Discover how America’s diverse cultures contribute to its musical styles: from the Hopi tribe to Hawaii’s Joseph Kekuku to Mexican-American Lydia Mendoza and the Cajun Breaux Family. Mississippi John Hurt’s blues inspires a generation of musicians.
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[Classical music playing] Robert Redford: In the 1920s, record companies sent scouts to the most remote areas of the United States.
For the first time, they recorded the music of everyday working people.
Some of those artists are remembered as pioneers and innovators, others only as names on old record labels.
But their recordings reveal a rich tapestry of cultures.
And Americans of all kinds could finally hear one another in their myriad languages, melodies, and rhythms.
[Stringed instruments playing] [Man singing in Native American language] Redford: This Native American- country fusion by a group called Big Chief Henry''s Indian String Band sounds like it could be made tomorrow.
In fact, they were discovered in 1929 by the legendary Delta blues producer H.C. Speir, who heard them playing at the annual Choctaw Indian fair in Mississippi.
As we journey across the United States, we keep hearing echoes of a Native American drumbeat.
To explore the deepest roots of American music, we traveled to Hopi.
[Wind howling] Man: The wind will take the moisture out of the land.
The plants don''t have a good growth until the monsoons come.
Hopi are supposed to live a simple life.
It''s meant to be hard. That''s how you prove yourself, that you can make it in a hard environment.
We have just 12 inches of rainfall per year.
We still are able to grow corn, and it comes down just to a matter of faith.
Songs are a way of carrying messages to the environmental domain, the spiritual domain up there.
[Men singing in Native American language] Man: When the first settlers began to arrive, they got introduced into traditional indigenous music, including Hopi music.
The style of singing and the style of drumming was incorporated into what we see as contemporary or modern American music.
My full name is Leigh Kuwanwisiwma.
Kuwanwisiwma, that''s my Hopi name.
What it means is a litter of pups being led by their parents throughout life and slowly their fur is changing color.
As a Hopi person, you grow up into that song culture of the Hopi people.
I remember my dad singing this one song to us all the time.
[Singing in Native American language] I have grandkids now, and do you know what I''m doing?
Singing the same song.
[Man singing in Native American language] Satala: When you actually sing, it''s gonna be a prayer.
It''s gonna be a prayer in song form and it''s going to go out to those that take care of us that are unseen.
Like when you throw a rock into the water and then those ripples go out, that''s how that song will go out to everybody and they''ll be blessed.
There''s certain songs and those are really used in ceremony, and those, they never change.
They are in a sequence; one song, and then it has to be followed by the next one, and if it''s done correctly, it makes things happen, and then we''ll have rain.
[Man singing in Native language] [Train''s whistle blowing] Redford: In 1904, a 14-year-old Anglo boy named Milo Billingsley ran away from his family farm in Iowa.
His head filled with romantic tales of Hopi Snake Dances, he boarded a train for Winslow, Arizona.
Thinking he could simply telegraph the Hopi about his arrival, he walked into the closest trading post.
A Hopi boy was working there and agreed to take Milo back to his village.
Billingsley expected the Hopi to embrace him with open arms, and in fact, they did.
6 weeks later, his irate father arrived to take him back to Iowa.
But when Milo turned 18, he returned to Hopi for good.
Adopted into the Hopi nation, he became a passionate advocate for their culture.
Billingsley: The Hopi Indian believe they come from a snake skin.
They believe each snake has a soul.
In these beliefs, their religion is based.
They become known as the Hopi Snake Dancers, for they pray through dancing.
Yeah, this is Billingsley, or Billingsey, as the Hopis called him.
And he was a early visitor to Hopi, and of course made friends among the Hopi.
He was a messenger to the highest priesthoodship in Hopi leadership, and he came to understand the Hopi people and our songs.
[Men singing in Native American language] Redford: In 1913, former president Teddy Roosevelt visited the Hopi and was allowed to witness the Snake Dance, a private ritual used to bring rain to the desert.
Satala: There''s certain songs that you can''t talk about.
You keep those to yourself, and that--that way, that religion or that ceremony stays sacred.
You know, it''s not out to everybody.
Redford: Without the Hopis'' permission, the event was filmed.
And the ensuing publicity brought a flood of unwanted visitors.
Satala: And that triggered off a huge tourist stream into Hopi.
The Santa Fe Railroad promoted the Snake Dance, and other local people took advantage of that.
They were doing postcards with pictures of the Snake Dance.
Redford: While tourists flocked to Hopi, some government officials condemned the Snake Dance as a strange religious cult and demanded that it be banned.
Satala: Of course, they didn''t understand anything about these ceremonies.
They labeled us a cult.
Congress recognized that if they break Hopi, they''ll break the rest of the tribes.
That was the goal, so they targeted these major ceremonies, literally by legislation, to ban them because the government couldn''t break the Hopi people unless they break the culture.
Redford: In 1926, the Hopi took a giant leap into the unknown.
A group of 5 priests traveled east as cultural ambassadors to prove the virtue and power of their ceremonies.
[Men singing in Native American language] Redford: With Billingsley acting as interpreter, they arrived in New York City and agreed to record two of their ancient songs in the cutting-edge studio of Victor Records.
[Men singing in Native American language] This is the eagle song.
Yeah, and what I notice as a composer myself is that the composer put in these little drum stops that was going like this way: [Imitating drumbeat] Nice song, good song. I like it.
Redford: After recording for Victor, the Hopi delegation traveled to Washington, DC, to present their ceremonies on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
So they went to Washington and performed several ceremonies to demonstrate that their Hopi way of life is always about peace and happiness.
I''m not too certain if they actually did the Snake Dance.
They may have borrowed from another non-sensitive ceremony, and may have used that, too.
Redford: This newly discovered film shows the actual event.
Leigh is watching it for the first time.
Kuwanwisiwma: You have men in ties, suit coats, cigars, nice hats.
Ladies are dressed for a very, very big occasion.
You know, as I look at the film, I kind of smile because it appears that, even back then, the government''s controlled by wealthy people.
Redford: After an introduction by Billingsley, the Hopi prepare for their performance.
Kuwanwisiwma: The individual to the left of the screen appears to be Kotsheptewa, who was the head snake priest and probably the leader of the group.
So now you have the actual performances.
Now we have the buffalo.
These are the buffalos from the village of Mishongnovi, where Kotsheptewa was from.
Yeah, this is a representation of the Hopi version of one of the Plains tribes.
Now, this is probably a representation of the Snake Dance.
The first ones are the Antelope Priest and then the second group, the three are Snake Priests.
[Men singing in Native American language] Kuwanwisiwma: Now it looks like they''re getting the snakes.
[Men singing in Native American language] Hmm.
This is the actual private ceremony.
[Men singing in Native American language] Kuwanwisiwma: It''s a different kind of, uh, emotion.
It''s kinda sad to see that the Hopis had to go up to that level of actually presenting a very private dance to tell others that this is the Hopi way.
They had no choice.
They should have never had to do that.
Redford: After witnessing the ceremony, Congress passed an act allowing the Hopi to practice the Snake Dance forever.
But for the Hopi, it was a bittersweet victory, and the public display of their private ceremonies remains a painful memory.
The record of 'Chant of the Snake Dance' and 'Chant of the Eagle Dance' was surprisingly successful, becoming a consistent seller in the Victor catalogue... and is still available today.
[Men singing in Native American language] Kuwanwisiwma: It''s really too bad they had to go this far to prove to others who the Hopi people are.
But you know what?
The record in itself was one way of preserving these songs, and today we hear this song from 1926 on our Hopi radio.
And it makes me feel good that, boy, you know, song-song-song, you know, goes back in time, and we''re still at it.
We''re still creating new songs.
[Men singing in Native American language] [Hawaiian music playing] Redford: In the first decades of the twentieth century, one of the most popular genres of American music came from the islands of Hawaii.
Hawaiian ensembles toured across the country and around the world, all featuring a unique instrument: the steel guitar.
Its soaring sound would become central to a dazzling range of styles.
♪ But I''m going away now, honey ♪ ♪ And I ain''t never coming back no more ♪ ♪ Why can''t I free your doubtful mind ♪ ♪ And melt your cold, cold heart? ♪ [Playing upbeat music] [Playing rock music] Redford: But who invented the steel guitar... and first explored its haunting tones?
My name''s AlyssaBeth Kahuini Kinilani Archambault, and my great-uncle is Joseph Kekuku-- the inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar.
When Joseph was 11 years old, he happened to be walking down a railroad track with his guitar and he picked up a metal bolt and he made his way down the tracks, and at some point, the bolt hit the strings of the guitar and it made the sound that caught his ear.
[Steel guitar playing] Redford: Following his accidental discovery, Joseph Kekuku spent hours in the metal shop at Kamehameha School, perfecting a slide.
Adding steel strings to his guitar and raising them from the fretboard, he created an instrument that would travel the world.
Woman: He was only 11 years old, and that is pretty young to be so devoted to creating something new that didn''t exist.
So when I hear the steel, it brings back memories of my uncle.
He worked to perfect that sound, then he taught it at Kamehameha Schools, and all the students there were taking the lessons, and then they went home to their separate islands, and they taught it to those that were on the islands.
So it really spread fast.
Archambault: He mastered the Hawaiian steel guitar for 7 years, and he taught his cousin Sam Nainoa how to play the steel guitar.
Redford: On a rare, self-issued recording, Sam Nainoa explains the origins of the Steel Guitar.
Nainoa: Ladies and gentlemen, this is, uh, Sam K. Nainoa speaking, a real native.
Since the origination of the Hawaiian guitar by my cousin Joseph Kekuku of La''ie, Oahu, no one has ever come forward to explain the intricate working of this unique instrument.
Here is the catch with the Hawaiian guitar: you have only one finger to reach out for your notes, which is the steel bar held in the palm of the left hand.
I will now offer for your approval a medley of Hawaiian selections.
[Steel guitar playing] Redford: In 1904, Joseph Kekuku traveled to the Mainland seeking a new audience.
He teamed up with the hula dancer Toots Paka to form one of the most popular acts on the touring vaudeville circuit.
Meyer: He felt so inspired because he had a mission.
So he took the Mainland. He took the world.
He never came back home.
He was so dedicated to the Hawaiian Guitar, uh, he stayed in the Mainland.
Archival film announcer: No World''s Fair in history was so beautiful as this one at night.
Tens of thousands of jewels reflected all colors of the rainbow from the famous tower, while the great fan-shaped rays from the scintillator thrilled every spectator.
Redford: In 1915, Kekuku and other island musicians performed in the Hawaiian Pavilion at the San Francisco World''s Fair, which attracted over 17 million visitors.
By the following year, Americans were buying more recordings of Hawaiian music than of any other genre.
Kekuku formed his own group and toured from coast to coast.
Meanwhile, his invention had spread far beyond Hawaiian music.
Country bands adapted it to play fiddle tunes, and black southerners made it one of the most distinctive sounds in blues.
♪ That dear, old mother of mine ♪ ♪ Oh, Lord... ♪ And then it just took off and went all over the world, not just in Hawaii, the Mainland and Europe and everywhere.
Redford: In 1919, Kekuku traveled to London with a popular Hawaiian musical revue, 'The Bird of Paradise.'
A worldwide smash, the show played to kings and queens, and inspired the international craze for Hawaiian music.
Meyer: They were in such demand.
I mean, just like you think about Elvis Presley, they were more than that in a sense.
Man: In the Twenties and Thirties, all the way up to the Forties, Hawaiian music was really kind of the rage.
It''s an area that''s kind of cut off to itself.
It has its own weather, its energy, its moisture, its pace, you know, its mixture.
Um, it''s a totally different thing.
Meyer: They were just so in love with Hawaii and these men who played that steel guitar.
You know, it''s a way to visualize beach, the sun, the beautiful paradise.
And people in the Mainland who have snow and cold and tornado and all that, you know, it took them away from all that type of natural disaster so they could live, like, oh, wow, they''re in paradise, they''re in Hawaii.
[Laughs] Redford: Kekuku returned to America in 1927 to discover a new wave of Hawaiian groups being recorded across the country, including Sol K. Bright, Nelstone''s Hawaiians, and Kalama''s Quartet.
[Singing in native language] [Playing Hawaiian music] Redford: Joseph Kekuku''s only known recordings were as a virtually inaudible presence on some wax cylinders by the Paka Group until now.
At a luau celebrating the unveiling of his statue in La''ie, we play a newly discovered record he made in London in 1925.
His family is hearing it for the first time.
[Hawaiian music recording playing] [Laughter and applause] I was so taken back to hear my great-uncle recorded, actually recorded; his moves and his sounds.
It was really great to hear for the first time.
[Playing Hawaiian music] [Man singing in native language] Man: I gotta give Uncle Joe credit, because if it wasn''t for him, we might not have steel guitar.
I feel proud that I am passing on this history of our steel guitar so our kids, they''ll be on their own, they''re making their own steel guitar.
They say, 'Uncle, check this one out.'
'Oh, this is a cool steel guitar.
Wow. Who made it?' 'I did,' you know.
So we''re passing on that-- like I say, for Uncle Joe, you know, passing the history on of steel guitar.
And it hit his guitar, and he made a sound.
The bolt made a sliding sound.
What did it sound like?
It sounds like that.
[Steel guitar playing] That is the sound of Hawaii.
[12-strng guitar playing] Redford: Along the jagged border separating Mexico from the United States, centuries of clashes and collaborations have shaped a hybrid culture.
Its passionate music, blending Mexican ballads and laments with European waltzes and polkas, echoes across the plazas and avenues of San Antonio, Texas.
In 1928, Tommy Rockwell, a scout for OKeh Records, came to San Antonio seeking artists who could appeal to the growing Spanish-language market.
He placed an ad in 'La Prensa,' the local Spanish newspaper, inviting musicians to audition.
Among the groups that responded was a family of itinerant musicians: Francisco and Leonor Mendoza, and their daughters Maria and, playing the mandolin, 12-year-old Lydia.
Man: We thought everybody''s grandmother sang.
Not till we grew older did I realize the significance of how much of a artist she was and fans that she had.
Lydia was born in 1916, Houston, Texas.
She was one of 8 children, a musically inclined family who, uh, developed and, uh, formed their own carpa or a troupe, a family troupe.
It''s like a--a Mexican gypsy troupe, you know.
That''s what it was, and--and because that''s how they made their living and their survival.
Man: Lydia Mendoza''s dad apparently was not such a nice guy and drinking and not, not working steadily and, uh, apparently wasn''t always nice to them.
At least that''s what she mentioned once to me.
In any case, the father, the mother, and Lydia, and her younger sister were buskers.
Redford: Rockwell recorded 11 songs by the group, who called themselves Cuarteto Carta Blanca, after the popular beer.
After the sessions, the Mendozas went back to their regular life of playing for tips and picking up occasional migrant work.
Hernandez: From what I understand, to entertain the migrant workers, they traveled--Mexico, the border mainly.
Redford: Although she had been born in Houston, Lydia''s dark skin and Mexican accent earned her harsh treatment at the hands of U.S. border officials.
Hernandez: At that time, Americans just viewed the Mexicans as a sub-culture and treated them like that.
And...they did make them wash their hair in gasoline to make sure that they didn''t have any lice.
I remember hearing that from my mom.
But they persevered. I mean, that was just part of life and they-- that was part of having to go back and forth and making a living, and they did what they had to do.
Redford: By 1934, the Mendoza family had settled in San Antonio, where they played for tips at the Plaza de Zacate.
There, a local broadcaster named Manuel J. Cortez was struck by the beauty of Lydia''s voice, and invited her to take part in a singing contest on his radio show.
She won by 35,000 votes, attracting the attention of the Bluebird Record Company, who set up a recording session at the Texas Hotel.
Lydia cut 6 records, including a passionate tango about a cold-hearted man: 'Mal Hombre.'
[12-string guitar playing] Redford: More than just a song, it was a wrenching, 3-minute drama of love and betrayal.
Spottswood: It''s kind of the Mexican Norteno version of 'House of the Rising Sun,' isn''t it?
You know, the--the young woman wronged by a--by a man and presumably, you know, finding herself pregnant or in some other way compromised, and, uh, for Lydia, that was a career song, you know, and it should''ve been.
I mean, that, that was--heh-- that''s--that''s one of the great, uh, great performances.
Redford: 'Mal Hombre' was a huge hit, and established Lydia Mendoza as a star throughout the Southwest.
Mendoza: ♪ Mal hombre, tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre ♪ ♪ Eres un canalla, eres un malvado ♪ ♪ Eres un mal hombre ♪ She''s the only woman here in San Antonio that plays with a 12-string guitar.
I''ve heard her practice the guitar in her room, and she played strong on that.
Hernandez-McKinney: We would go to her gigs and we''d all sit around the stage... Roger Hernandez: Yeah.
And we''d be just sitting there... Watching her. looking up at her singing.
[Singing in Spanish] Roger Hernandez: She didn''t need a whole lot of hoopla, back-up.
It was just always Grandma and her guitar.
[Singing in Spanish] Do you remember this, Dad?
Yes. I saw her-- I saw that when she was making it.
She would make her own dresses, and they were gorgeous, and she''d have them totally full of sequins, like a rainbow.
Sequins, they were all over the floor in her sewing room. [Laughter] Redford: Lydia Mendoza never abandoned the audience that had supported her in her youth, and was known as 'La Cancionera de los Pobres'-- 'The Songstress of the Poor.'
She spoke and sang for what people were thinking and living at that time.
And a majority of that was the poor people, the migrant workers.
And she was their voice.
A lot of it had to do with her own experiences, you know, her own personal loves in her life, and it was phenomenal as to how she was reaching these people, because they, too, had someone special in their life and they could relate to that.
At that time, being in that Hispanic Mexican culture, it--it was hard for a woman to stand on her own.
But she was her own person and she did it.
Redford: Lydia Mendoza''s records continued to sell even in the depths of the Depression.
But with the onset of World War II, she decided to take some time off to raise a family.
Roger Hernandez: When Grandma got married, she had Mom--Yolanda-- and Aunt Nora.
And she quit her music.
Hernandez-McKinney: She stayed home for a few years.
Because in the culture, that''s how we are.
We''re very close family, very loving.
So, yeah, I would say family did come first.
[Mendoza singing in Spanish] Hernandez-McKinney: We listened to her music at home.
Roger Hernandez: And we''d all gather in that back room next to the kitchen and all sit around on sofas, on chairs, on the floor, and--and just... Listen to her. listen to her sing.
[Singing in Spanish] Roger Hernandez: I found this composition book of, uh, my grandmother''s actual musical writings and compositions.
These were the lyrics for songs that she had had in her head that were going on and--and wanted to write them out.
So these are very old and delicate writings.
And here''s her-- her signature here, which she signed and dated, each song.
Here''s the song title, 'Mujer Sin Corazon'-- And I don''t know if you could... 'Woman Without a Heart.'
'Porque me haces sufrir--' 'Why are you making me suffer?'
'Comprende que hay ti yo no puedo a vivir--' which is saying that she... she cannot live without her love.
Redford: After the war, Lydia Mendoza resumed touring and recording.
Roger Hernandez: And from there on, she, uh, recorded over 200 songs and became very well-known in--within-- within the Mexican and Hispanic culture and her music became known worldwide, uh, especially in South America and in Canada.
And she was very well-traveled with her music.
Redford: In 1977, she was invited to perform at the inauguration of President Carter.
Spottswood: She was wonderful. She stayed at my house when she came up to play for Jimmy Carter''s inaugural and, uh, I still have the shawl she forgot.
[Laughs] Hernandez-McKinney: And as she grew bigger and bigger, she was getting very well-recognized for all that she has contributed to the culture.
Redford: In 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.
Bill Clinton: With the artistry of her voice and the gift of her songs, she bridged the gap between generations and culture.
Lydia Mendoza is a true American pioneer, and she paved the way for a whole new generation of Latino performers who today are making all Americans sing.
[Applause] Fernando Hernandez: Sitting next to her was Steven Spielberg, Aretha Franklin, and others.
[Mendoza singing in Spanish] Redford: In 2013, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring her image-- the first superstar of Tejano music and a national treasure.
Mendoza: ♪ ...en tu cara te diga lo que eres ♪ ♪ Mal hombre ♪ ♪ Tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre ♪ Roger Hernandez: How many people can say that they washed their hair with gasoline at the border and yet been acknowledged by the President of the United States, been recognized for your life''s work?
No one in this world has this story like that.
♪ A mi triste destino abandonada ♪ ♪ Entable fiera lucha con la vida ♪ ♪ Ella recia y cruel me torturaba ♪ ♪ Yo, mas debil, al fin cai vencida ♪ ♪ Tu supiste a tiempo mi derrota ♪ ♪ Mi espantoso calvario conociste ♪ ♪ Te dijieron algunos que a salvarle ♪ ♪ Y probando quien eres, te reiste ♪ [Cajun music playing] Redford: Cajun music was born of exile, made by French-speaking Acadians forced out of eastern Canada, who settled in the marshy bayou country of South Louisiana.
[Man singing in Cajun] Redford: Through the years, they blended their old French songs with sounds from Spain, Germany, Africa, the local Native Americans, and their Anglo neighbors.
[Singing continues] The result was a musical jambalaya-- homemade, heartfelt, and infectiously danceable.
[Music continuing] Man: Cajun music has always been passed down through the families.
We learned it from our dad and uncles.
Our grandpa played music, his dad played music.
Cajun music really resembles the landscape from which it''s born.
The bayous are very crooked and winding and slow, just like the music can be very unconventional.
It''s not square. It''s very crook-- We call it 'croche.' It means 'crooked,' and it doesn''t resemble any other music.
[Man singing in Cajun] Michot: There''s definitely a sense of urgency in Cajun music, from living where you-- where you love to live, but also a lot of suffering that goes along with it ''cause it''s a very intense, harsh landscape.
[Singing continues] Redford: The story of Cajun recording begins with one legendary family: the guitarist and singer Cléoma Breaux; her brothers Amedée, Ophy, and Clifford; and her husband Joe Falcon.
Michot: Cléoma was really the rock of her family.
She helped raise her brothers when their dad had left.
She was one of the only females to play in a male-dominated music scene and was breaking the mold and making a whole new opportunity for Cajun music, and she ended up being the first one to record.
Redford: By 1928, record men like Columbia''s Frank Walker had established the familiar genres of country, jazz, and blues, and were looking for something different.
During a trip to New Orleans, Walker decided to explore the possibilities of the remote bayou country.
[Man singing in Cajun] Walker: So I went up around Lafayette and was astounded at the interest that there was in their little Saturday-night dances.
A single singer would have a little concertina-type instrument and a one-string fiddle and a triangle.
Those were the instruments, and of course, they sang in Cajun.
And to me, it had a funny sound, so I brought a little group down to New Orleans, and we recorded just to have something different.
Redford: Cléoma and Joe performed 'Allons a Lafayette'-- 'Let''s Go to Lafayette'-- the first Cajun song to be released on a record.
Michot: The Columbia Record guys weren''t sure about recording this tiny, two-piece band, but George Burrow, who Joe and Cléoma had brought with them, who was a local businessman in Rayne, knew how popular this music would become.
Joe Falcon: They kinda laugh, you know?
They say, 'How--how many records would you order?'
He said 500, and he-- he grabbed his, uh, checkbook and he said, 'Make you a check for 500 records right now.'
They said, 'Five hundred?'
They said, 'We never sold that many to nobody 'with big orchestra.
'How in the world could we sell 500 to just a two-piece band?'
'Well,' he said, 'Make it.'
And that''s why we--we made it, and it went over big.
['Allons a Lafayette' playing] [Joe Falcon singing in Cajun] [Music continuing] Falcon: ♪ Allons a Lafayette... ♪ Michot: My grandpa and my great aunt, uh, used to tell me how, when they grew up in Mamou, they--they would hear that song coming out of the doors of these houses.
Everyone was so excited to have a Cajun song on a record because they had record players, but there was no Cajun music.
So when Cajun music comes out on a record, it gives you pride about your culture and about your music, so people were playing that record so often.
They say you can''t even find a record that still plays ''cause everyone who had one wore it out ''cause they loved it so much.
['Allons a Lafayette' continues playing] Michot: When the Breaux Family were recording this music in the late Twenties, they were really recording almost a new sound of Cajun music because when the German accordion became available in the department stores, the Cajuns really took to it because it was a lot louder and it allowed them to play to much larger audiences than just a house dance.
Joe Falcon, amazing accordion player, learned from Cléoma''s brother, Amedée Breaux.
Redford: Amedée Breaux is a legendary figure in Cajun music.
Michot: Cléoma''s three brothers, their music has so much feeling and so much passion that you just feel an incredible urgency in their music, and it''s amazing that the Breaux family is still playing around Acadiana today.
I''m Gary Breaux.
I''m a grandson of Amedée Breaux, which I refer to as, uh...Papap ''Medee.
I''m Jimmy Breaux, the other grandson of Amedée Breaux.
I''m Jerry Mouton, grandson of, uh, Amedée Breaux and I refer to him as, uh, Papap ''Medee.
I''m Pat Breaux, and, uh, Papap ''Medee is my grandfather.
And we''re the Breaux Freres of today.
[Accordions playing] Papap ''Medee was invited to, uh, an accordion contest.
They were in a big barn.
He climbed up and went on the rafters and walked across the rafters of the barn and, uh, played 'Allons a Lafayette' while he was walking across the rafters.
[Chuckles] So, needless to say, he won the contest.
Yeah. Heh heh!
[Man singing in Cajun] Michot: These were not listening rooms.
These were very rowdy bar rooms.
A lot of fighting, a lot of drinking, a lot of moonshine.
The word was the Breaux Brothers liked to drink a lot and they liked to fight a lot, and you feel it in their music.
You know, it was definitely a very vibrant music scene, to say the least.
You know, you--you hear the old stories about the dance halls.
They had, uh, chicken wire around the band.
Supposed to keep the beer bottles from flying at the band if the band was bad.
Yeah, keep the band safe.
Yeah, but, uh, I think the chicken wire was there for the Breaux Brothers not to get to the audience.
[Laughter] Yeah, they--they were something else.
Redford: In April of 1929, Amedée Breaux and his brother Ophy traveled to Atlanta and cut their first records, with Cléoma on guitar.
Michot: Cléoma brought them to record, and if she hadn''t, we might never know what songs they had to offer and how much they influenced Cajun music today.
And they recorded over a dozen amazing tunes in that one session, which became a lot of the pillars of modern Cajun music and have crept their way into American mainstream music, such as 'Jolie Blonde,' which was written by Amedée Breaux.
Mouton: My grandmother was not a blonde.
I think this was an experience my, uh, Papap ''Medee had with a young blonde, and she--she left him, and, uh, it really tore him up.
Pat Breaux: I always known it as 'Jolie Blonde,' but they called it-- 'Ma Blonde Est Partie.'
'Ma Blonde Est Partie.'
Yeah. That means 'My Blonde is Gone.'
Amedée Breaux: ♪ Jolie blonde ♪ ♪ Regardez donc quoi t''as fait ♪ ♪ Tu m''as quitte ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller ♪ ♪ Avec un autre, oui, que moi ♪ ♪ Quel espoir et quel avenir ♪ ♪ Mais, moi, je vais avoir? ♪ [Music continuing] Amedée Breaux: ♪ Jolie blonde ♪ ♪ Tu m''as laisse, moi tout seul ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller ♪ ♪ Chez ta famille ♪ ♪ Si t''aurais pas ecoute ♪ ♪ Tos les conseils de les autres ♪ ♪ Tu serait ici-t-avec moi aujourd ''hui ♪ [Music continuing] Pat Breaux: 'Jolie blonde, jolie fille.'
That means 'pretty blonde, pretty girl.'
'Tu m''as quitte pour t''en aller'-- 'You left me for another.'
'Jolie Blonde, tu m''as laisse, moi tout seul'-- 'Jolie Blonde, you left me all alone.'
Gary Breaux: It was all based on a broken heart.
[Music fading] Michot: It''s such a sad lament of his love life, and it''s such a--it''s a song that just really touches you so deeply, you can feel his pain.
And in that way, you know, Cajun music is really-- it''s--it''s the blues.
When 'Jolie Blonde' became a hit in the late Thirties, that was the first time that Cajun music really entered American mainstream.
Over time, 'Jolie Blonde' became known as the Cajun national anthem.
You know, it''s been performed by people as big as Bruce Springsteen, something that he performed nationally, uh, all the time.
Waylon Jennings did a version of it with Buddy Holly producing it and playing guitar.
Waylon Jennings: ♪ Jolie blonde, jolie fille ♪ Roy Acuff did it, Moon Mullican, and they all got it from Harry Choates.
Harry Choates made it a national hit.
You know, it was on the charts.
Harry Choates got it from Crowley''s own Amedée Breaux.
That little guy right there in 1929 recorded 'Ma Blonde Est Partie,' which became known as 'Jolie Blonde.'
Gary Breaux: Your dad, he had Amedée''s accordion.
Do you happen to have it?
Mouton: I''ve got it right here.
Wow. It''s, uh, it''s, uh, uh, been restored.
They had more than one accordion at these sessions, and could be this accordion that actually recorded 'Jolie Blonde.' Yeah.
This is, uh, Uncle Ophy, one of the brothers.
This is his, uh, his fiddle, which Dad has kept.
Also, I have the tit-fers, or the irons, that, uh, they also used.
[Cajun music playing] Michot: Cajun music is passed down through families.
And just like the Breaux family, it was the same thing for them.
They all played it as a family.
You''re playing your traditional music, but you''re also incorporating other elements of the music you hear around you.
And, you know, it''s-- it''s the natural wont of-- of any--of any culture, especially any artist, to want to be relevant and to want to play music that appeals to people of your day, but still to hold, you know, what you need to bring forward in your own tradition.
[Playing 'Jolie Blonde'] ♪ Jolie blonde ♪ ♪ Tu m''as laisse, moi tout seul ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller ♪ ♪ Chez ta famille ♪ ♪ Si t''aurais pas ecoute ♪ ♪ Tos les conseils de les autres ♪ ♪ Tu serait ici-t-avec moi aujourd ''hui ♪ ♪ Oh ♪ [Music continuing] All: ♪ Jolie blonde ♪ ♪ Jolie fille ♪ ♪ Tu m''as quitte ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller ♪ ♪ Pour t''en aller avec un autre, oui, que moi ♪ ♪ Quel espoir et quel avenir, mais, moi, je vais avoir? ♪ [Exclaims indistinctly] [Song ends] [Guitar playing] Man: ♪ John Henry ♪ ♪ Was a steel-driving man ♪ ♪ Yes, he went down ♪ ♪ Well, he went down ♪ [Playing guitar] ♪ Just take this hammer ♪ ♪ And carry it to my captain ♪ ♪ Oh, tell him I''m gone ♪ ♪ Won''t you tell him I''m gone? ♪ Pete Seeger: John, we got time.
Tell a little bit about how you first made a record, way, way back in 1927. You remember?
''28--pardon me--and ''29, um, well, listen, I learned to play guitar.
I had no teacher.
I was just a 8-year-old boy.
I''d go in and go to bed, but I wouldn''t go to sleep.
I''d keep playing. I''d get the guitar, and I... [Playing very quietly] Seeger: Ha ha!
I kept on at that till I learned to play one number, and I said, 'Wow.'
And when I learned to play that number, why, I didn''t care who heard it then.
[Laughter] [Guitar playing] Redford: The odyssey of Mississippi John Hurt, from his original discovery in the 1920s to his rediscovery in the Sixties, is the saga of American Epic in microcosm.
In the abandoned hamlet of Avalon, Mississippi, we meet John Hurt''s granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt, outside the humble cabin where he once lived.
Mary Frances Hurt: You know, when I talk about Avalon, and you say, 'Oh, it''s nothing there, it''s just a sign,' but I remember where my parents used to live, and I remember, um, all of the families that--that used to live there, the store that used to be there, and the cotton gin and everything.
This town existed, and it was a real place.
Real families, real people lived there.
[Birds chirping] Woman: It was a tiny, little village with 3 grocery stores.
Well, I say 'grocery stores.'
They--the stores contained everything from plows and...I mean, even mules.
Mary Frances Hurt: When I was a kid, he lived above the store, and he would be standing always by the mailbox, just like he was waiting for somebody to come up the hill, and-- and he always had this radiant smile.
His smile was like a pebble thrown in the lake, and it would just spread and it was just so...wonderful.
People just knew him as Mississippi John Hurt, but he was Daddy John.
Man: The store here was a gathering place, especially on Saturday night.
John Hurt, he spent many a hour playing music inside the store and on the porch out here.
When he started recording records, it just kinda made everyone here happy.
[Fiddle and guitar playing] Redford: In 1928, Tommy Rockwell, a producer for OKeh Records, and his engineer Bob Stephens traveled to Memphis in search of new artists.
These are remarks from--from Bob Stephens, the, uh, engineer who was, uh, there with, uh, Tommy Rockwell in Memphis in 1928.
'Tommy Rockwell and I went on our field trip to Memphis, 'where we already had some acts set up to record.
'Tommy told me he could take care of things, 'and he suggested that I take a trip 'down the Mississippi Delta and see what I could find 'in the way of race stuff, 'then come back inland for hillbilly stuff.
'So I stopped in all the little towns 'and the local record stores to see what was going on, 'and I wound up in Jackson, Mississippi, 'and I thought, ''To hell with it. This is ridiculous!'' 'So I suggested we organize an old-time fiddling contest.
'The winners would get an OKeh contract.
While this was going on,' Mr. Stephens adds, 'we kept hearing about some wild blues singer 'named Mississippi John Hurt, so we set out to find him.
'The trouble we had!
'Finally, we tracked him down late at night.
'We had to put the headlights on to the door 'of his shack before we knocked.
'This guy came to the door and damn near turned white 'when he saw us; he thought we were a lynching party.
'We told him who we were, and he asked us in.
'He threw a few logs on the fire.
'He took out his guitar and starts to sing.
'He was great!
'So we booked him into Memphis, he made a few sides for us, and then he disappeared again.'
Well, he didn''t, really. [Chuckles] Redford: In Memphis, Tommy Rockwell and Bob Stephens recorded John Hurt in the McCall Building.
[Guitar playing] Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Frankie went down ♪ ♪ To the corner saloon, didn''t go to be gone long ♪ ♪ She peeped through the keyhole in the door ♪ ♪ And spied Albert in Alice''s arms ♪ ♪ 'He''s my man' ♪ ♪ 'And he done me wrong' ♪ Redford: 'Frankie' is based on the 1899 shooting of Albert Britt by his lover, Frankie Baker, after she caught him in bed with another woman.
As 'Frankie and Johnny,' it became a popular standard, recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley, but John Hurt sang an earlier version, closer to the true story.
Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Frankie shot old Albert ♪ ♪ And she shot him 3 or 4 times ♪ ♪ Says, 'Stroll back, I''d smoke my gun' ♪ 'Let me see is Albert dying' ♪ ♪ 'He''s my man' ♪ ♪ 'And he done me wrong' ♪ Redford: After the recording session, John Hurt went home to Avalon.
A few weeks later, he received a record in the mail.
The only problem: he had nothing to play it on.
Man: So he had to ask the woman whose land he was looking after the cows on, could--would she kindly play the record for him.
So she said, 'Well, now, all right, John.
'I''ll--I''ll leave you standing outside the screen door, and I''ll crank it up for you so you can hear it, you know.'
And she got--got it done, took it back, said, 'Oh, that''s you on that record, isn''t it?'
Redford: That woman''s daughter is Annie Cook, and she remembers that day.
Cook: We had the old-time Victrola that you cranked.
And, uh, it was just unbelievable, just like when we got the first car, how exciting something like that was then.
Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Frankie and the judge ♪ ♪ Walked down on the stand ♪ ♪ They walked out side-to-side ♪ ♪ The judge says to Frankie ♪ ♪ 'You''re gonna be justified' ♪ ♪ 'For killing a man' ♪ ♪ 'And he done you wrong' ♪ [Music continuing] Isn''t that pretty?
I think it is.
Redford: Before long, John Hurt received a letter from Tommy Rockwell, asking him to come to New York City for more recordings.
There, he recorded one of his most popular songs, 'Candy Man.'
Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Well, all you ladies ♪ ♪ All gather round ♪ ♪ That good, sweet candy man''s in town ♪ ♪ It''s the candy man ♪ ♪ It''s the candy man ♪ [Guitar playing] ♪ He likes a stick of candy just 9 inch long ♪ ♪ He sells as fast a hog can chew his corn ♪ ♪ It''s the candy man ♪ ♪ It''s the candy man ♪ Redford: Homesick and lost in the big city, Hurt composed 'Avalon Blues,' a heartfelt tribute to his hometown.
['Avalon Blues' playing] ♪ Got to New York this mornin'', just about half past 9 ♪ ♪ Hollerin'' one mornin'' in Avalon ♪ ♪ Couldn''t hardly keep from cryin'' ♪ Redford: Hurt returned to Avalon, picking up odd jobs to survive, and waited to hear more from OKeh.
But the Depression hit, and the entire record business fell on hard times.
Hurt wrote to the company in New York, offering to make new recordings.
His letters went unanswered.
For 35 years, he eked out a living by sharecropping and minding cows, only playing music for his family and neighbors.
By the 1950s, Mississippi John Hurt''s records were forgotten, except by a small circle of collectors searching junk-store record bins for his battered 78s.
He had recorded 20 songs for OKeh.
Seven of those performances have never been found.
Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ It''s the candy man ♪ [Guitar playing] Redford: Archivists like Michael Brooks have devoted their lives to preserving the surviving record masters, which were known as 'metal parts.'
Brooks: These metal parts are really a part of history because music reflects what goes on in a country, in the world, and this is rea-- American history here.
And there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these made.
And in the Depression, metal was a good source to melt down and sell.
A popular tune from 1926 meant nothing in 1934, so toss it out.
And then the next, uh, you know, decimation of these parts came in World War II, which was far greater because everyone was looking around for scrap metal.
Everything went to the war effort, so, you know, a Louis Armstrong, a Carter Family, a Jimmie Rodgers, they''re melted down, given to the government, and, uh, remade into, uh, weapons of mass destruction.
And you think, you know, there might be a Mississippi John Hurt being dropped over Germany or something, so there isn''t that much left anymore.
I would say that, um, metal parts pre-, say, pre-mid Thirties, I would say 90%''s gone, so we are trying to reconstruct what, uh, happened in the-- in the world, what the popular music was, and we have to scratch around to find things.
Redford: In the 1950s, a few small record labels began releasing vinyl compilations of rare recordings by little-known figures, like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Sleepy John Estes, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Brooks: This is a copy of the, uh, famous Harry Smith 'Anthology of American Folk Music,' the way it appeared when Folkways Records first published it.
John Hurt was represented by two cuts on that record.
This is the original edition.
It had the red cover, and if you took the records out too often, the--the edges began to split up on the ends and, uh, this is-- this is from 1952.
This is, like, a thousand years ago.
It''s very much a product of its time.
Redford: Soon, adventurous young record collectors were heading south in search of the artists who had made those precious 78s.
But Mississippi John Hurt seemed impossibly obscure, and few even dreamt he was alive.
[Guitar playing 'Avalon Blues'] Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Avalon, my hometown ♪ ♪ Always on my mind ♪ ♪ Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind ♪ ♪ Pretty mama''s in Avalon, want me there all the time ♪ Redford: Then one day, a collector named Dick Spottswood heard a rare copy of 'Avalon Blues.'
Spottswood: There was one John Hurt title that, uh, none of the Hurt fans, such as we were in the late 1950s, had ever heard.
And the first thing I heard was the lyric that says, 'Avalon is my hometown, it''s always on my mind,' and so I extrapolated from that that there must be a place in Mississippi called Avalon, and, uh, went to the atlas to look it up, and, uh, there it was.
It was clear by just looking at the map that it wasn''t anything more than a speck on the road.
When another friend decided that he was going to go down to the Mardis Gras in New Orleans in 1963, I looked at the map again, and I said, 'It''s not too far 'out of your way to stop by Avalon, Mississippi, and see if anybody has ever heard of John Hurt.'
And so he did, and, uh, the first person he asked gave him directions to John Hurt''s house.
Mississippi John Hurt: ♪ Avalon is a small town... ♪ Mary Frances Hurt: He goes, 'Are you the person that made this song?' He goes, 'Yeah.'
And he said, 'Can you play the song?'
And Daddy John responded, 'I could if I had a guitar.'
And the guy had a guitar, so he played the song for him.
And--and he goes, 'Do you know that--how famous you are?'
And Daddy John''s like, 'No'-- [laughs]--you know?
Uh, he goes, 'No.'
Uh, he--he--he had no idea.
Redford: Looking for the best way to introduce John Hurt to a world of new listeners, Dick Spottswood managed to get him booked as a last-minute attraction for the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
Compere: Dick Spottswood. Dick?
Spottswood: I''ve been asked to say a few words about John, so I''ll make it brief as possible so you can hear him play himself.
When we found him this spring, he hadn''t played guitar for years, but he picks it up now and plays like a champ.
It''s been quite a while since I...did any of this, and I''m--I''m real happy to be with y''all.
You know, I can''t help but be happy.
Last, uh--I remember doing much of this, why, I was with the OKeh Company, record for them in ''28 and ''29.
So...Spottswood discovered me down in Avalon, Mississippi.
Why, I thought it was real funny.
I think, 'Why, what have I did?
Here''s the FBI looking for me. I ain''t did nothing.'
[Laughter] So the first little number I''ll do here is 'Stack O''Lee.'
♪ Police officer ♪ ♪ How can it be? ♪ ♪ You can ''rest everybody ♪ ♪ But cruel Stack O''Lee? ♪ ♪ That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O''Lee ♪ ♪ Billy de Lyon said, 'Stack O''Lee,' ♪ ♪ 'Please don''t take my life' ♪ ♪ Says, 'I got two little babies and a darlin'', lovin'' wife'... ♪ Redford: John Hurt was the surprise hit of the festival and inspired a new generation, including the young Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal: When I first heard John Hurt''s music, it was like he was somebody I was looking for.
He was like the--the... the musical grandfather you were looking for.
He had another key to the musical universe.
And I tried real hard to learn how to play like him, you know.
[Playing 'Stack O''Lee'] Taj Mahal: But then there''s tunes like 'Louis Collins.'
'Louis Collins' was about something that happened real close to him.
Louis Collins got into a fight with somebody and got shot, and instead of taking it from the bar-fight scene, which is in the song, he talks from-- from the--Louis Collins'' mother and, you know, 'Mrs. Collins weeped, Mrs. Collins moaned.
'Moaning for Louis Collins that''s dead and gone.
The angels laid him away.'
You know, the gentleness really came through in him.
Record collector Ken Swerilas shot footage of John Hurt playing 'Louis Collins' in a small club in Los Angeles.
It''s the only known color footage of Hurt performing.
[Playing 'Louis Collins'] ♪ Mrs. Collins weeped, Mrs. Collins moaned ♪ ♪ To see her son Louis leavin'' home ♪ ♪ The angels laid him away ♪ ♪ Oh, the angels laid him away ♪ ♪ They laid him 6 feet under the clay ♪ ♪ The angels laid him away ♪ [Song ends] [Birds chirping] Mary Frances Hurt: This place, the sounds, the beauty of all of this, he loved that.
And he came early one morning just to make sure that he just caught the right rays in the sun and everything.
And he--he had a stroke.
He never, uh, recovered from this stroke.
And I would say it was a tragedy, but he died the way he loved, and he''s buried in this place.
Daddy John is home.
[Birds chirping] Cook: Well, you always heard that black was beautiful, and John was one beautiful man.
He was kind, and he was... loved people, and people loved him.
I just wish we had more like him.
[Guitar playing] ♪ John Henry was a steel-driving man ♪ ♪ Oh, he went down ♪ ♪ Well, he went down ♪ ♪ This is the hammer that killed John Henry ♪ ♪ But it won''t kill me ♪ ♪ It won''t kill me ♪ ♪ It won''t kill me ♪ ♪ John Henry was a steel-driving man ♪ ♪ Oh, he went down ♪ ♪ Well, he went down ♪ ♪ Well, he went down ♪ [Applause and whistling] Well, I was, I was because I had never... you know, I made records, and that was the end of it.
Made some records then I''d go back home.
Well...I had never... did anything more... more than just played a little music around, through the country once in a while.
It was just music?
Just music. That''s right.
Well, I didn''t know what this folk music was.
I began to...kinda learn what they mean now by 'folk music.'
Uh, I think it means... songs that, uh... what I''d call maybe died out, you know, went--went back and they...renewed them.
Is that right? Am I right?
Well, you know, I read it in the Bible.
It says the older men teach the younger ones.
I''m--I''m--I''m glad I got something that they want.
[Chuckles] Bob Dylan: ♪ In the jingle jangle morning ♪ ♪ I''ll come followin'' you ♪ [Cheering] Man: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
[Rumbling] Man 2: It''s an inspiring thing to see a launch.
The light flares from the rocket, but the sound travel time takes a while, so the rocket starts climbing in silence.
Great flocks of sea birds sprang up from the mangroves as the sound reached them, so you see this craft ascending from the flights of sea birds.
Ferris: Voyager was a mission to study the outer planets of the solar system, and when you''d fly past the giant planet Jupiter, your spacecraft is accelerated to a speed such that it will never return to the solar system.
It simply leaves and then drifts among the stars of the Milky Way galaxy forever.
The astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had the idea that if you made a phonograph record, you could put music and also encoded photos and sounds and things about the Earth, and attach it to these two interstellar spacecraft.
I produced the Voyager record and was involved in, uh, selecting the music.
Ferris: The world contains many sorts of people, and there''s no such thing as a best kind of music.
You know, it''s not the Olympics; some composer doesn''t win.
Some of the most advanced music we have is Western, classical music and there''s some of that on Voyager.
Bach and Beethoven, these are wonderful accomplishments, but as those composers themselves would have told you-- Bach, for instance, at age 16, was a fiddler at hoe-downs; Beethoven was a student of folk music-- music comes up from the great mass of people.
It comes up from everyone, the most common folks, and has forever.
There aren''t any humans who don''t, uh, participate in music in--in some way.
Ferris: I came across this remarkable Blind Willie Johnson field recording, made in Texas, 1927 called 'Dark Was the Night - Cold Was the Ground.'
The melody is adopted from an old Scots hymn, goes back many centuries, and was transformed by Willie Johnson.
In this recording, he didn''t include any lyrics, he just sang it as a moan over his guitar instrumental.
It had a timeless quality to it.
It''s certainly a piece about the hardship and tragedy of life and the feeling of being alone and desperate and homeless.
Night has yet to fall anywhere on the planet without touching men and women in exactly that situation.
So one of my first priorities was let''s put this recording on this record intended to last for billions of years.
[Guitar playing] [Blind Willie Johnson humming] [Johnson vocalizing] ♪ Lord ♪ [Humming resumes] Announcer: Next time on 'American Epic'... Man: This is the kind of machine they recorded on in 1929, so who we should we record in this Twenties style?
Let''s record everybody in this style: rappers... ♪ She''s on the road again ♪ ♪ Sure as you''re born ♪ pop singers... ♪ Two fingers of whiskey ♪ country artists... ♪ Got that old-fashioned ♪ ♪ Love in my heart ♪ Nas: Recording here, it''s like that time machine.
It brought me back to that world.
Announcer: 'The American Epic Sessions.'
♪ Bend your body ♪ ♪ Bend your body to the heavens above ♪