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The history of popular music is littered with examples of trailblazers who, for whatever reason - poor luck, bad deals, being ahead of their time - didn't get the props they deserved. Sometimes, time catches up with them and at the heart of Arena's excellent new documentary series American Epic are scores of songwriters whose influence on the course of music in the US and beyond is finally coming into focus.

This list looks at three featured in the series, alongside four others, and we're just scratching the surface. Who do you think has been overlooked by music history? We'd love to hear your views on Twitter.

Will Shade

[WATCH] BBC Four - Arena, American Epic: Rapper Nas explains the significance of Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band

Part 1 of American Epic tells the story of how record companies travelled the American south in the 1920s recording the music of ordinary working people. "It was the first time America heard itself," narrator Robert Redford says, before giving over the second half of the episode to Will Shade, driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.

Groups like the Memphis Jug Band were too poor to afford instruments, so they made do with what they could get their hands on, including jugs, washboards and kazoos. Shade's group got a reputation performing on Beale Street in Memphis in the 20s and 30s, and became famous locally, playing to both black and white people. Their raw sound is credited as being proto-rhythm and blues, yet when that style of music, along with swing, took over in the 40s and 50s, the Memphis Jug Band faded from view.

In the above clip Nas makes a direct link between the group and rap music today, saying: "The Memphis Jug Band, it sounds like something today. These guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honour, chasing after someone who’s done them dirty… This is not high-society black folks they're singing about; this is the down-under, street, wild black folks. And it's the same as rap music today."

Shade counted electric blues musician Charlie Musselwhite among his friends and admirers. In the episode, Musselwhite recalls that Shade would sing the song I'll Get a Break Before Long later in life. He died in 1966 without anyone really knowing his music, but now, as Musselwhite says: "All these years later, right down on Beale Street by Handy Park there's a brass note with Will's name right on it."

Grandmaster Caz

[LISTEN] BBC World Service - Grandmaster Caz on his role in hip hop's first big hit, Rapper's Delight

The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight is an iconic song in the history of American music - hip hop's first hit. It begins with Wonder Mike's legendary lyrics, "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / To the hip hip hop and you don't stop / The rock it to the bang bang boogie," before the second MC on the track, Big Bank Hank, comes in with his verse: "Check it out, I'm the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y / You see, I go by the code of the doctor of the mix and these reasons I'll tell you why."

And if you've always wondered why someone called Big Bank Hank introduced himself as Casanova Fly, it's because he reportedly nicked his rhymes from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, previously known as Casanova Fly.

In 2014, Caz told the BBC World Service what happened (above, from four minutes): "Hank and I were friends and Hank got a job in a pizza shop in New Jersey, called Crispy Crust Pizza. One day, Sylvia Robinson [Sugar Hill Records co-founder and producer of Rapper's Delight] walks in and hears him lip-synching to one of my tapes. She asked him, 'Why don't you come outside and do that for my songs - we're auditioning people to become part of this group I'm putting together."

Hank, who was also Caz's manager, got the job and became a star. Caz never sued and never got a credit, unlike Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who threatened legal action over the use of their song Good Times in Rapper's Delight.

"Chic's Nile Rodgers wasn't happy, but he now says Rapper's Delight is one of his favourite tracks," The Sugarhill Gang's Master Gee recently told the Guardian. "It is one of his most lucrative - we gave him a credit. Then it turned out that Hank's rhymes had been written by another MC, Grandmaster Caz. We've given him credit in public and done shows with him, and he's cool about it. But I'm sure it bothers him every time he hears it."

Laura Nyro

In a 2010 Guardian article, music journalist and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley credits Laura Nyro with being "the first non-folk female singer-songwriter", adding: "She defied all categories in the late-60s, and Laura Nyro's music makes more sense now, after four decades of her influence trickling down."

Her style was to combine elements of doo-wop and soul into Brill Building-like songwriting - best exemplified on the albums Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969) - and she might have become very famous indeed if she hadn't asked filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker to not include her performance in his film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, convinced that she'd been booed while playing. However, a new profile of Nyro in Uncut magazine reveals that when Pennebaker reviewed his footage in 1997, he discovered that the audience were crying out, "Beautiful!" Nyro died from ovarian cancer, aged just 49, before she could take up Pennebaker's offer to watch the footage again.

Nyro also turned down the chance to play Woodstock, but she was well-known and highly respected by other musicians at the time. Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand and The 5th Dimension all had hits with her songs in the late-60s and early-70s, and she would go on to influence countless other songwriters, including Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Tori Amos and Bette Midler, who presented a Radio 2 documentary about Nyro in 2005.

Nyro became a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2012, 15 years after her death.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

One thread running through American Epic is how powerful an influence the church and gospel music has had on secular popular music. Part 2 begins with Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing a gospel song that she originally recorded in the 1940s, Up Above My Head, on TV in 1964 - just as bandleader Al Hirt was having a hit with it. Elvis also performed the song in his 1968 TV special, Elvis, yet it's taken till recent times for the importance of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to be truly acknowledged.

In the American Epic clip, she's playing an electric guitar - an instrument that she pioneered. "Nobody - not Chuck Berry, not Scotty Moore, not James Burton, not Keith Richards - played wilder or more primal rock 'n' roll guitar than this woman who gave her life to God and would have celebrated her 100th birthday on 20 March," wrote Richard Williams in the Guardian in 2015. "With a Gibson SG in her hands, Sister Rosetta could raise the dead. And that was before she started to sing."

It's not surprising that she was known as The Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll, but she's just as legendary for becoming the first gospel artist to cross over into the pop world - in the 30s and 40s, long before rock 'n' roll was even close to becoming a phenomenon.

The Winstons' Gregory C. Coleman

[LISTEN] BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra's Stories - The Amen Break

Amen Brother by funk group The Winstons - an instrumental B-side to 1969 single Color Him Father - might have been completely lost to time if it wasn't for the 6-second drum break in the middle, played by Gregory C. Coleman. After it was included on a 1986 bootleg compilation Ultimate Breaks and Beats, it became widely sampled by hip hop producers, including by N.W.A on Straight Outta Compton and Mantronix on King of the Beats.

As Kutski explores in the above Radio 1 and 1Xtra Story, what became known as the Amen Break soon started appearing as the foundation stone of UK rave music, jungle and drum 'n' bass and is now thought to have been used in over 2,000 different tracks, with combined sales of many millions. It's perhaps the most influential six seconds of drumming in music history, yet neither Coleman nor the song's rights holder, Winston's frontman Richard Spencer, received a cent from its use by producers. According to Spencer, Coleman died "homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia" in 2006.

Following the Radio 1 documentary, British DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald set up a crowdfunding page to get Spencer paid, and in 2015 he was given £24,000.

Daphne Oram

Daphne Oram in 1958 playing an Arabic reed pipe, while Radiophonic Workshop engineer Richard Bird records the sound on a tape machine
Daphne Oram in 1958 playing an Arabic reed pipe, while Radiophonic Workshop engineer Richard Bird records the sound on a tape machine

It's unlikely that electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram would have expected to hit the big time in a traditional sense - she was, after all, employed on a salary by the BBC for many years, starting out as a sound engineer in 1943, aged 18, before becoming one of the Radiophonic Workshop's original studio managers when it was established - on her insistence - in 1958. While at the Workshop, she came into contact with experimental composers such as Stockhausen and John Cage, prompting her to leave just a year later, convinced that "her heart was in creating music for its own sake rather than as background music", as her BBC obituary reported.

Oram set up her own studio in Kent, Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, where she practised techniques credited with laying the foundation for modern electronic music production. Her obituary was headlined "Daphne Oram, the unsung pioneer of techno" and it quotes Chris Oram: "She lived music. She was as poor as a church mouse, because any money that came to her went into her music gadgets. To me she was a kindly rather eccentric aunt. But she had a very clear vision of how the computer would revolutionise electronic music."

A compilation of her music, Oramics, was released in 2007.

Charley Patton

[WATCH] BBC Four - Arena, American Epic: Taj Mahal explains how Charley Patton captured the struggles of life in the cotton fields

"The influence of Charley Patton cannot be understated," says fellow blues musician Taj Mahal in the above clip from Part 2 of American Epic. "Charley was a force of nature - incredible voice. It's kind of like a masking style, where you create a character with a voice, and then you comment on what this character is doing."

This multi-personality, or split-personality, songwriting method only adds to the mystique of Charley Patton, who released his first three records under different names, including The Masked Marvel, a kind of comic book character. Only one photo of him exists, no film footage, and no one is absolutely sure of his heritage, although it's now assumed he was mixed race.

Did he invent the blues? He was certainly one of its originators and there's a direct link between him - thought to be born in 1891 - and other musicians who took the blues to a global audience, especially Howlin' Wolf, who would go and see Patton perform at the Dockery Plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi when he was a young man (he was taught by Patton, too).

Patton was a drinker and a hell-raiser, who toured the US and startled audiences with flamboyant performances and guitar tricks. One man who was impressed was Robert Johnson, who combined Patton's style with the latest sounds from Chicago and, as narrator Robert Redford says in the film, "made the most famous Delta blues recordings of all time". Truly, music was never the same again.

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