Walking in the footsteps of Alan Lomax with The 78 Project

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Arborea recording on the porch of Joe's Spring Mountain Hotel | Photo by Frank Reis for The 78 Project

Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Wright can’t quite pinpoint where they first heard the name Alan Lomax.

There was Wright’s father, who would tell her stories about The Cherry Tree, the West Philadelphia club where he worked; many of the blues musicians and folk singers who performed there were first recorded by Lomax. There was also the time Steyermark, a filmmaker and native of Wilmington, dug into the Lomax Archives first-hand when researching music for Ang Lee’s civil war period piece Ride With the Devil. But for each, those weren’t the first moments of discovery – they were already well aware and versed in the legendary folklorist.

“I feel like he’s always been present,” muses Steyermark.

For the past two years, Lomax has directly influenced Wright and Steyermark’s lives as they run The 78 Project, a music documentary series showcasing intimate field recordings of contemporary singers and songwriters, from Adam Arcuragi to Loudon Wainwright III. Using a 1930’s Presto direct-to-disc recorder and a single microphone – the same technology Lomax worked with when he traveled the country in the 1930s documenting blues singers and bluegrass ensembles – they record one-take, straight-to-acetate performances, film the artist playing, and film their reaction when they listen back to the hot-off-the-press record.

The collaboration began as a web video series, is raising money through Kickstarter to fund a feature-length documentary, but had its genesis in something more personal.

“We’re just huge junkies for folk music, roots music, the blues,” Wright said. “Alex and I started talking about our mutual passion for field-recorded music, and we realized this was a really grassroots approach we could take to exploring it.”

This year, Arcuragi recorded an a capella performance of “How Can I Keep From Singing” for 78 Project in a converted church in Harlem; Dawn Landes of the band Hem played her song “The Brown Girl” in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and mystical Maine duo Arborea performed “Red Bird” a porch near the Philadelphia Folk Festival. There’s a sense of immediacy and spontaneity to these songs – an unfussy, unrehearsed, genuine vibe. But before the project got to this point, the two running it had to learn how to use their antiquated equipment through an intense process of trial and error.

Steyermark explains that their first Presto was acquired in 2010, along with a box of blank acetate discs from the 1960s, and its first attempted recording went surprisingly well. “That one worked,” he recalls. “Which is great because, if it hadn’t happened, we would have given up. The next nine backfired, they just evaporated, literally. But having that first success inspired us to try to work out what was wrong.”

This was clearly a concern in the Presto’s heyday as well – Steyermark says that the recorder’s manual was one page of instructions, and four pages of troubleshooting. They began learning what makes the recorder tick, purchased additional Prestos, and combined the best working parts into the machine they use today. When they’re at a shoot, Wright runs audio while Steyermark films. He jokes that “she’s probably run more successful performances in the field than any other living Presto recorder.”

At the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August, the 78 Project crew – rounded out by microphone tech Laurie Thomas – taped episodes with some of the lineup, including Arborea (who performed on the front porch of Joe’s Spring Mountain Hotel nearby), Mary Chapin Carpenter and Virginia gospel-blues trio The Holmes Brothers (who played backstage after their set concluded).

The festival was the kickoff to the 78 Project’s first road trip, where they traveled to Washington D.C., Memphis and Texas, recording songs and shooting videos. Some stops were planned long in advance – during a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., they got to see and hear Lomax’s original acetate recordings, including the iconic “House of the Rising Sun.”

The 78 Project on the Road: Todd Harvey – “The Rising Sun Blues” from The 78 Project on Vimeo.

Other recordings were more spontaneous. “We didn’t know that, when we were in Memphis, we would get to record Reverend John Wilkins,” says Wright, “That was so magical, a really great surprise that just fell into our lap.”

Home from the first road trip, planning their next, Wright and Stevermark are using their Kickstarter campaign as a means to expand their project from focused, episodic performances to a broader look at field recording, folk music and American history.

“The history is what drew us to the project in the first place, “ Wright says. “We really want to include that in [the film]. When we visit with our advisors at the National Archives, they talk about Lomax and how our experiences are mirroring his.”

That said, Steyermark adds “Lomax would probably think we’re crazy. He always tried to look for and work with the best technology that was available at the time. He’d wonder why we’re using these machines that are 80 years old.”

Wright admits that the sheer volume of material Lomax acquired leaves her awestruck. There are so many variables that go into field recording, and only some of those are easily controlled. “It becomes more and more magical the more you know about it,” she says. “You have to find musicians, find a time and place that everybody would be willing to work, set up your equipment on whatever terrain is there, travel back home with it.

“If it survives,” she continues, “It makes the recordings feel more special, more rare and unique.”

The emotional experience of making the recordings was the biggest surprise for Steyermark, as well as some of the artists. When musicians hear their performance played back from the fresh 78 record, even if they’ve seen other episodes from the video series, they’re still taken aback by hearing their voice and their song rendered in that manner. It opens up, becomes a universal artifact – which is what Lomax’s goal was all along

“His life’s work was really trying to find connections between us as human beings from all regions and cultures,” Steyermark says. “What he was doing is very humanistic, and that’s become a real guiding principal of the film as well. It’s an opportunity for us to draw another connection.”

The 78 Project’s Kickstarter campaign runs through Friday, October 5. To make a donation, or for more information, visit the project page here.

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