Today is a Sunday afternoon with an agenda. It seeks to usher us into a real Autumn for the first time since the months of strange and unseasonable weather began.
Today the sky is powdery and sunny and the air is quick and brisk; the experience of being out in it is haunting and energizing.
Who are we to argue with such a Fall day? It demands a song to match its mood. So Arborea’s flipside track “Red Bird” is the perfect song for this afternoon. We recorded with the duo on a sun-cooked hotel porch in rural Pennsylvania in August, but it was always meant to be a song for a more solemn season.
In the spirit of the freewheelin’ freedom that comes with the weekend, today feels like the perfect day to share Ella Mae Bowen’s rockin’ flipside “Heart Locked Out.”
We recorded with Ella Mae in the house in Nashville that inspired her songwriting, and we felt so freewheelin’ that day that we set up on the staircase instead of in a room. Her voice and her presence were bright and strong. And when she sang, she turned the excitement of youth into something beautiful and vital we can all understand.
Our second day in our week of giving thanks recalls another week not too long ago when we felt very fortunate. Just after returning from our first recording trip to the South, The 78 Project was invited to participate in IFP’s Independent Film Week in New York as part of the Spotlight on Documentaries. We were so honored, and we wanted to do something special as a way of showing our appreciation. So we invited our dear friend Timmy Mislock (The Antlers, Abandoned Lighthouse) to record a 78 with us during our screening time at the conference. Timmy sang “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” for a rapt audience of filmmakers and industry and a few invited friends. And we played it back for everyone right there in the room!
“Red River Valley” is one of those songs for which everyone has their own story. It has at least a dozen claimed origins – as many as the regions the Valley touches and then some – and everyone who knows the song, knows it from a different source. An emotional scene in a movie, a family who sang it together, a battered LP bought at a yard sale, a childhood school music class. The common thread being that wherever the song is heard first, it strikes a chord and takes on a personal meaning. Because like so many songs about a place, it is actually about the people in it. It can be sung by a lone cowboy in a secluded mountain valley, or as a duet in a New York apartment. Love and loss are the same everywhere.
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After listening to it together with them in the room, and again at home as we prepared to post it, Lisa and Joe’s Flipside song continues to amaze. “Little Bird” – which Lisa wrote and Joe produced the album version of – is a song of metaphors and images, complex in its design, but simple and perfect in its emotion. And their performance of it is simple and perfect in its emotion to match.
This past week we watched a storm devastate our city. We felt the weight of the sky bearing down on us, reminding us that in some ways we are powerless. During the days after the winds died down, we spent almost all of our time feeling thankful that we had our lives and our loved ones, despite what was lost.
It was a reminder that the ways we feel and express our gratitude for life must be purposeful and can be grand.
We can gather in a place where the roof is high enough so that the weight of the world doesn’t sit directly on our heads and shoulders. And we can fill that high ceiling with song to show that we have the power of grace to return to the sky. As Adam Arcuragi did this past Spring in a chapel in Harlem when we met him there to record. His message of gratitude for life gives a perfect sense of calm in this week of uncertainty.
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Beneath the hot stage lights at City Winery the Presto (and its operator!) sweated, but Marshall Crenshaw was totally cool. He avoided hypnosis and kept everyone at ease by telling stories. And when the Presto was running he performed with mesmerizing intensity and delightful serenity.
We posted Marshall’s digitized acetates, “More Pretty Girls Than One” and his original Flipside “Passing Through” just after he recorded them at our live music revue in May. If you haven’t heard them yet, listen now. Marshall’s performances that evening were magical.
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Even though he claimed to know little about ranching and cowboy ways, Loudon Wainwright handled the vocabulary with ease as he rambled through “Old Paint.” What are the fiery and the snuffy? we wanted to know. Branding equipment, we learned. He told us an old paint is a speckled pony, and, of course, dogies are cattle. But some of the song’s other words, so familiar to the cowhand are mysteries to us, and Loudon wouldn’t dare to speculate.
“Old Paint” was a song taught to Loudon by someone very dear, a song that has taken on a new life in the different ways he has played it and recorded it. This time when he played it, we heard a song about the beauty in each day of work and having lived a life devoted to your chosen trade. We placed the player on the long wooden table, and set the needle in the groove, and the acetate’s crackle was a campfire suddenly warming the chilly room, and it was the voice of a lone cowboy we heard.
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For his flipside, Loudon chose a song with a very different story of westward migration. “I Don’t Care” is a signature Loudon Wainwright song, a jauntily irreverent goodbye to a former love headed across the country made compelling by the masterful dance between words and guitar.
Willie is one bad character. First we heard of him, he was the wolf who lured “Pretty Polly” to an early grave. He disappeared off to sea, and we thought we’d seen his last, until Vandaveer arrived with news.
With harmonies mournful, chilling and precise, Mark and Rose sang us the story of his terrible crime in “Banks of the Ohio.” The banjo plucked out a tune as tense as can be. It was too tragic to be believed, he’d taken another life.
We listened back, through the crackle of the 78 and the thickness of the hot winter room. It sounded like our man Willie, no doubt about that.
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Right at the outset they proclaim “Death is here!” as if after the events of the first side of Vandaveer’s acetate, there was any other possible outcome.