Sunday, January 3, 2016

The American epic story to be told.

Last summer I was consulted for the upcoming PBS / BBC documentary, American Epic.

The project promises to be a story that's never been told about American music history and it seems to be specifically interested in the early days of music recording. St. Louis' Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three outfit are recording some music for it and it's got celebrities like T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White behind it.

They contacted me to ask where a 1927 recording session by Okeh records might have taken place in St. Louis and they suggested that possible locations might have been a warehouse or a furniture or phonograph store, perhaps within walking distance from a train station.

It's very encouraging that they are interested in the overlooked music history of St. Louis because that is the big missing piece of the American music story. And their question underscores the fact that St. Louis' vital music history is still completely unknown to the rest of the world.

Their question assumes that recording music in St. Louis probably happened occasionally in a makeshift studio in a borrowed room close to where the train could drop off the traveling recording outfit, because that's the old story of how it happened in cities like Atlanta, Dallas, or Memphis. But that's not how it was in St. Louis.

By the 1920’s, St. Louis was in its third or fourth decade of pioneering and creating the music business - everything from talent scouting to product selling.

St. Louis performers and creators were making the first songs of the American songbook while St. Louis entrepreneurs were creating the field of distributing, marketing and retailing the hit records.

Some of the earliest commercial music recordings were cylinder recordings made of St. Louis singers in downtown studios before the turn of the century.

In the first decades of the 20th century the big stars of St. Louis ragtime like Tom Turpin were still producing America’s first popular music genre while Columbia and Brunswick Records were recording early St. Louis jazz.

The Mound City Blue Blowers sparked the public demand for hot jazz recordings while the legendary St. Louis women defined the blues singer genre. Then St. Louis expanded that category by recording a blues song with a male singer. And St. Louis was responsible for the guitarist-singer-songwriter prototype that eventually became the dominating style of American pop music.

 The Artophone company began in St. Louis in 1918 and partnered with Okeh and Paramount selling race and hillbilly records by mail order to the rural South. Their Herwin record label and St. Louis Music Company employed many of the local blues artists and one of their first big hits was St. Louis jazz legend Charlie Creath's Market Street Blues.

The recording studio would have been on the upper floor of their offices on Pine Street, not only a few blocks away from the train station, but also just a few blocks from where Scott Joplin launched ragtime, and where Tram and Bix sat in with jazz originators, and where Lonnie Johnson won the first blues contest.

It’s great that we have created far-reaching interest for the story of St. Louis’ music, but the city still has not invested in its unique and significant part of American music history. It’s the story that has been told - in the book Devil At The Confluence.

Kevin Belford, 2015.