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Walking in the footsteps of Alan Lomax with The 78 Project

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.

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