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.
Todd 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.
With every acetate we cut, we’re understanding more and more how miraculous it is to be able to capture and replay sound. Portable and accessible recording devices changed the lives of Americans in the 1920s and 30s. And one of the most important reasons they did, was that machines like our PRESTOs changed the way that radio broadcasts were made.
Before TV (but long after broadsheets) most Americans got their news and entertainment from their radios. 1920s radio shows were a far cry from the phone-prank-laden shock jock-hosted sound effect parades you hear during drive time today. Back then every round of applause or word of warning had to be made in the studio in real time.
But radio broadcasters realized the possibilities of field recorders right away, and dove right in, using them to create all kinds of messages for delayed broadcast. These “air checks” would include intros and outros for popular radio programs, news reports, recurring features that required content from outside the station, political messages, public service messages and more. It was the birth of syndication. Just imagine the faint crackle of record spinning every time you hear Ryan Seacrest start the Top 40 countdown…we have PRESTO to thank.
LISTEN: Kentucky Governor A.B. Chandler for the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936
LISTEN: January 27, 1937 aircheck of WSM/Nashville’s coverage of the great Ohio River Flood
These clips are from the archives of WHAS, LKY Radio in Kentucky. Radio geeks can hear dozens more vintage air checks on their website.
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.
The 78 Project: The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne “Omie Wise”
The tragic tale of Omie Wise has traveled the generations for more than two hundred years. Murdered rather than married by her beloved and thrown into a river, Omie is a warning to beware the wolf in disguise. In the back of a cozy local saloon in Brooklyn, the afternoon light worked its way through the window and The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne settled in to recount the chilling tale of Omie Wise’s murder. But true to the folk tradition, the duo added their own personal spin to the story.
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The Flipside: The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne “Wounded Knee”
Kara and John had another tale to tell once Omie was conjured and put to rest. And their mesmerizing voices and guitars had the assembled historians and barkeeps transfixed. So we flipped the record, and they sang The Reverend’s own beautiful song “Wounded Knee” for a new feature of The 78 Project called The Flipside.
Special thanks to the High Horse Saloon and Salon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for their generosity.
The 78 Project: Dawn Landes “The Brown Girl”
Under the sweltering late-summer sun, a small crew of filmmakers and audio historians capture Dawn Landes as she sings “The Brown Girl”. Cicadas drone, buses huff to a stop, bees hover lazily, sunflowers loom, and as the acetate spins, a song is carefully carved into its surface.
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 travelled 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 can stream Side A of Dawn’s acetate here.
Buy the music on iTunes.
Special thanks to The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the farmers of the Children’s Garden who kindly harvested around us.
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…
Buy it on iTunes.
Hearing your voice made ghostly by a machine from the past can do strange things to a man. When The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne updated the classic American murder ballad “Omie Wise” for The 78 Project, we warned them that the chip left over from the needle carving a groove into the acetate record was extremely flammable. Ok, maybe we also hinted it would make a mighty beautiful flare. That’s not to say we condone setting the streets on fire. Or take credit for it. John and Kara made the magic, we just remember it.
The 1930s PRESTO Model “K” Recorder we use is a beautiful piece of vintage machinery, masterful in design and functionality. It functions not only as a single mic direct-to-acetate audio recorder, but also as a public announcement system, a dubbing device, a source of fascination, and quite often, a source of frustration. Below is the first installment of our “Getting to Know the PRESTO” series, in which we invite you into the inner workings of the machine that put us on the roller coaster ride that is making a field recording record.
Alan Lomax has said that a large part of his training before embarking on his first field recording trip was learning how not to be afraid of the PRESTO. We at The 78 Project know exactly what he means. It’s a fine line between a beautiful, even groove filled with the earth-shattering sounds of a live musician singing their heart out, and a wobbly, uneven, catscratch. We’d like to pat ourselves on the back for (most of the time) feeling like we’ve got it under control, just like Alan learned how to be the boss of the PRESTO all those years ago. But the possibilities of things that could go wrong outlined in our original PRESTO manual are the stuff of horror movies! Well, very niche horror movies for people afraid of making bad records. Here’s the first of some of our favorite selected nasty outcomes for the unlucky field recorder:
Thread Becomes Tangled in the Needle
As it cuts, the PRESTO throws up a thread about the thickness and texture of human hair. That’s the negative space from the sound! But not only is it INCREDIBLY FLAMMABLE, it can also become lodged under the cutting needle if it isn’t constantly guided away with a brush. You want to ruin the shirt you’re wearing? Try being the one holding the brush as the record spins. Guaranteed to make you sweat.
PRESTO LORE #1
One of the earliest documented uses of PRESTO recorders for delayed radio broadcast was of the Hindenburg disaster in May of 1937. Reporter Herb Morrision and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been invited to record interviews with passengers embarking from the voyage.