Alan Lomax’s story has become the stuff of legend. In the early parts of the 20th century, Lomax ventured across the most desolate and poorest spots in America recording local musicians for the Library of Congress. Most notable among his discoveries were great Dust Bowl folkie Woody Guthrie as well as some seminal bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta — Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, just to name a few.
Now, nearly a century later, two musically inclined collaborators are following in Lomax’s trailblazing footsteps.
From August 2012 to September 2013, Lavinia Jones Wright and her partner Alex Steyermark, founders of The 78 Project, traveled across the United States making field recordings of musicians just like Lomax did. The trick? They stayed away from professional microphones and sound mixing gear. Instead, Jones and Steyermark tapped directly into the ancestral spirit of Lomax himself and opted for the Presto recorder, a device that takes in sound and translates it to a needle, carving out grooves on a 78 RPM record in the process.
The result is a sound that very much resembles a scratchy old acetate disc you might find in your grandparents’ attic — grainy, froggy and far away. In fact, the Presto is the exact tool Lomax himself used. Think of it as a time capsule for the sounds of long ago, but capturing today’s music instead.
As Jones told NPR, despite the limitations of the Presto, it’s not all that different from what musicians are used to recording with these days. “When they’re actually engaged in the process, they realize it’s very familiar to them,” she said.
Perhaps that’s what allowed Jones (a music journalist), Steyermark (a filmmaker and music supervisor) and other collaborators to assemble The 78 Project in the first place. The musicians they met with and recorded had no qualms about recording directly onto the 78s, which made for an impressive roster of guests. Songwriters Marshall Crenshaw, Justin Townes Earle and Lisa Hannigan all contributed to the project, as did performers at the 2012 Philadelphia Folk Festival and at smaller venues in cities like New York and Nashville.
The 78 Project began first and foremost as a tribute to Lomax’s important work in establishing the sound of an incredibly colorful and diverse America. Through crowdsourced donations via Kickstarter and other support, it’s now become a full-length documentary film directed by Steyermark. The 78 Project Movie will have its world premiere at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival in March.
Both Jones and Steyermark have made select recordings and videos available on the project’s website. That’s all to show how these often spontaneous sessions can produce some of the finest music the artists themselves have in them.
“The recording process that creates that sound is one that brings out these incredible performances,” Steyermark said. “We do everything in one take and what we’ve found is that we get what feel like definitive performances as a result of the process.”
So the next time you see a cool street performer on the sidewalk or an aspiring musician croaking away on a subway bench, you could record them on your iPhone, but the only thing that process yields is data. Raw, cold data. Thanks to The 78 Project — and some seriously antiquated equipment — you can turn someone’s passion, someone’s talent, someone’s heart-rending performance into a scratchy physical object. If you can still find some old Presto recorders, that is.
Might as well start looking on eBay or Amazon.