The Creole musicians speak to their Malian bandmates in French. Most everyone in the room, Americans and Africans both, speaks French to one another, explaining what is being explained as the house is set up for the recording. The four members of International Blues Express – Sidi Toure and Abdoulaye Kone dit Kandjafa from Mali, Cedric Watson and Desiree Champagne from Louisiana – are bonded by the common language, bonded to us by it, too. Heritage, experience and instinct all combine so that musicians, filmmakers, recordists, from different continents and different corners of them, are all communicating.
The Creole and Malian musical styles and songs melt together perfectly. The bright plucking sounds of the ngoni and guitar dance lightly on the steady rhythm of the washboard and the fiddle’s dulcet drone. Celebration is something that we all experience, and we instinctively know the sound of a joyous occasion when we hear it. “Hanna” means a joyous all-night gathering, and is a song for celebrating the first child born into a family. It can take on a form that is endless, so that the dancing can continue until dawn. It is a song of thanks-giving. We are thankful for this day, thankful for the chance to see the world light up with this connection, the makings of a new musical genre emerge, the possibilities that collaboration and exploration can offer.
At the end of the day, the house is filled with the smells of the meal that everyone shares. The fundamental pieces of life are the same everywhere.
The 78 we made with International Blues Express has two Side As. In the next installment, our Creole friends take the lead, and lead us from birth to the unknown beyond it.
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.
There was a mood of fellowship in the Bell House the April morning we arrived with our Presto, a feeling in the air that anything could happen, and that anyone at any time might break out into beautiful song. So many people milling around at the Brooklyn Folk Fest that afternoon were great musicians, and every soul in the room an appreciator.
The spontaneity of the day led us to recording a side with Jackson Lynch, and as we always are when struck by good fortune, we were grateful to opportunity and appreciative of the musical talent that continues to grace us. Jackson performed the 19th Century Western Ballad “Roving Cowboy” with his fiddle bow gliding in a long journey across the strings. Like the cowboy of the song, never to settle, headed to who knows where.
Also, hear and see John Cohen’s recording “Danville Girl” from the other side of our Brooklyn Folk Festival acetate.
Thanks again to Eli Smith, the Bell House, John Cohen, Jackson Lynch and all the musicians, organizers and folks who came out to the Brooklyn Folk Festival.
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.
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.
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.
It was the true spirit of mobility, a genuine adventure. Rooting around a dark alley for a power source, decent light, bright sound and a clean-ish, flat surface for the Presto and for the ladies’ fancy shoes.
It was late at night, and there was an energy, a happiness, a spark still glowing from the show The Wandering had just played at Joe’s Pub. They slipped out the back after their encore was through to make a record with us in the alley. Five voices with the fife as their sixth, bouncing joyfully off the concrete and mixing together in the warm spring air.
Did we feel it? We hadn’t noticed. A train went by, fast, beneath our feet. The Wandering, more accustomed to standing on solid ground than we New Yorkers, felt it rumble. The Presto felt it, too. Leaving a pretty-looking zig and a zag on the groove to mark it’s passing, a note stuck forever to the surface of the record telling exactly what their tapping feet had sensed.
We might have never gotten to sleep that night, it’s true. The excitement of the glorious recording lit us all up so, band, crew and friends alike. Had The Wandering’s flipside not been just the right reverie, the perfect song for the night’s end, we might have vibrated right through till morning. It was so beautiful in its calm, so right in its gentle longing, “Rock My Soul” brought us fluttering right back down to earth.
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How did we imagine things when we were children picturing our adult lives? Exciting and strange, moving more quickly than the quiet creep of childhood, and painted in much broader strokes inside much more confident outlines. We would fill our houses with grass instead of furniture. And when we fell in love, we would be held fast in strong arms or gentle, delicate hands, and kissed as the sparkling night kept us safe.
We met Leah Siegel in that fantastic possibility, in a mischievous loft with grass instead of carpet, the magical surroundings completed by ladders leading to hideaways and a forest wall scattered with glittering stars. And when the Presto was nestled snugly in the soft ground, she sang of a whimsical and lovely romance contained in the smallest most innocent of gestures.
Our beautiful early hopes and feelings are not lost to us. In fact, more often than we even know, we look for and find them again in songs.
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The rest of the story is a memory. A view of a dreamy past carried along through life, strange and unforgettable and intoxicating.