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
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!