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.

Cheatin’, Longing and Family Legacy: The 78 Project spends a week in Nashville

We hit Nasvhille in the afternoon on Tuesday, and went straight over to record with Dylan LeBlanc in Franklin, TN.  While he was warming up, we discovered he is a part of a family legacy of beautiful whistling, and he genially agreed to do some whistling on the song.  Dylan told us stories both sad and triumphant, and performed a haunting version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

Our dear friend Willie of The Breedings put us up for the week in his East Nasvhille home, and we got to check out some local eats and color, including getting to meet Miss Katy K in her Ranch Dressing store!

 

Chelsea Crowell invited us over to the gorgeous pre-Civil War era house where she lives, and let us take over the living room with its beautiful afternoon light.  She performed “Are You From Dixie?” like it had never been played before, with genuine longing and mesmerizing gentleness and subtlety.

 

Thursday bright and early we joined Ella Mae Bowen in another beautiful old Nashville house.  Ella Mae had written songs for her album there, finding so much inspiration in it that she knew it was the place she should make her 78.  We set up in the foyer, where the light from the upstairs window cast a glow around Ella Mae as she sang “The Love of God” with so much love in her powerful voice that we were swept away.

Holly Williams and Chris Coleman and their two happy dogs generously invited us over for our last recording afternoon in Nashville.  Holly and Chris sang a stirring version of “I Saw The Light,” a song by Holly’s grandfather Hank Williams, with pure and energetic harmonies.  The Presto got to star in a photo shoot of its own as it sat in their screened back porch, Chris pulled out his big guns camera for the occasion.

The long weekend started, and we dug in to backup our footage, enjoy the last moments of our time in Nashville, and get ready to hit the road once again.  Memphis, we can’t wait to see you!

Curators, Collectors and Carolina Banjo: The 78 Project makes it to Dixie

Has it only been a week since we left DC?  Our minds have recalibrated to the rhythm of the road.  And since we’ve come to expect at least one new place and a hundred new experiences with each new day, this trip has started to feel like it has always been our life. In a good way.

Last Thursday we were lucky enough to spend the whole day with Todd Harvey at the Library of Congress.  Todd curates the Library’s Alan Lomax Archives, and every time we visit he shows us fascinating pieces of this really comprehensive collection of recordings, correspondence, technology and stories from the life’s work of the great field recordist.  This time the highlight was a letter Lomax had written to a teenage Muddy Waters (known then as McKinley Morganfield) encouraging him to keep in practice!

Friday we drove clear across Virginia, from Alexandria to just past Charlottesville, where we had been invited for a visit with the exceptional 78 collector and producer Christopher King. He kindly shared with us some amazing recordings from Albania, Greece and the Polish mountains, took a stab at finding some Death Gospel in his collection (Washington Phillips) and played for us the record that has captivated our minds since we first heard about it: Geeshie Wiley. Chris and his family made us feel so right at home in their beautiful house, telling us wild family stories about removing snakes from in the ceiling with his grandfather’s hatchet.  And he was game enough to make a recording on our Presto of a family story with a twist that left our jaws on his kitchen floor.

WATCH: Chris plays us one of his favorite 78s

Fried Green Tomatoes

Saturday we completed our traversing of Virginia, stopping at a farmers market in Lynchburg for one last sampling of the state’s local fare. We picked up some twangy apples and some grapes we were told the raccoons love, then we hit the local diner for some homemade pimento cheese and some Eggs Virginia, which if you haven’t had it, get it soon.

Next stop was a Banjo Symposium put on by the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  What an amazing day, especially for Alex, who is himself a banjo enthusiast. The assembled group of scholars were some of the most knowledgeable about the instrument that exist, and we had the great pleasure to meet and hear Cecelia Conway, Stephen Wade, Dom Flemons and Laurent DuBois among others.  That night we got to see Dom, Tony Trischka, and Riley Baugus with Kirk Sutphin in concert performing classic and new banjo songs.  It was inspired.  And just to give you an idea of how inspired, Dom did the splits while playing the bones.

Sunday we celebrated with our lovely Chapel Hill host, Laura Broom, the banjo aficionado Phillips Saylor, and his cool, folklore-packin’ lady Chloey.

Monday afternoon, the Southern Folklife Collection curator Steve Weiss invited us in for a tour.  Among the discoveries was a banjo under debate, is it a Frank Prophet or a Clifford Glenn?  Steve showed us an amazing wax cylinder player that adjusts for warps and we found out what three tons of 78s looks like: the collection of Eugene Earle. Just a few pounds short of being too heavy for a semi to carry it from California, where Steve went to box it up and haul it out of Earle’s garage.

We had pressing business in Nashville, so we hit the road to tackle some of the eight hour drive that night.  We waylaid in Asheville and woke up early for a sunrise drive through the Appalachian Mountains.  Goodbye North Carolina, hello Tennessee!

 

Folk, Family and Thwarted Failure: Our first week on the road

Nothing less than a wild start would do for any trip The 78 Project takes. Within hours of our Kia Soul zipping through the Holland Tunnel, we were careening through the Philadelphia Folk Fest site on a vehicle of a different kind. An electric shuttle with our friend Joshua behind the wheel took us behind the sleepy stages and through the campground that had already, before the festival even began, turned into a bustling tent town. Site scout complete, we moved in with our very accommodating family in Philadelphia. And when we say moved in, we mean it. We have a lot of stuff.

Our first recording of the trip was on Friday afternoon. Mary Chapin Carpenter invited us onto her tour bus, and generously offered to go without air conditioning for two hours so that the sound of the generator wouldn’t interfere with the recording. She performed a beautiful version of “The Water is Wide” and told us stories about learning to play folk songs on her mother’s ukulele.

 

Saturday morning we stopped in at Joe’s Spring Mount Hotel to ask if we might borrow their leafy porch for an afternoon shoot. The owners, Ben and Cindy, were the kindest of hosts, letting us plug our Presto in to their building to capture Arborea on lacquer and serving us Pennsylvania-brewed beer. The band’s “When I Was on Horseback” was haunting on a cicada-filled summer afternoon. And not only was the record subtle and perfect, not a single bee stung Shanti, and only one passing motorcycle made its way into the song.

Sunday morning we arrived on site bright and early to record some gospel with the Holmes Brothers on the campground stage. We were honored to meet them and moved by their performance. It seemed a little funny to put them on a 78, they thought, who wants to go back in time?   But hearing themselves perform “Amazing Grace” as we played back their record, they agreed it was something rather special.

 

Some old and new friends were on hand to say hello during the weekend, including XPN and the curators of the Rigby Mansion. And our gratitude goes out to Rodney Wittenberg for letting us turn his beautiful farmhouse and studio into our command center. Back with family, cozy and well taken care of, we recharged and repacked.

 

 

Tuesday afternoon we headed into the Northern Liberties home of Philadelphia artist Aldo Buffone to meet Honus Honus and his accomplice Kara Nelson. It was a glorious and harrowing afternoon. Presto #1 malfunctioned, but Honus and Kara didn’t. They sang a wicked streak through “Down in the Willow Garden.” We brought out Presto #2 to scare Presto #1 into shape, and our plan worked (with the added ingenuity of the Alex Steyermark Masking Tape Fix™). A 78 was made.

Late at night we bade Honus goodbye and staggered down to DC, greeted with open arms by our dear friend Vandaveer and his beautiful family.  They fed us and wined us and when we brought in the Presto, their two-year old knew exactly what needed to be done.  He walked straight to the mic and sang “The ABC Song.”  Like father like son.

 

The 78 Project and the Open Road…

Our journey to make The 78 Project Feature-length documentary film starts today.  This morning the Presto will be packed in snugly with a stash of blank discs and new needles, our Canons with a cache of memory cards and lenses.  There will be no room left for anything else, so we might need to borrow your socks.

We are headed to Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC, Durham, NC, Nashville and Memphis, TN, and points in between.  This leg of the journey goes until early September, but we’ll be traveling for the film shoots for the rest of 2012, so we’ll be visiting many, many more places.

There will be photos every day, we promise.  They’ll go straight to our Facebook, so “like” us there to see ’em!  Also follow us on Twitter for daily news.  If you’re on our Email list, we’ll catch you up each week on events and stories, and send you sounds and clips that we’ve captured.  If you’re not signed up for our list yet, enter your email in the field on our homepage sidebar.

We’ve never been so excited as we are at this moment, preparing to meet new people, hear new songs, visit hometowns and hometown haunts and seek out music where it lives. We’re grateful to have you along for this adventure!

Thank you to our amazing new friends at Stumptown Coffee Roasters for fueling our mornings on the road!

 

Getting to Know the PRESTO #6 – Crossing State Lines: Early success and devastating failure as The 78 Project gets baptized in the Delta

Memphis, TN / Clarksdale, MS
September, 2010

[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

The 78 Project Goes to Washington

The massive white buildings of Capitol Hill in Washington DC house some of the most dreamt-of pieces of recorded music history in America. This week, we had the incredible opportunity to visit them. We have never experienced anything so breathtaking as being led through these collections of our nation’s greatest folk music treasures.

The PRESTO at the Library of CongressTodd Harvey, the curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress, pulled some documents and artifacts for us to see including acetate sleeves containing handwritten tracklists from Lead Belly field recordings, expense reports from Alan’s expeditions, original Mississippi Fred McDowell tapes and – here’s where our hearts stopped – one of the Lomax’s PRESTO units. Alex was given permission to start putting their PRESTO back together with parts he found in a compartment underneath. Lavinia was allowed to dig her hand into the unit under the platter to pull out used needles that had been thrown down there during the Lomax’s trip.

Jeff Place at the Smithsonian’s Rinzler Archives gave us a tour of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Highlights included Moses Asch’s microphone, Woody Guthrie’s artwork, letters from Lead Belly, a staggering folk record collection, and decades worth of acetate and tape field recordings.   Our last stop was to meet the fine folks at Smithsonian Folkways who are hard at work digitizing and releasing music from the collections.  They laughed when they found out we were going the opposite way with our recording project.

A full set of photos from the trip is up on our Facebook.  It was the most exciting two days of our lives. We’re still recovering.

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