If the Alan Lomax collection had a time travel section, that’s where you’d find the 78 Project. Rather than just observing and preserving present-day culture, the project combines technology and traditions from the past with modern musicians—an active exploration of antiquity that’s more mad scientist than history professor.
Filmmaker Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright (with the support of executive producer Erik Nelson) created the project, and serve as its field recording team, but the PRESTO recorder—a later model of the device that Lomax used for his Library of Congress recordings in the ‘30s—is the one who’s really in charge.
The first part of the series, which was based in New York City, and included legends like Roseanne Cash, Richard Thompson, and Loudon Wainwright III, concluded on Sunday night with a live music revue and charity event at City Winery. A handful of musicians performed their version of the public domain songs they recorded for the project, and a special guest joined the PRESTO onstage for an encore.
The performances ranged from light-hearted and comedic (the Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne discussed their “Go Folk Yourself” project and wrote a modern murder ballad about O.J. Simpson) to arresting (Leah Siegel of Firehorse performed her spectacular Judy Garland-esque version of “A Little Love, A Little Kiss,” and momentarily stalled respiration during a never-before-heard Firehorse tune called “Home”).
Behind-the-scenes tales of ancestry and inspiration were an added bonus: After choosing a Dock Boggs song for the project, Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds discovered that she may actually be a descendant of the Boggs family; and Vandaveer ended up recording an entire album of murder ballads—thanks to a PledgeMusic campaign—after digging through the public domain archives to find a 78 Project song.
The project creators had some stories (and surprises) of their own to share. Wright relayed her account of a recent trip to Harlem where the PRESTO nearly caught fire, and Steyermark likened PRESTO recording to a circus event: “It’s like knife throwing, except no one dies…although we do have a lot of murder ballads,” he laughed.
To close out the evening, Marshall Crenshaw made a surprise appearance to cut a 78 live onstage. “I was told not to look at the PRESTO while it’s recording…” he said nervously while eyeing the device next to him. Crenshaw remained onstage to listen to the recording, anxiously awaiting the result, and the anticipation was met with a collective sigh of relief as the playback began.
This summer the project hits the road to continue the recording series across the U.S., with stops in Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to name a few. Along the way, Steyermark and Wright will hit music and film festivals—such as Philadelphia Folk Festival (8/17-8/19), All Tomorrow's Parties in Asbury Park (9/21-9/23), and DOC NYC (11/8-11/15)—to demonstrate the recording technique for live audiences and screen the project videos.
You can bid on the 78 Project one-of-a-kind acetates here until Saturday, May 26 (the acetate discs work with any modern turntable that plays at 78 RPM); all proceeds benefit the Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Kristina Ensminger is a freelance arts and culture writer. You can follow her on Twitter @kristinakme.