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.
We’ve always felt that the PRESTOs seem like military gear. Whether it’s their army green casings, their utilitarian bulk or their striking resemblance to the machines you see people frantically shouting distress calls and orders into during epic battles in movies about WWII, they have always seemed to us to be battle-ready.
From recorders to radar
We’re only doing battle with the sounds of sirens and some light weather concerns when we take our PRESTOs out these days, and (knock wood) we’re yet to have to send out a serious S.O.S. from a shoot, but during WWII, the company’s technology really was employed for missions of a life-or-death nature.
Can you hear me now?
In the early 40s PRESTO landed defense contracts to develop and manufacture military technology. Their expertise in crafting durable and portable sound equipment made PRESTO uniquely qualified to build radar rigs and navigation gear for the U.S. Navy. And their proximity to the New York harbor made them ideal for the job of installing submarine-detecting sonar rigs to protect the city’s substantial naval reserves.
PRESTO wins the pennant
Their contributions to the war effort did not go unnoticed. PRESTO was awarded the prestigious Army-Navy “E” Award, an honor presented to a company during World War II for excellence in production of war equipment. PRESTO’s plant got a pennant to hang, and each and every one of the employees in the plant at the time the award was earned was given an emblem. Then it was time to get back to the music.
Another kind of award for valor
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.
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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…
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It won’t be long now. By the time the week is out, you’ll be able to listen to a full track from one of our first recordings! Crackle, hiss, sirens, birds, cicadas, friends, voices, sadness, redemption, our PRESTOs have caught it all. And we made it digital so that you can hear it for yourself. Until then, here’s our full library of video teasers so far:
The shiny black surfaces of our blank acetates are mesmerizing. It’s easy to get stuck staring into one fresh out of the box. Fact is, though, as stunning and profound as the acetate is, it’s only skin deep. The core of these records is solid aluminum.
If you set the tension on the PRESTO’s cutting head incorrectly, you run the risk of your needle slicing straight through the acetate layer and hitting the aluminum core. Not only will the recording become unusable, but you will also waste your (expensive) needle.
During World War I & II, aluminum was essential for building airplanes, ships and weapons. This demand for raw elemental resources came at the height of PRESTO popularity, when the demand for recordings of American folk culture was also starting to take hold. So the PRESTO company offered an incentive program for broadcast companies and recording studios that were dealing with huge quantities of lacquer discs. The company would pay $.15 per used disc when they were returned in bulk. While it kept the company out of competition with the government over aluminum, this offer also led to the destruction of thousands of recordings from the 1940s.
But you can’t make airplanes out of glass.
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.