Celebrating 5 Years of The 78 Project – “Roses While I’m Living”

We always feel fortunate that The 78 Project has brought us together with old friends and new. And so it was – 5 years ago this month – that a gathering of friends listened on as The Mynabirds cut a 78 in a Brooklyn backyard.

First posted Jan. 2, 2012:
Episode #3: The Mynabirds “Roses While I’m Living”

It seems like we started another life when we started The 78 Project. One filled with humbling challenges we couldn’t have ever imagined we’d face (a few swipes of a paintbrush and a tiny needle are all that stand between failure and success?) but also overflowing with momentum and awe.

And so it is fitting that The Mynabirds‘ episode should come first in the new year, 2012. The shoot was a celebration of our first week of filming for The 78 Project, and the spirit of the night was one of joy and gratitude. We gathered friends together in Brooklyn for a backyard party, dragged the piano outside and, after dark, The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn sang for us. Her song, Dock Boggs’ “Roses While I’m Living,” is about appreciating life while we live it and appreciating those we love while they are around to receive it.

We wish you a Happy New Year with joy and gratitude! We hope 2012 brings you excitement and comfort in equal measure. And we hope to see you in person, perhaps record you, but definitely share with you the indescribable beauty of sound captured the old fashioned way. 

With deepest appreciation,
The 78 Project

Celebrating 5 Years of The 78 Project – “I Got Mine”

The date was the 5th of September, 2012. We were in Memphis, grateful to be able to cut one last 78 before the journey home.

First posted Dec. 12, 2012:
Episode #13: Sid Selvidge & Steve Selvidge “I Got Mine”

A beautiful afternoon filled with end-of-summer sunlight hid the rainstorm that was on the horizon. Our week in Memphis had been full of surprises, and our last day there was no different.

Sid walked in first, and his son Steve followed with their guitars.  While we set up, father and son filled the room with stories of Memphis past and present.  Sid can tell tales of Tennessee music for days, and you’d never want to miss one minute.  He’s been there for it, and not only can he tell it, he can play it for you, too.

They settled in to pick and slide through a mischievous version of “I Got Mine,” two styles of playing that spin on the same axis.  And when the story was told and the song finished, we heard two generations echo “It’s a record.”

Our deepest thanks to Ward Archer. For so many things!

Celebrating 5 Years of The 78 Project – “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”

On our first Southern Journey to make The 78 Project Movie, the 4th of September, 2012 found us in a Como, Mississippi chapel, where the Reverend John Wilkins cut a timeless 78 acetate disk.

First posted Sept. 10, 2012:
Red Ants and Rainstorms, Fathers and Sons: The 78 Project in Memphis

Tropical rainstorms were turning the streets of Memphis into rivers, but inside the Hi Tone we were safe and sound, tucked in and battened down to make an acetate with John Paul Keith. We thought for sure some of the raging rain would make it onto John Paul’s rendition of “The Knoxville Girl,” but when we played it back, it was as pure and sweet and clear as a brutal murder song can be, a testament to John Paul’s skills as a singer and a scholar of music.

Driving around Memphis, we saw the effects of Hurricane Isaac in downed trees and sodden grass, but everyone seemed in great spirits.  It was a holiday weekend, and everyone was manning a BBQ and humming a tune, in their element as Memphians.  Our host for the week was our dear friend Ward of Archer Records, and he showed us infinite generosity, trading us his breakfast table (we turned it into our base of Memphis operations) for a couple mornings worth of Stumptown and some good conversation.

We were eager to see Luther Dickinson in his home state of Mississippi, after having such a wonderful time recording with him and his Memphis supergroup The Wandering in New York back in May.  He led us down to Hernando, to the DeSoto County Museum to make a recording on the porch in the shimmery heat of the afternoon. Luther played a mean streak through “Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues” and the floorboards creaked to his time.  You can’t tell a bluesman not to stomp his foot, however, and that’s all we’ll say about that for now.

Tuesday was a marathon day with three recordings planned.  We faced it bravely, rising early to take over St. Mary’s Cathedral for the morning with Star & Micey with Jeremy Stanfill.  The vaulted ceilings of a spectacular church showed the Presto more reverb than it had encountered in it’s wildest tube dreams (do Prestos dream of reverb-filled rooms?) and Josh, Nick, Geoff and Jeremy melted their voices together in lovely harmony.

The afternoon brought us back to Mississippi, this time to Hunter’s Chapel in Como.  The chapel is filled with the history of Mississippi music – Mississippi Fred McDowell and Othar Turner both attended and McDowell recorded there in 1964 – and the Reverend John Wilkins lives that musical legacy with his gospel blues singing and his devotion to the people of his church.  We had been told that the Reverend plays the hill country blues in the way of his father, the renowned singing Reverend Robert Wilkins.  And when we heard him, we saw that it was breathtakingly true.  He invited us in and made us feel at home in his chapel, then played for us “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” and “Jesus Will Fix It.” His rich voice and skilled finger-picking cast a transcendent spell over the room, and when he heard his record played back, his father’s voice echoed out from the lacquer.

WATCH: Reverend John Wilkins performs “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”

We promised to return for a Sunday service, and bid Reverend Wilkins farewell.  Red ants from the Mississippi ground stowed away in our shoes as we drove back for Memphis.  We had one more record to make that day.

Scott Bomar had invited us to join him and members of his band The Bo-Keys with Percy Wiggins at Molly Fontaine.  Six musicians was the largest group we’d ever attempted to work around one mic, but we were excited for the challenge.  Drums, upright bass, trumpet, sax, electric guitar and Percy’s powerful voice all found a space in a single groove, and afterwards we felt sure that the band’s version of “Deep River” would become the definitive one.

We couldn’t have wished for a more wonderful recording to make on our final day in Memphis.  Wednesday afternoon we had a visit from Sid Selvidge and his son Steve Selvidge.  They brought their guitars out and Sid unpacked some fascinating and laugh-out-loud stories from his lifelong search for songs and his great appreciation of his fellow musicians. He also unpacked a jaunty performance of the Frank Stokes song “I Got Mine.”  Sid recently found his voice had deepened, and he was very interested to hear it recorded on 78.  Every ounce of what makes him a folk scene hero was there in the record, and there was no denying that the family musical bonds between Sid and Steve are as strong as a double-wound steel string, their playing danced and joined together in joyful, rascally song.

Earlier in the week, to record with Luther, we’d taken the scenic route down through North Mississippi. Afterwards we’d felt so full of the place that we decided to continue on south for a while before heading back up to Memphis.  So as the sun set, we hit the road for Clarksdale, getting there as night fell in a fluttering cloud of insects and ghosts.  We visited the Crossroads, as you must, and drove into the deep darkness of the unpaved roads around the city to find a drink and some more history.  We returned to Memphis late in the night, coated in humidity and dotted with insect roadkill and possessed with a feeling that time had compressed to bring the past and future together at once. It summed up our time there in a nutshell, as Memphis and the region around it is a place that defies time.

Leaving Memphis wasn’t easy after the generosity the place had shown us, but we needed to make tracks for home.  As we crossed Tennessee, long spidery blasts of lightning crossed the sky and rain plowed down on us.  We felt honored that the state went to such great lengths to keep us inside it’s borders. But the cement and 6-lanes between us and home were calling, and we were excited to get back to start playing these amazing records and films for you.

Celebrating 5 Years of The 78 Project – “Omie Wise”

Determined to record this modern update of a centuries-old tale darkly told,  September 2 of 2011 found us in the tiny back room of a Brooklyn saloon.

First posted Nov. 24, 2011:
Episode #2 of The 78 Project: The Reverend John DeLore & Kara Suzanne “Omie Wise”

The 78 Project: The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne “Omie Wise”

The tragic tale of Omie Wise has traveled the generations for more than two hundred years. Murdered rather than married by her beloved and thrown into a river, Omie is a warning to beware the wolf in disguise. In the back of a cozy local saloon in Brooklyn, the afternoon light worked its way through the window and The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne settled in to recount the chilling tale of Omie Wise’s murder. But true to the folk tradition, the duo added their own personal spin to the story.

Buy the music on iTunes.

The Flipside: The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne “Wounded Knee”

Kara and John had another tale to tell once Omie was conjured and put to rest. And their mesmerizing voices and guitars had the assembled historians and barkeeps transfixed. So we flipped the record, and they sang The Reverend’s own beautiful song “Wounded Knee” for a new feature of The 78 Project called The Flipside.

Special thanks to the High Horse Saloon and Salon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for their generosity.

Celebrating 5 Years of The 78 Project

5 years isn’t such a long time in the nearly 80-year lifespan of our trusty Presto recorder. For us too, September 1st of 2011 seems like it was just yesterday, a brutally hot summer afternoon when we first set up the Presto and our cameras in the Children’s Garden of The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  We couldn’t possibly have imagined at the time that it would be the first step on a journey that has since taken us across the country and back a few times, and connected The 78 Project to audiences and listeners around the globe. It’s been 5 years of life changing experiences, and we’re grateful for all of it.

Please join us as we spend the next weeks celebrating beautiful performances by some of the amazing artists we’ve been fortunate to work with. And please also stay tuned for some exciting news ahead.

First posted Nov. 8, 2011:
Episode #1 of The 78 Project – Dawn Landes “The Brown Girl”

The 78 Project: Dawn Landes “The Brown Girl”

Under the sweltering late-summer sun, a small crew of filmmakers and audio historians capture Dawn Landes as she sings “The Brown Girl”. Cicadas drone, buses huff to a stop, bees hover lazily, sunflowers loom, and as the acetate spins, a song is carefully carved into its surface.

An age old and brutal choice: to marry for love or money? In the first side of Dawn Landes’ haunting 78, “The Brown Girl,” the noble Thomas chooses a plain brown girl with a dowry over his beautiful but land-less true love Ellender. Story songs like this one – which travelled from Scotland to the Appalachians over three hundred years – were the primetime dramas of the pre-television era. So the verses swiftly build into an epic, bloody tale with a twist. You can stream Side A of Dawn’s acetate here.

Buy the music on iTunes.

Special thanks to The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the farmers of the Children’s Garden who kindly harvested around us.

Star & Micey – “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

On a warm morning in Memphis, during our Southern Road Trip, we met Star & Micey in St. Mary’s Cathedral. They started the day with this sweet and haunting version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, and as the days warm up and we start this summer, we’re excited to share it with you.

We think about this performance often, the beauty of the sound and the setting, the way loneliness can be soothed by singing. So it was a joy to include it in the bonus materials included with The 78 Project Movie. And to share even more of this immense journey with you.

Star & Micey – “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”
Shot on the road in Memphis, TN September 4, 2012

Thank you again to the city of Memphis and all of our dear friends there.

“The Ballad of Jesse James” watch and hear Craig Finn’s live 78

We’ve been quiet this winter, planning for the road ahead, and pausing momentarily to take in all the beauty of the last two years. They have been eventful and exciting, and full of singular moments like this one.

This video and acetate by Craig Finn were shot and recorded at our joyful homecoming screening at IFC Center in New York City last June. He closed out the night with his distinctive interpretation of “The Ballad of Jesse James.”

Craig told us all how he had been drawn to a particular phrase in the song – He’d a hand and a heart and a brain – and when he sang it that night, that phrase summed up the spirit of the song perfectly: the danger of the life of an outlaw and the love of a lost hero.

Craig Finn – “The Ballad of Jesse James”
Shot at IFC Center in New York City, June 4, 2015

Thank you again to IFC Center for being our generous hosts. 

The Spirit Music of Gerard Dupuy

Winter’s spirits are all around us, in the bare trees and the silent snow. It brings to mind the spirits we met during our time Louisiana and our unforgettable stay at the home of the musician Gerard Dupuy.

The following video of and writings about our time spent in Gerard’s generous company originally appeared in the Oxford American.

This article originally appeared in the Oxford American, May 2014.

The Spirit Music of Gerard Dupuy

Inspired by the field recordings of Alan Lomax, director/producer Alex Steyermark and producer/recordist Lavinia Jones Wright created The 78 Project, an ongoing documentary journey to record today’s musicians with yesterday’s technology. Using just one microphone, an authentic 1930′s PRESTO direct-to-disc recorder, and a blank lacquer disc, the musicians are invited to cut a record anywhere they choose. The result is an artifact—a 78rpm record—and a new connection to our cultural legacy. 78 Project participant Rosanne Cash called the experience “time-travel.” Click here for “Back to the Future,” author William Gibson’s introduction to the project. 

Last summer, The 78 Project visited southern Louisiana to film and record Cajun music at the source, as Lomax had done in the 1930s.

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“Bonjour! Comment ça va?”

The Cajun Stump Jumper starts each phone call in French, and laughs in a deep, delighted rattle when he realizes that his French is not understood.  Fifty percent of The 78 Project speaks French fluently, but that half is always driving.

He barrels on in English, inviting us—commanding us, really—to stay in his house. His wife will make us dinner and we’ll go for a ride in his truck, check out his old cabin from the 1920s. Every sentence comes through the phone with an infectious joie de vivre. “A little pleasure with our business!” he says twice.

Though well-spoken, Gerard Dupuy’s English—like his French—flirts with slang, and, perhaps as a result of his having taught Adult Education at Angola prison for 30 years, he can be disarmingly direct. His accent is bending, and the tone of his voice commands the mood of the conversation. Throughout most of the summer, Gerard has been painting his house. He’s not finished yet, he tells us, but it is pas de problem—we can come whenever we’d like if we just give him about a week’s notice. He’ll cancel that day’s painting. He gives us his address and two routes to his place. One, he says, is more scenic. Then he pauses for a moment, listening to someone else in the room with him. “My wife says you all gonna get lost.” He laughs. “Don’t use your GPS. It’ll get you to my place eventually, but it’ll take you through a swamp.  It’s pretty! But I don’t think you’d make it.”

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We meet Gerard at a scrapyard in Moncla, and follow him down a long dirt road to his house. “We’re the north fort of Cajun culture!” Gerard tells us, as he parks his truck to lead us across his lawn and into the kitchen, where he removes the tobacco pipe from his mouth and takes a drink of water.

Moncla is a tiny corner of the town of Marksville, located in the ankle crease of Louisiana’s boot. The seat of the Avoyelles Parish, Marksville is a late-eighteenth-century hub of immigration where French, French-Canadian, Spanish, African, and Native American people mingled together. When Gerard calls it the north fort, he’s referring to the fact that these days the hub of traditional Cajun music sits to the south, in and around Lafayette—where we spent the early part of our week—in the arch of the sole.

Nothing we saw around Lafayette is a more genuine piece of folk art than Gerard’s house.  As he leads us through it, he explains how he has constructed it over his lifetime, one winding and intuitive section at a time. It’s a glorious, rambling narrative, varied in material and construction. The top-floor landing is flooded in the colored light from a grand 5-foot stained-glass church window, as if the house has one steady, kaleidoscopic eye on the bayou.

Gerard, wanting to show us the rest of his property, offers to drive us along the Red River that scribbles its northern border. We climb into his truck, worn-out from years of off-roading and construction work. The heat is stuck on in the cab. There’s a trick to getting the door to shut. Bottles, knives, and tools rattle around on the dashboard, musical instruments bang around in the bed.

Words spill from Gerard in a continuous, melodic stream, as if his whole lifetime of stories sits spring-loaded at the front of his mind, ready to unwind for each new set of ears. Though he stands only around five feet, he is solidly built and incredibly strong. In driving, his movements are light, quick, and confident. When he talks, he looks back and forth between the road and our faces, the worn leather hat that has molded itself to the shape of his head accenting the gesture. His stature and style cut a profile eerily similar to what you might imagine his French ancestors looked like two hundred years ago. His precious fiddle lies across our laps and bangs our knees as we barrel over the ruts and dips in the dirt road.

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Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who we recorded in Lafayette last week, recounted a story of his cousin in Marksville. He’s a fiddle player from the older generation, Louis said, and his signature is a Cyprus stump that he brings with him to gigs. He once saw Gerard fall back on the stump and continue playing wildly, rolling around, overcome, while his accordion player played on unfazed.

He’s the Cajun Stump Jumper, we said.

Cho! Co!

I didn’t know he was known that way!” Louis seemed excited at the new connection. “Just thought he was a guy who jumped a Cyprus stump.”

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Driving through the woods past his daughter’s house, Gerard asks us about our week in Louisiana so far. He wants to know about the young musicians we’ve seen and recorded in our travels around the country: from his own cousin Louis in Arnaudville to Sea of Bees in Sacramento, Little Wings in Topanga Canyon, Ella Mae Bowen in Nashville, Adam Arcuragi back home in New York, who Gerard knows from a bill they once shared in Marksville. We tell him we’ll record the band Feufollet in a few days in Lafayette.

The New Cajun is a culture of welcome. Welcome is what we have found everywhere. Xenophobic, insular culture, c’est passé. Today everyone can be Cajun. The young people of Louisiana tell us that they are learning to speak French by choice, learning accordion and fiddle out of respect for their heritage. For Alex, speaking the French of his mother’s Quebecois family each day is a deeply personal experience. And the curiosity of the musicians, their sincere eagerness to collaborate and share, is moving to us both. We all yearn to belong to something bigger than ourselves, and though each of our stories will be different, we are bonded by our journey to find them.

When we mention Feufollet, he wants to know what we know of the feux follets, the fires in the swamps; the little lights that some Cajuns believe lead you home and some believe lead you to mischief.

“Patchafa.” He says. He sees the lights sometimes, late at night. “Patchafa,” he repeats. “The swamp devil.” Gerard stops the truck periodically, grabs his fiddle, and jumps out to play it, trying the sounds everywhere, testing the air, singing a bit. His dogs, Hooch, Kijo and Gypsy, who’ve been following us, stop and wait patiently when he does this. Once Gerard feels satisfied, we move on.

Dupuy’s property is overgrown, and the road through it is worn with ruts so deep the truck gets stuck sometimes and we have to rock it out. He tells us the story of one Christmas when he was working at Angola and his truck got stuck in a snowdrift far out on the farm.  He had to radio for help and wait for the inmate on duty to come pull him out. Angola is a huge place, and he waited a long time in the dark.

We turn a bend in the road, and the 100-year-old wooden cabin appears. The forest around it crowds in close, but Gerard’s handiwork and love for the structure has kept it from being taken. He loans out the cabin for Civil War reenactments, he tells us. It doubles as a fort, and he doubles as a rebel (Dupuy’s grandfather was a Civil War soldier with a survival story that involved a hollow log and a spider web).

On the back porch we meet the famed Cyprus stump. Gerard shows us how it works, playing his fiddle while seated on the edge of it, stomping out a rhythm on a homemade pedal-and-pipe machine. He does not jump, the mood never reaches that pitch. It’s more of a mellow, early evening song.

Moving inside, he improvises a blues on guitar and harp.

Patchafa! The first will be last and the last will be first! 

He plays the whole house. The ceilings answer his feet on the floor. He is telling the story of our day so far, singing to the people and ideas that have passed through our conversation.

The song is done. A light rain starts to fall. A little look at the river, then it’s time to relax. A short mission into town and the truck is loaded with boudin, dried shrimp, Coors Light. He drives us up the levy road under a big moon as armadillos scurry to avoid the truck’s tires.

“What the shit you all doing on a back road in Louisiana right now, eh?” He chuckles.Gerard woods3Sml

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When the sun comes up, work begins on the house (Gerard is repainting) and the sounds of ladders hitting the wall wake the household. His energy is miraculous considering that 3 a.m. this morning had found us in the Fort DeRussy Cemetery, asking the advice of his spirit acquaintances.

Keep the lights on and the motor running. Watch out for loup-garou. Werewolf. Nous sommes invités.

This morning we are tired, but the night’s long efforts had paid off. Inspiration had struck! We would be ready to record tonight.  The reason for the song may have been discovered: Unpredictability is the key to survival. You have to unchord.

Today, before we make our record, Gerard wants to take us around town in the daylight, improvising our tour like he improvises his songs.  We take our little gray Kia and he sits shotgun, pointing out noteworthy places and announcing unscheduled stops. The car feels powered by his enthusiasm, guided by the track of his sweeping, looping narration. “That’s the oldest establishment in town, there! You like crab burgers? Let’s get us some!”
Gerard asks us a lot of questions about New York. He wants to know about Coney Island and the Bronx, Hurricane Sandy and September 11th. He wants to know about our backyard gardens at home—what do we grow? His memory is fantastic and he can converse on almost any topic. There is a hunger to know, to relate.  He hasn’t travelled much, besides a recent music-driven pilgrimage to France, but he knows about people.

Gerard tells us repeatedly, jovially, that he is not technically Cajun or Acadian. Nor is he, technically, Creole. He identifies most as French Colonial, his ancestors having come to the area in the 1700s and maintained their European cultural ties. It’s the reason that the trip to France, which he mentions often, was so meaningful for him. And he has an intense pride and interest in Civil War stories. He feels the importance of his people choosing to fight in a war to defend a land they had only newly adopted as their own. In his mind, he is a Frenchman who fought for the South.

He takes us to the nearby public wildlife refuge so we can see the gnarled Cyprus roots, the swamp weeds, the alligators. We watch a gator slowly stalk a bird, gliding toward it like a log. Gerard bends down to the water to wiggle his fingers below its surface. Can it be safe to be so close to the water with gators in it? We’ve hiked down the embankment to the water with him. “They’re timid. Timid,” he declares. “Till you draw blood.”

In the car as we head back to his house to record, he’s pensive, a little tired from the three hours of sleep. He says very little for the first time since we’ve been with him. In the heat and the tiring light of the Louisiana afternoon he suddenly seems his age.

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We return to the house and start to set up. Gerard naps, briefly, and returns to the kitchen recharged and smartly dressed in a clean black t-shirt, blue jeans, and boots. The weariness of the afternoon is gone like a mirage.  His hat, his constant companion, sits with integrity at the top of the new outfit.  His performance attire.

He is far away again, somewhere just distantly off this plane of existence, not quite in our reality now, ready to converse with his French Colonial ancestors and whatever other spirits might be out tonight.

We have set up in his music room, attached to the kitchen by two French doors, and he joins us there, taking a look at the Presto, and then wandering over to inspect his bass, guitar, and fiddle to see which is speaking to him. As he tries each one in turn, he explains that his intention when he plays is usually to affect the experience of the room as a whole. To create a common experience.  He explains that he can’t know what we’re thinking about as we’re listening, just as we cannot be privy to what he’s thinking about when he’s playing.

“But at least I’m controlling the feelings with the vibrations.”

The first song he calls an interpretation of a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras captain’s call, the other is an improvisation. Both are completely dragged into being on the spot and neither contains a trace of traditional song structure.

Gerard plays the instruments by bowing them at various levels of tension and hitting them with short lengths of PVC piping. He slides the short pipe between the strings of the bull fiddle and bows it until it emits a high-pitched, faraway moan. Wind through a reed. His shredded bow draws rhythmically across the low, coiled strings. They tremble with the intensity of the gesture and respond, quivering at his beckoning.

“Mardi Gras!” He hollers. He waits, then hollers more. He is invoking. Defante! Defan Pauvre! He seems to say. Nous sommes en d’oeuille. We are in mourning.
His music tonight is a war chant, an exorcism, a question to the universe about what’s just beyond the furthest reaches of our sense of sight and sound.  The spirituality it expresses exists beside and beyond the Catholic pageantry of his French ancestry, the scholarly Mormonism of his wife, the witchy Voodoo of the swamp woods all around.

Dit mon la verite’!

It feels like a new religion he is inventing on the spot. There seems to be no bottom to it, no satisfying finish possible once things have gotten this far away from the ground, but the songs eventually conclude. They must. The record is full and the Presto switches off.

He is back in the room.

“Great spirit,” he says. “Uncharted waters, man.”