It was a mild day for December in New York, but it was winter nonetheless. And there was a quickness in our steps as we walked with Amy through the windy Harlem streets, to get the blood moving, to stay warm. Murder ballads are in Amy’s blood, she was raised on country songs filled with agony and ardor, and she poured that lifetime of woeful narratives into the deep blackness of the acetate.
“The Railroad Boy” is often sung as “The Butcher Boy”, and while the story is always chilling – a scorned young girl meets a sorrowful death – it can be for different reasons. “The Butcher Boy” sometimes lives up to the imagery its title evokes, ending with the boy murdering his lover, a variation Amy speculates may have spawned from a misinterpretation of the line “He took his knife and he cut her down.” In Amy’s version of “The Railroad Boy,” as in most of the song’s incarnations, the line refers to her father releasing her from the rope she has used to take her own life.
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It’s no surprise when Amy reveals that her favorite song ever is “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” a crooned warning that your lover could kill you if you wrong them. Her flipside, “Red Banks,” like many of the songs she records and performs, depicts acts of passion that more often lead to the grave than to the altar.
So as not to sound unbecomingly contrary, or morbid for that matter, let’s just say that the love songs of The 78 Project so far have been torn from the book of hard-living. They have ranged from the practical to the downright bloody, and that fits right in with our gleefully unsentimental folklorist’s view of the prospects of love.
Because we would be spending February 13th with Valerie June, and because her voice sends us into the rapturous state we imagine Chaucer intended when he wrote about Cupid’s arrow, we hoped she would be willing to record a song for our Valentine’s Day greeting to you.
We were sheepish and shy in asking, “Would you…?” She didn’t have even have to think about it. She had the perfect thing. The song sprung from her guitar as her cold, silver slide trailed it’s red scarf across the frets. And the words came from the darkest part of her heart, confirming what we suspected: Valerie is our dream girl. A matchless murder balladress.
It’s a handwritten, handcut Valentine, from Valerie and The 78 Project to you. Unlike flowers and paper, an acetate is forever.
Memphis, TN / Clarksdale, MS
[Note: Our PRESTO recording skills have been hard won, as the following story of our very first attempt at recording illustrates. Our first ever acetate recording streams below!]
Each acetate we cut tells its own unique history. There’s a personal tale of circumstance, hopeful anticipation and the potential for disastrous failure etched into every new set of grooves. The results are always uncertain, always unpredictable. We are continually reminded of the sheer physical effort and the miracles of technology that go into each performance captured on our lacquer discs. And we are grateful for all of the shared knowledge and inspirations we receive from friends old and new as we travel forward on our journey.
And so it was that we loaded up our PRESTO for its inaugural two-day road trip to Memphis one summer a couple of years ago. At the end of the long drive we found ourselves in Electraphonic Recording, the funky, vibey studio owned by our dear friend and frequent collaborator, Scott Bomar. It was there that we set up our PRESTO unit for the first time, hooked up our vintage Shure 51 mic, inserted an old cutting stylus of uncertain age, and pulled out a stack of recently acquired, 1960’s vintage lacquer disc blanks – unsure that our efforts could result in anything more than scratchy unintelligible sounds and untold frustration.
After a few level checks, the PRESTO recorder was engaged, and Scott proceeded to strum out a few bars of the Blues. Brushing away the lacquer thread that was accumulating as the stylus carved its careful deliberate groove into the disc’s smooth black surface, it was clear that something miraculous was happening. We stopped the recorder and nervously played back our new record. The results were, as Scott would later exclaim, “magical.” We stood transfixed, tears welling up in our eyes, transported back in time by a sound almost a century old, yet a sound recorded only moments earlier.
A trip to Clarksdale the next day was not so successful. Amidst the swarming mosquitoes of a sultry Mississippi night, we set up our PRESTO on the porch, and watched horrified as our batch of lacquer blanks flaked and pulverized before our very eyes, driving one decades old cutting stylus after another straight to the discs’ aluminum core, to be ground down and shatter and crumble. Turned out time had not been so kind to those materials, our initial success in Memphis merely a fluke. What sort of fool’s errand had we embarked upon? Clearly we still had much to learn about capturing field recordings on acetate and a PRESTO. But haunted by the ghostly sound of our very first sonic experiment, we left the birthplace of the blues, feeling that perhaps, like Robert Johnson himself, we had already sold our souls to the devil.
LISTEN: Scott Bomar’s Memphis acetate
The first ever acetate recording for The 78 Project – September, 2010
After the excitement of being discovered in his home of rural West Virginia in the 1920s by representatives from a recording company, Dock Boggs saw his music career dissolve quickly. Miraculously, the folk revival of the 1960s resurrected Boggs and his singular mountain-style banjo (thanks in no small part to Alan Lomax,) but in between his two big breaks, the musician spent thirty years at the bottom of a dark, dusty coal mine. It is understandable why a man who knew the struggles and triumphs of life so intimately, would want to celebrate the human spirit now rather than waiting for the afterlife. Leave it to a union man to make love into a call to action.
“Roses While I’m Living” puts a positive spin on the field recording tradition of expressing the hardships of life through song. And The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn is always one for a positive spin.
At the end of a long episode shoot, in a hotel room made tropical by radiators older than our PRESTOs, Vandaveer’s Mark Charles Heidinger and Rose Guerin, with J. Tom Hnatow on banjo, made our season bright with a holiday greeting custom made for The 78 Project. We brought out a fresh acetate, and they recorded a festive message and beautiful rendition of the classic New York Christmas song “Silver Bells.”
WATCH: Vandaveer “Silver Bells”
From all of us at The 78 Project, our dearest wishes for a peaceful, happy season. Thank you for listening and watching this year.
Throughout history, we have always been captivated by the tales of tragedy, misfortune and triumph in the news. And it seems every era has one particular news story that comes to define it, or at least melds that generation in morbid fascination. At the turn of the 19th century, a young woman was strangled by her beloved and drowned in a river, and the story spread like wildfire via the news broadsheets that were written to be sung and widely circulated all throughout the 1800s. As “Omie Wise” was passed around the country and eventually down through the generations, the lyrics morphed and took on new life and death as the song came to be more about murder stories than about Omie herself. When it was their turn to sing “Omie Wise,” The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne chose to recount a news story from our own lifetime, a tale so brutal and complex that it continues to be unshakeable.
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To make a foil for poor Omie, Kara and John put poor John Doe on their Flipside, singing The Reverend’s original song “Wounded Knee.” We’ve mentioned before that recording with the PRESTOs can be a fraught experience, but the skips left in this acetate that we encountered while digitizing it seem to add to the charm of the song.
After listening, if you would like to further appreciate the beauty of the lyrics, a link is included below the acetate player to hear the version of “Wounded Knee” recorded for The Reverend John DeLore’s album Ode to an American Urn.
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 traveled 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’ll have to flip the record to find out how it ends…
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