It was sunny on Wednesday. But on Thursday, when we arrived on Rosanne Cash’s doorstep, the rain and cold were looming over our plans to record in her beautiful garden. So we set up in Rosanne’s kitchen while she made tea. John picked on his guitar, the morning rested on the hands of the clock and the black tuxedo cat investigated our Presto on the counter. A sense of comfort and family reverberated through the room. “The Wayfaring Stranger” is a spiritual made most beautiful by it’s simple narrative: after the toil of life’s journey, we will find home.
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The 78 Project: Vandaveer “Banks of the Ohio”
When the PRESTO clicks on and the platter starts to spin, there is a moment where the whole room focuses in and everything becomes a part of the music; the radiator’s hiss is a harmony and the sounds of traffic below tune to a G so perfect you can check your strings against it. And so it was on a wintery afternoon in New York, as every whisper of steam and every squeak of the bed’s springs under the weight of the PRESTO merged into Vandaveer’s “Banks of the Ohio.” The hotel seemed, on that December day, built to make this record, its purpose finally revealed in a rush of song.
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Special thanks are due to Ye Olde Carlton Arms, the artbreak hotel that was kind enough to host our crew for this episode. They are true to their history and truly kind to their fellow eclectics.
Richard Thompson (Official Teaser)
The man travels with just one guitar. We have heard it said that you can only truly know One of your chosen instrument, which seems to have some fervent truth to it. One microphone stands between us and silence, one acetate holds all of our hopes. And, on a recent February afternoon, one New York hotel room was our whole world as Richard Thompson’s voice, sure and broad, poured forth “The Coo Coo Bird.”
So as not to sound unbecomingly contrary, or morbid for that matter, let’s just say that the love songs of The 78 Project so far have been torn from the book of hard-living. They have ranged from the practical to the downright bloody, and that fits right in with our gleefully unsentimental folklorist’s view of the prospects of love.
Because we would be spending February 13th with Valerie June, and because her voice sends us into the rapturous state we imagine Chaucer intended when he wrote about Cupid’s arrow, we hoped she would be willing to record a song for our Valentine’s Day greeting to you.
We were sheepish and shy in asking, “Would you…?” She didn’t have even have to think about it. She had the perfect thing. The song sprung from her guitar as her cold, silver slide trailed it’s red scarf across the frets. And the words came from the darkest part of her heart, confirming what we suspected: Valerie is our dream girl. A matchless murder balladress.
It’s a handwritten, handcut Valentine, from Valerie and The 78 Project to you. Unlike flowers and paper, an acetate is forever.
Memphis, TN / Clarksdale, MS
[Note: Our PRESTO recording skills have been hard won, as the following story of our very first attempt at recording illustrates. Our first ever acetate recording streams below!]
Each acetate we cut tells its own unique history. There’s a personal tale of circumstance, hopeful anticipation and the potential for disastrous failure etched into every new set of grooves. The results are always uncertain, always unpredictable. We are continually reminded of the sheer physical effort and the miracles of technology that go into each performance captured on our lacquer discs. And we are grateful for all of the shared knowledge and inspirations we receive from friends old and new as we travel forward on our journey.
And so it was that we loaded up our PRESTO for its inaugural two-day road trip to Memphis one summer a couple of years ago. At the end of the long drive we found ourselves in Electraphonic Recording, the funky, vibey studio owned by our dear friend and frequent collaborator, Scott Bomar. It was there that we set up our PRESTO unit for the first time, hooked up our vintage Shure 51 mic, inserted an old cutting stylus of uncertain age, and pulled out a stack of recently acquired, 1960’s vintage lacquer disc blanks – unsure that our efforts could result in anything more than scratchy unintelligible sounds and untold frustration.
After a few level checks, the PRESTO recorder was engaged, and Scott proceeded to strum out a few bars of the Blues. Brushing away the lacquer thread that was accumulating as the stylus carved its careful deliberate groove into the disc’s smooth black surface, it was clear that something miraculous was happening. We stopped the recorder and nervously played back our new record. The results were, as Scott would later exclaim, “magical.” We stood transfixed, tears welling up in our eyes, transported back in time by a sound almost a century old, yet a sound recorded only moments earlier.
A trip to Clarksdale the next day was not so successful. Amidst the swarming mosquitoes of a sultry Mississippi night, we set up our PRESTO on the porch, and watched horrified as our batch of lacquer blanks flaked and pulverized before our very eyes, driving one decades old cutting stylus after another straight to the discs’ aluminum core, to be ground down and shatter and crumble. Turned out time had not been so kind to those materials, our initial success in Memphis merely a fluke. What sort of fool’s errand had we embarked upon? Clearly we still had much to learn about capturing field recordings on acetate and a PRESTO. But haunted by the ghostly sound of our very first sonic experiment, we left the birthplace of the blues, feeling that perhaps, like Robert Johnson himself, we had already sold our souls to the devil.
LISTEN: Scott Bomar’s Memphis acetate
The first ever acetate recording for The 78 Project – September, 2010
After the excitement of being discovered in his home of rural West Virginia in the 1920s by representatives from a recording company, Dock Boggs saw his music career dissolve quickly. Miraculously, the folk revival of the 1960s resurrected Boggs and his singular mountain-style banjo (thanks in no small part to Alan Lomax,) but in between his two big breaks, the musician spent thirty years at the bottom of a dark, dusty coal mine. It is understandable why a man who knew the struggles and triumphs of life so intimately, would want to celebrate the human spirit now rather than waiting for the afterlife. Leave it to a union man to make love into a call to action.
“Roses While I’m Living” puts a positive spin on the field recording tradition of expressing the hardships of life through song. And The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn is always one for a positive spin.
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.