In the 1930s, Alan Lomax traveled the country recording musicians performing songs in places other than a studio — in one take. Now, close to 80 years later, filmmakers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright have followed in Lomax’s footsteps and taped it. In fact, the two used the same type of machine as the archival pioneer, an authentic 1930s Presto direct-to-acetate disc recorder. And in the process, they put some 60,000 miles on Steyermark’s car. The result: The 78 Project documentary.
The duo came together while working on a panel that Jones Wright organized. Steyermark had made a name for himself as a music producer for movies before branching out as a director himself (Prey for Rock & Roll, One Last Thing…, Losers Take It All). Jones Wright is a journalist who has been featured in Billboard, Spin, and ASCAP’s (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Playback Magazine. It was Jones Wright’s work at ASCAP that brought her and Steyermark together.
“When we first started, after meeting and bonding over this mutual appreciation of Alan Lomax, Alex had already started the process. He had found the Presto and got it working, so we decided to test out the concept of the web series,” says Jones Wright. “So we called up some folks that we knew were really excellent performers, and we thought would be interested in the process.”
And some of those musicians had family ties to the type of recordings they were creating, like Roseanne Cash. Others artists who signed up for the web series included Justin Townes Earle and Richard Thompson.
“We asked them to choose a public domain song that had meaning to them and to choose a place of meaning to them. And in the case of the New York City web series, most people chose places around the city. We were in all kinds of amazing and interesting locations — from parks to people’s homes to even an alleyway, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. But then when we went to travel to make the film, most of the locations that we worked in were their homes,” explains Jones Wright.
It was in those homes where the artists really let their guards down, like when Steyermark and Jones Wright visited Dylan LeBlanc in Nashville. LeBlanc shared how he grew up on the music of Leadbelly, whom Lomax recorded, and how his great-grandfather committed suicide. “People do make themselves very vulnerable, and it’s something that we appreciate very deeply about the complete commitment of the people who are participating in this with us,” Jones Wright says. “It’s very collaborative, we spend time working with them beforehand to sort of help with their song choice and location choice. And they put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it comes through.”
Steyermark adds, “We tried to tailor the production for the movie so it would be just the two of us. There were a couple of days where we would have an additional camera person and sound person. But for the most part, the film was just the two of us. We had sort of developed a rhythm and a process where we could arrive at times almost on location and you know very quietly, within an hour, have everything set up. We don’t — we maybe use one light — but we tend to use available light. We’re trying not to overwhelm the session, the artist, with production.”
But the two rewarded themselves after a session. “We like to go out afterward and hang out and experience the artists’ life. A lot of times they made dinner in their homes,” Steyermark says.
Steyermark and Jones Wright had a different ritual before, but it got to be too risky. During the recording process, a knot of acetate would be created from the Presto machine as the grooves were etched into the album to create the record — in the documentary you see Jones Wright brushing the record to gather this acetate into the knot as the record is made. That knot is very flammable. “We used to, sort of as a ritual at the end of the session, ask the artists to just light it on fire and it would just flare up quite dramatically. But on one occasion, an artist almost caught on fire, and we thought ‘OK, this is a bad idea,'” explains Steyermark. “So for now, we store them in these little bottles with the name of the artist on them. Maybe one day we’ll do an exhibit on those.”
The documentary doesn’t only showcase musicians. It’s also a testament to the archivists who have worked to protect Lomax’s recordings. The filmmakers travel to the Smithsonian Museum’s archives and the Library of Congress to see where Lomax’s original recordings are stored — and look at the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preserving them for future generations. The discs from the likes of Muddy Waters and Woodie Guthrie sit on shelves in album sleeves, some beyond repair, others with personal notes from the people who created the recordings.
“The fact that any of the recordings from the 1930s and ‘40s exist at all, is just completely miraculous,” says Jones Wright. “From the unyielding age of machinery and the fact that — especially back then — if we have trouble finding good electrical sources, then it must have been even harder then. It’s really sort of a testament of how determined people have been to really capture this music, because it’s not an easy process.”