There’s Water Now: Watch and hear Victoria Williams’ “Bath Song”

Just on the other side of the steepest mountain in Echo Park, and many miles west of the desert cafe where we first met her, Victoria Williams invited us over for an evening of songs and record-making. The L.A. night was cold, but the house was warm and alive with some friends – including her dog Beau – and home-cooked food.

Victoria wanted what would be to be; she had happily followed Beau’s lead to the restaurant in Joshua Tree where we had also stopped on a whim, and as we set up that night, she was excited to find out what surprises “Bath Song” would bring at 78rpm. It seemed like a moment that had become inevitable since we left New York, wondering who we would meet, somehow thinking it might be her. The Presto clicked off, closing the circle, and our California road trip felt complete.



Our thanks to Gabe Noel for his beautiful musical contributions to this recording and to Robert for his kind and generous hospitality.

Family Story: Hear Christopher King tell the birth of Riley at 78rpm

So often they seem beyond belief, the yarns that are spun around town and around dinner tables, late in the night or in passing on the street.  They are mostly told secondhand. Or third.  Stories from the family lore too wild to think they could have actually happened, and so exciting and colorful we would hardly want to live in a world where they couldn’t.

Often a delightful dubiousness is added to these tales by the distance they traveled to reach our ears, the wine, and the festive manner of telling. This was not the case on the summery night when our friend, acclaimed 78 collector and producer Christopher King, shared with us his family fables. His were told firsthand, and with demonstrations to help us picture the action.

“Did we tell you how our daughter, Riley, was born?” He asked us later, nonchalant as he cleared our plates.  After the stories his family had already shared, of ceiling snakes and hatchets and the town where they live in Virginia, we knew this legend, saved for last, must be the best one.

The warmth of our spirits: Dylan LeBlanc “Innocent Sinner” video clip and acetate

We’ve been hard at work in the editing room since returning home in January from our California road trip. And though we sit in the same room every day as we sort the hours of footage we’ve shot so far for The 78 Project movie, there’s no possibility of sameness or fatigue. Each day we are transported to another room, any of the many different and beautiful rooms all around the country we’ve been invited into to film and make 78s.

This week as scenes from our Southern journey emerged on our editing monitors, the drudgery of winter had disappeared and suddenly summer was bearing down with the last of its might. We were transported to a sunny high-ceilinged room in Nashville mesmerized by a sultry and spectacular sound: the voice of Dylan LeBlanc.

We wanted to show it to you the moment we saw it.  Haunting and reverent and filled with purity and magic, it called to us like the endless roads of our journey, reminded us of the warmth of your support, made us want to say thank you right now and always.

Getting to Know the PRESTO – #8 – On Needles (and Pins)

Things that have been used as needles for record players in a pinch: Cactus needles (like the ones to the right at the Smithsonian which belonged to Moses Asch,) shards of bone, ivory and glass, hatpins, nails, safety pins, sewing needles, paper clips, and even lasers.

If it’s pointy, you can believe someone’s tried to run it across a record to see if some sound will come out.  But most of these impromptu options will ruin your record!  And, of course, when it comes to cutting a record, you can’t use just anything. If you want that disc to last, and sound its best, you’re going to need a gemstone.

We discovered at the Library of Congress – during our (sanctioned!) exploration of Alan Lomax’s own PRESTO – that Lomax used sapphire cutting styli.  We saw them on his order reports…pricey for the 1930s! Diamonds make great cutters, too. But for us only Apollo-made Transco rubies will do!

During our California road trip, we were fortunate enough to tour the factory where our ruby-tipped cutting needles are made, and as we said at the time, we were in awe of the careful process by which each individual stylus is brought to life.  Hundreds of tiny ruby slivers are fit one at a time by hand into individual metal settings (you can see them in the pictures on the right and below) then aligned and sharpened in 8 stages by carefully calibrated lasers and grinding and polishing stones.

The result? A tool as much a unique work of art as the records it will cut.  Hatpins need not apply.

 

Good Times All Would Happen: Hear Sid Selvidge & Steve Selvidge’s 78

Sid Selvidge is a performer and folk music scholar of the highest order. It’s a well-deserved rap he caught from devoting himself congenially and tirelessly to knowing the people and learning the songs of the South. And of course, to contributing his own songs to the story. Sid is a walking record of Delta music and the American folk scene as it has been and as it is, with stories for days and an ear ready for any new ones you might want to share with him.

Sid had a memory of the Frank Stokes song “I Got Mine” from hearing it on a sampler, he recalled it being catchy and sly. A song that puts its singer in the shoes of a rascally gambler out for a good time. But as he discovered, listening to it again, the exact lyrics are hard to make out. He looked them up, and found enough different versions to keep you confused for a week. So, acting in the truest folk music spirit, Sid just picked the words he liked and rolled with it, the version that now goes on record as his.

Things do change and stay the same in equal parts. For Sid, his son Steve, and for us the day we recorded them together in Memphis, that meant hearing Sid singing a song he’d sung so many times before, but in a changed voice and on a very old format. It was Sid’s idea, to hear the old and the new together this way, the perfect test of time, and the perfect record of place.

Serendipity, Spoons, Hammers and Harmony: Our California adventure continues south and finishes strong

Something drew us into that café. With it’s squeaky screen door, two tiny tables and unassuming presence at the end of the block, it just looked like the place where the locals go.  We were passing through Joshua Tree on our way to Wonder Valley and had stopped in for a quick bite to eat.  When Victoria Williams walked through the café door, we could hardly believe it.  The luck!  She told us her sweet dog Beau had led her there, and we’re inclined to thank him here now.  We asked her if she’d like to make a record later that week and were thrilled to find that she did!

The next day we sped back west to meet an old friend for a very unique recording.  Coati Mundi had tested every spoon in his kitchen, he told us when we arrived at his Murrieta, CA home.  He’d chosen the perfect two, the ones that sounded the best in the bright-sounding room.  The version of “Billy Boy” he had cooked up was truly original, infused with Latin percussion and the strangeness of a memory he has of learning the song as a city kid sent to the country for some fresh air.  Over a home-cooked meal Coati reminisced with his sister about the Midtown disc-recording booths and rock concerts of their childhood.  And he even played us the very first acetate he ever cut as a young piano player in New York City.

A couple hours drive away in LA the next morning, we were scaling Topanga Canyon in search of Little Wings.  He met us in the road and guided us up to a steep parking spot, then helped us haul our gear down dirt paths and up homemade stone staircases to a lovely, sundappled little utopia where he spends half the year in a tiny cabin.  We assembled on the porch to record his mesmerizing take on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, and afterwards, he broke out his spray paint and stamps to customize the record sleeve.

Later that day in a cozy apartment in Studio City, Adam Levy & Gaby Moreno patiently practiced their smokin’ hot jazz while we disassembled the Presto to replace some tired tubes.  If it sounds scary, that’s because it was!  With no backup on hand, our Presto had to work.  Many fraught moments later, the platter was back on and spinning.  With the crisis averted, Adam and Gaby performed a sparkling version of “After You’ve Gone” that we’re sure will be one for the ages.

Gaby had been kind enough to let us use her just-bought vintage suitcase Newcomb turntable to play back their acetate, and after hearing its beautiful warm sound, we knew we had to get one.  She and our friend and master audiophile Tom DeSavia directed us to the Audio Specialist.  He turned out to be the vintage dealer of our dreams, outfitting us with the perfect new playback turntable.

We arranged to meet Victoria at her friends’ house in Echo Park a few days after we’d run into her in Joshua Tree.  When we arrived, she and Beau were waiting for us with great-sounding a spot all picked out in the beautiful front room.  Victoria’s friend Gabe Noel came over with his cello to accompany her as she sang “Take This Hammer” with her undeniable style and breathtaking grace.  Over a dinner of vegetables from the garden out front, Victoria and her friends gave us a wonderful feeling of home so far away from our own.

It had been almost two weeks since we’d arrived in California, and those two weeks had been monumental.  There was just one more record to cut to complete this most amazing trip.  We packed up our car, bid our lovely LA hosts Elli and Andy goodbye, and started north for Pasadena.

Tom Brosseau & John Reilly were waiting for us, warming up their voices and guitars.  They spun through an impressive repertoire of classic songs, wowing us at every subtle turn of their harmonies.  Settling on two perfect tunes, “Careless Love” and “Single Girl’, the duo made an acetate of true distinction marked by the beautiful sound of true friendship and collaboration.

Later that night, we saw them perform at the Sanctuary in Santa Monica along with their friends Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Willie Watson.  And who should we see there but Victoria! It was a wonderful way to end our week in LA, and we headed back North with our hearts full of happiness and our car full of unbelievable records.

Before catching our flight, we stopped in to say hello to our old friend Mia Riddle in Santa Cruz, then headed the rest of the way up the coast back to San Francisco, the place where this whole wild trip started.  A new year began while we were on the road filming this next chapter in The 78 Project Movie, and we feel the newness now, filled with potential and excitement, as we write this.  It’s off to an amazing start thanks to our friends and supporters and to this fantastic West Coast journey, now complete.

Ouds, a New Year, a Lacquer Factory and the Desert: Our first week in California

At the end of our first week in California, we found ourselves looking out across a vast expanse of sand and sky thinking back to our trip’s beginning, just one week ago in San Francisco.  It seems too beautiful to have all just happened in one week. But as Ben Vaughn reminded us, gesturing out beyond his property to the faraway mountains before we recorded with him at his house in Wonder Valley, “How can anything be wrong?”

This idyllic scene in the Mojave fell at the end of a week filled with wonderful hospitality and amazing serendipity. But we should begin at the beginning of the story of our California Journey…

Last week when we left New York, we were nervous. If you’d seen us at the airport, you’d have laughed or died. We checked 9 bags of gear, including the Presto in its iron-clad, perfect black road case made for us by Red Dirt. It might have only been a hundred yards from the car to check-in, but it felt like a mile. Thankfully the nice folks at Delta took our gear with good humor, and we were on the plane and on our way!

We arrived in San Francisco and watched in horror as the Presto came crashing down the baggage chute. After testing the gear and finding everything miraculously in working order, we set out for Santa Rosa to record our first 78 of the trip with The Easy Leaves. At the end of a gravel road, next to a chattering creek, Sage Fifield and Kevin Carducci live in cozy, adjoining shacks. We set up in Sage’s under twinkling lights and recorded the duo performing “Cotton Fields.” Our first record in California! And it was beautiful.

Novato became our home base, thanks to our generous friends Tony and Kay. And suddenly, New Years Eve was upon us. How better to spend the last day of the year than on a real adventure? we thought when Jaron Lanier called and asked us if we wanted to stop by his Berkeley home to see his profound collection of musical instruments from all around the world. We stopped into San Francisco to pick up Jody Stecher to join in the fun, and an hour later we were lugging the Presto over clarinets and under hanging ouds to make our final 78 of 2012. A momentous and improvised recording of Jaron’s own design.

A new year and what a way to start it! Recording with X’s John Doe in his home in Fairfax. After cutting a rendition of “Skip To My Lou” more badass than your average barn dance, John was all fired up to try out some of the 78s he had lying around the house. So we turned the turntable over to him for an afternoon of Almanac Singers and Lead Belly’s “Sinful Songs.” 2013 felt welcomed in right.

 

An hour away in Sacramento the next morning, Julie Baenziger of Sea of Bees awaited us with doughnuts and coffee and stories galore. Her voice, like her house, was filled warm sunlight and life as she sang “In My Dying Day.” And after we made her 78, she took us to see her favorite Sacramento sights, cafes and a recording studio and all the places a local would want to go. We felt so at home that it was hard to depart, but we had to put a whole state under our wheels that night, so we bid Jules goodbye and hit the trail.

Eight dark hours later we were in Southern California. We regrouped, backed up and repacked at our dear friend and 78 Project contributor Sarah Law’s house. The desert was calling and we knew we had to be ready. We had a date with our supplier!

We can say without hesitation that Apollo Masters in Banning, CA is the reason The 78 Project can exist. They make our 78 acetate discs and the cutting needles we use…and they are the only ones in America who still do. We were honored that they extended us an invitation to visit their record-making facility, which included a full tour of every part of the process. All we can say is that it was mind-blowing. Apollo is a small company that produces an incredible product. Each disc goes through so many stages of production and quality control, and at each stage a real human being handles it. We saw how they polish the metal discs and coat them in lacquer then punch the hole in the center after they’ve dried. We also saw how one woman carefully crafts the ruby-tipped cutting needles one at a time under a microscope. We left wide-eyed and in awe of the preciousness of each and every disc we cut!

Further east past the grapevines and cow pastures, past the golf courses and the Joshua Trees, at the end of a long dirt road and a long dirt driveway, Ben Vaughn was waiting for us. His famous Rambler stood sentry as we entered his property, and two vintage campers sat out back, ready to be used to make a 78. As the sun went down, we set up in front of the Silver Streak, and Ben played “Worried Man Blues” with a lilting, cheerful energy. No dust settled on the disc and his camper provided us with a refuge for our playback after the hot desert sun set and left the air chilled and dark.

Our L.A. adventures are still to come, and our California trip is only halfway done!  More from us soon…

Our California Road Trip begins today! A new year of 78s awaits…

Our journey to make The 78 Project Feature-length documentary film continues today...

As the sun sets over Manhattan tonight, we’ll be 30,000 ft above the city, flying West towards the next leg of our journey: California.  We’ll give the Presto something to help it sleep and nestle it snug and warm in its fantastic Red Dirt Case for the long flight in cargo. 

When we land in San Francisco, we’ll free the Presto from its foam and start heading down the long roads that cross the great state.  From the forests to the oceans, the cities to the deserts, we’re going to try to film, record and see as much of California music and scenery as we can in two weeks.  And we hope you’ll join us!

Every day we’ll post photos on Instagram, tweets and Facebook posts so that you can see and hear what we experience along with us.  And if you’re one of the generous backers of our film, we’ll write and mail you a real, tried and true vintage postcard from the trip. 


The left side of our custom google map is just waiting to be filled with pins for new recordings and encounters and visits.  We can’t wait! 



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