The gypsy queen said it was the oldest song in the world. Even before he told us so, we felt that long history of “The Coo Coo Bird” in the sure motions of Richard’s fingers on the guitar strings and the dark depth of his voice. In a borrowed room, we borrowed what might be the oldest song in the world, and cut it deep into acetate.
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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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He traversed Manhattan, journeying to the edge of Brooklyn to sing for us. His words tell of a love of the lonesome West, and his voice is rich with understanding that in the solitude of a traveler’s nights, a song can become your companion. Loudon Wainwright tells us he doesn’t know much about ranching, but just after striking the last chord, he shares one piece of wisdom that a man who rides an old paint horse would know: the proper way to take off his hat.
Special thanks again to the Brooklyn Rod & Gun for making us honorary members for the afternoon. We love your peanuts.
It was a mild day for December in New York, but it was winter nonetheless. And there was a quickness in our steps as we walked with Amy through the windy Harlem streets, to get the blood moving, to stay warm. Murder ballads are in Amy’s blood, she was raised on country songs filled with agony and ardor, and she poured that lifetime of woeful narratives into the deep blackness of the acetate.
“The Railroad Boy” is often sung as “The Butcher Boy”, and while the story is always chilling – a scorned young girl meets a sorrowful death – it can be for different reasons. “The Butcher Boy” sometimes lives up to the imagery its title evokes, ending with the boy murdering his lover, a variation Amy speculates may have spawned from a misinterpretation of the line “He took his knife and he cut her down.” In Amy’s version of “The Railroad Boy,” as in most of the song’s incarnations, the line refers to her father releasing her from the rope she has used to take her own life.
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It’s no surprise when Amy reveals that her favorite song ever is “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” a crooned warning that your lover could kill you if you wrong them. Her flipside, “Red Banks,” like many of the songs she records and performs, depicts acts of passion that more often lead to the grave than to the altar.
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.
At the end of a long episode shoot, in a hotel room made tropical by radiators older than our PRESTOs, Vandaveer’s Mark Charles Heidinger and Rose Guerin, with J. Tom Hnatow on banjo, made our season bright with a holiday greeting custom made for The 78 Project. We brought out a fresh acetate, and they recorded a festive message and beautiful rendition of the classic New York Christmas song “Silver Bells.”
WATCH: Vandaveer “Silver Bells”
From all of us at The 78 Project, our dearest wishes for a peaceful, happy season. Thank you for listening and watching this year.