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.
Vandaveer (Official Teaser)
If you listened only to his narrative of a scorned suitor’s terrible revenge in “Banks of the Ohio,” you might be reluctant to follow Vandaveer down a long dark corridor. But we took a chance in the name of an acetate, and let him lead.
We’ve lived in New York City for a collective eon. But we learned from Vandaveer that our own hometown still keeps secrets.
Amy LaVere (Official Teaser)
Amy LaVere is no stranger to chilling tales told through song. We have seen her sing both classic and original murder ballads with a masterfully woeful cadence. So, when she passed through Harlem on a bright and cold December weekend, it was a perfect opportunity to capture an acetate.
Amy granted our wish, laying down a chilling portrait of “The Railroad Boy” and the unlucky girl he scorned. The teaser tells a tiny piece of the tale of a life ruined by a callous lover, the consequences are to come…
The 78 Project: The Mynabirds “Roses While I’m Living”
It seems like we started another life when we started The 78 Project. One filled with humbling challenges we couldn’t have ever imagined we’d face (a few swipes of a paintbrush and a tiny needle are all that stand between failure and success?) but also overflowing with momentum and awe.
And so it is fitting that The Mynabirds‘ episode should come first in the new year, 2012. The shoot was a celebration of our first week of filming for The 78 Project, and the spirit of the night was one of joy and gratitude. We gathered friends together in Brooklyn for a backyard party, dragged the piano outside and, after dark, The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn sang for us. Her song, Dock Boggs’ “Roses While I’m Living,” is about appreciating life while we live it and appreciating those we love while they are around to receive it.
We wish you a Happy New Year with joy and gratitude! We hope 2012 brings you excitement and comfort in equal measure. And we hope to see you in person, perhaps record you, but definitely share with you the indescribable beauty of sound captured the old fashioned way.
With deepest appreciation,
The 78 Project
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.
Buy it on iTunes.
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.
Buy the music on iTunes.
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