-reel, and--heh-- we would just have fun.

Shade: ♪ Hey, Lord, you know that woman I am lovin'''? ♪ ♪ I declare you know she'''s my height and size, ow ♪ Musselwhite: He just loved it that I was interested in learning his music.

And so he was always pushing me to get it right and play it better, and it'''s hard to put into words.

In some ways, he'''s like a father.

In some ways, he'''s like a brother.

In other ways, he'''s just a good friend.

Redford: The only known film of Will Shade performing is this clip from 1958, with his old Jug Band partner Charlie Burse.

The jazz addict is not likely to find on Beale Street today very much of what the music historian calls the style of the Twenties.

But there is a kind of music which still continues the feeling of the past, and you can still hear it played by an occasional wandering minstrel or two in the guise of a jug band, with or without a jug.

For example, take the work of Charlie Burse and Will Shade, two practicing musicians of Beale Street, 1958.

How about an example, Charlie?

Well, since we'''ve been here a long time, we'''d like to give you a little synopsis of what you used to hear when Yancey was here.

Would you like to hear one of them?

Fine.

♪ I went up Main, I turned down Beale ♪ ♪ I tried to find ♪ The little chick that they call Lucille ♪ Both: ♪ I'''m gonna move to Kansas City ♪ ♪ Yeah, sure as you'''re born ♪ Both: ♪ I'''m gonna move to Kansas City ♪ ♪ Where I belong Both: ♪ I'''m gonna move, baby ♪ ♪ Honey, where they don'''t like you ♪ ♪ Lordy, lordy, lordy, Lord, oh, boy ♪ ♪ 'T' for Texas, 'T' for Tennessee, ha ♪ ♪ Boll weevil'''s got the cotton, and the gals got me ♪ Both: ♪ I'''m gonna move to Kansas City ♪ Shade: ♪ Sure as you'''re born ♪ Both: ♪ Well, I gotta move to Kansas City ♪ Shade: ♪ Where I was born Both: ♪ We gotta move, honey ♪ ♪ Honey, where they gonna like me ♪ ♪ Lordy, lordy, lordy, Lord ♪ ♪ If you don'''t like my peaches ♪ ♪ Why did you shake my tree? ♪ ♪ All right ♪ I wasn'''t after that chick ♪ ♪ That chick was after me ♪ ♪ We gonna move to Kansas City ♪ Shade: ♪ Sure as you were born ♪ ♪ We got to move to Kansas City ♪ ♪ Where I belong Both: ♪ We got to move... Musselwhite: Well, that'''s Will Shade playing his tub bass made out of an old oil drum.

Shade: ♪ Lordy, oh, boy ♪ If she didn'''t like my peaches ♪ ♪ Why did she shake my tree? ♪ Musselwhite: I saw that bass many, many times.

He claimed he invented that.

Burse: ♪ Gonna move to Kansas City ♪ Shade: ♪ Sure as you'''re born ♪ Both: ♪ Well, I gotta move to Kansas City ♪ Shade: ♪ Where I was born Both: ♪ We'''re gonna move, honey ♪ ♪ Honey, where they gonna like me ♪ Musselwhite: You get a little taste of what the Memphis Jug Band was about just with those two guys.

♪ 'T' for Texas, 'T' for Tennessee ♪ Ha ha!

♪ The boll weevil'''s got the cotton ♪ ♪ And the women got... ♪ ...Got me Both: ♪ I'''ve gotta move to Kansas City ♪ ♪ Oh, yes, as sure as you were born... ♪ Musselwhite: Will Shade doing what he did, and the joy he had in his music.

Both: ♪ Honey, where they gonna like me... ♪ ♪ Lordy, lordy, lordy, Lord ♪ Peer II: The first recordings of the Memphis Jug Band were, in their own way, a Big Bang of R&B music.

Will Shade came up with a lot of different types of music from a lot of different people, and this music remained a permanent influence on American R&B.

Redford: In the 1950s, a young Memphis musician fused the rhythms of Beale Street with the country twang of Bristol to ignite a new Big Bang called rock and roll.

♪ I got a gal that I love so ♪ Ready, ready, ready, I'''m ready ♪ ♪ Ready, ready, ready, I'''m ready ♪ ♪ Ready, ready, ready, I'''m ready, ready ♪ ♪ Ready to rock and roll Musselwhite: Will Shade has had a tremendous effect on American music.

But he would see other Memphis singers, you know, getting recognition, and he thought there was still a chance, as long as he was alive and able to play, that he might get one more break.

And, uh, I think he-- that was a dream of his.

All the times I would visit Will Shade, he would always play this song.

It was--if it'''s not his favorite, it was one of his favorites.

And it'''s called 'I'''ll Get a Break Someday.'

♪ Mississippi River ♪ Lord, so deep and wide ♪ Woman that I'''m lovin'' ♪ ♪ She'''s on that other side ♪ ♪ But I'''ll get a break ♪ ♪ Yeah, somewhere ♪ Mama, before long Musselwhite, voice-over: You know, when he died in 1966, he really didn'''t have anything, and most people really didn'''t remember his music.

But today, all these years later, right down on Beale Street in front of Handy Park, there'''s a brass note with Will Shade'''s name right on it.

♪ When I had money ♪ I had friends for miles around ♪ ♪ I'''m broke, ragged, and hungry ♪ ♪ None of my friends can be found ♪ ♪ But I'''ll get a break ♪ ♪ Yeah, somewhere ♪ Mama, before long [Exhales] Announcer: Next time on 'American Epic,' music rises out of oppression.

Man: We sang those old gospel songs to get relief from the burdens of the day.

Announcer: The rhythms of gospel makes its imprint on jazz and soul.

People like Aretha Franklin and James Brown owe everything to that sanctified beat.

Announcer: And one forgotten bluesman defines the Mississippi delta blues.

Charley Patton was a force of nature.

Announcer: The DNA of American music expands in 'American Epic.'

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