Monday, July 30, 2012

Guest Post: The 78 Project

A new guest post, this time courtesy of The 78 Project, on their extraordinary endeavours and their relationship to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music!

The 78 Project in action. Photo: Sarah Law
The 78 Project is a documentary and recording journey to record today’s musical artists as they perform the early American songs that inspired a century of popular music—exactly as they were originally recorded, instantaneously, on one-of-a-kind 78rpm lacquer discs. With just one microphone, one authentic 1930's Presto direct-to-disc recorder, and one blank lacquer disc, musicians are given an opportunity to make a recording anywhere they choose. It’s an exciting and risky process recording with an 80-year-old piece of technology, and the results are wonderfully unpredictable and beautifully unique.

For each of our filmed episodes we invite musicians to choose a public domain song to record, something that holds meaning for them and something they will want to interpret, and then we bring our Presto to them in any location they choose. The only unshakable requirement is that they perform with the same one-take rigor of the great recordings and uncelebrated artists they revere.

Hearing the acetates played back, we and our artists are transported back in time by a sound almost a century old, yet recorded only moments earlier.  It is nothing short of haunting.  Made all the more so by our deep reverence for the classic versions of these songs.  Our project celebrates the early 20th Century field recordings that spontaneously captured America’s most authentic musical forms.  By returning the process of field recording to its roots, we are reconnecting to the physical effort and miracles it took to create those seminal recordings that we love.

A defining characteristic of folk music as an art form, and one that we believe makes it so compelling, is the intimacy of the performance.  We look to this music to find our common cultural bond, and to experience self-expression in its purest form.  For that reason, performance is at the heart of The 78 Project, as each artist attempts to express their connection to the songs of our musical ancestors.

We have collected recordings that inspire us from many sources, as a means of preparing ourselves and our artists for the recording process.  A major source for inspirational songs has been The Anthology of American Folk Music.  So many of the songs from the Anthology have found their way into our playlists and conversations, and we have even had three artists interpret songs whose seminal versions are included in the HSA: "The Butcher’s Boy" – performed by Amy LaVere as “The Railroad Boy (Died of Love)” - "Ommie Wise" – performed by The Reverend John DeLore & Kara Suzanne as “Omie Wise” - and "The Coo Coo Bird" – performed by Richard Thompson.

The Reverend John DeLore & Kara Suzanne, “Omie Wise”
We approached The Reverend John DeLore & Kara Suzanne for one of our very first episodes because we knew of their immense knowledge of classic American music and we felt sure they would not only perform beautifully, but that they would come up with something very personal and unique.  They exceeded even our wildest hopes. Knowing that “Ommie Wise” was a broadsheet song used to communicate the news about a famous and terrible murder trial in the 1800’s, and embracing the folk tradition of modifying lyrics to fit a performer’s own personal experiences and frame of reference, John took G. B. Grayson’s version of “Ommie Wise” that he knew from the HSA and updated the lyrics so that it was about a murder trial so brutal and complex that had an enormous impact on our own lifetime.

Richard Thompson, “The Coo Coo Bird”
Richard Thompson paid homage to Clarence Ashley’s version of “The Coo Coo Bird” in his interpretation of the song for The 78 Project.  Though he jokingly referred to his performance of “The Coo Coo Bird” as the “suburban English” version of the song, Richard stuck very closely to Ashley’s arrangement and lyrics, and played the song with a spectacular intensity that felt as rocky and mountain-huge as could be.

Amy LaVere “The Railroad Boy (Died of Love)”
Despite the fact that it’s called “The Butcher’s Boy” in the Anthology, Buell Kazee sings about a railroad boy in the song.  Which means that Amy LaVere’s interpretation of the song for The 78 Project is very similar to Kazee’s version lyrically, though the titles are different. Amy calls hers “The Railroad Boy (Died of Love)” which is fitting since the mournful beauty of her singing puts particular emphasis on the tragedy and agony of love as a death sentence.

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