Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 78, A Happy Anniversary, and our Road Trip’s Sweet Nashville Ending

This week is the anniversary of our first road trip to make The 78 Project Movie. Thinking about the year as a whole, there has been such a wonderful symmetry to our experiences. The first and last trips both finished in Tennessee, and each trip has been filled with bright, unexpected moments. It felt this week as if we had truly come full circle, and we wanted to celebrate the first recording from our very first road trip made with the perfect person to set the tone for what would come during the year that followed.

Mary Chapin Carpenter was a headliner at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and she offered to spend the afternoon before her set making a record with us in her tour bus.  The most gracious host that she is, she not only invited us with all of our gear aboard her home away from home, she also let us turn off her air conditioning so that it wouldn’t interfere with the recording and serenely braved the August heat. Mary Chapin’s nature is graceful, and her performance was powerful, a combination that mesmerized and awed us.  She sang “The Water is Wide” with the sure, patient voice and agile finger-picking of a person who has always known a song.

For our last two days recording this week in Nashville, we were thinking so much about how far we’ve traveled and of all the wonderful people we’ve gotten to know.  In part because our last two musicians were so kind and generous, and in part because they all have been.

In Nashville, as in Memphis, we felt cozy and at home.  Infinitely welcoming person that he is, Jim Lauderdale made us feel even more so.  He gave us the run of a beautiful house from the 1890s, and a heartbreakingly gorgeous a capella performance of “Before This Time Another Year”.  It’s no wonder that Jim is a constant collaborator. His musicality is superb, and he himself is the kindest of souls.

We always say that our last day of each trip always brings a wonderful surprise, and it remains true. Each trip as we’ve spent our last afternoon making a record, something magical has occurred, and this last day in Nashville was no different.  The Secret Sisters had arranged for us to meet in the Lindsley Street Church of Christ, and everything about the moment was beautiful. Lovely, real life sisters Laura and Lydia, their fluttery, haunting voices in tight sibling harmony, the light through the stained glass, the sounds dispersing through the air all the way up to the ceiling.  When they sang “In the Sweet By and By” and an original called “Little Again,” they invoked the timeless closeness of family.  And during the giddy playback, they overflowed with the fresh energy of new experiences.

We drove out of Nashville as happy as we could ever be. The end of our last road trip is the beginning of everything that comes next for The 78 Project.  We will edit our movie, continue making our web series, and feel fortunate every day that our work helps to bring many, many more singular one-take recordings to life.

 

Cheatin’, Longing and Family Legacy: The 78 Project spends a week in Nashville

We hit Nasvhille in the afternoon on Tuesday, and went straight over to record with Dylan LeBlanc in Franklin, TN.  While he was warming up, we discovered he is a part of a family legacy of beautiful whistling, and he genially agreed to do some whistling on the song.  Dylan told us stories both sad and triumphant, and performed a haunting version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

Our dear friend Willie of The Breedings put us up for the week in his East Nasvhille home, and we got to check out some local eats and color, including getting to meet Miss Katy K in her Ranch Dressing store!

 

Chelsea Crowell invited us over to the gorgeous pre-Civil War era house where she lives, and let us take over the living room with its beautiful afternoon light.  She performed “Are You From Dixie?” like it had never been played before, with genuine longing and mesmerizing gentleness and subtlety.

 

Thursday bright and early we joined Ella Mae Bowen in another beautiful old Nashville house.  Ella Mae had written songs for her album there, finding so much inspiration in it that she knew it was the place she should make her 78.  We set up in the foyer, where the light from the upstairs window cast a glow around Ella Mae as she sang “The Love of God” with so much love in her powerful voice that we were swept away.

Holly Williams and Chris Coleman and their two happy dogs generously invited us over for our last recording afternoon in Nashville.  Holly and Chris sang a stirring version of “I Saw The Light,” a song by Holly’s grandfather Hank Williams, with pure and energetic harmonies.  The Presto got to star in a photo shoot of its own as it sat in their screened back porch, Chris pulled out his big guns camera for the occasion.

The long weekend started, and we dug in to backup our footage, enjoy the last moments of our time in Nashville, and get ready to hit the road once again.  Memphis, we can’t wait to see you!

Episode#26: The Spirit Music of Gerard Dupuy

Winter’s spirits are all around us, in the bare trees and the silent snow. It brings to mind the spirits we met during our time in Louisiana and our unforgettable stay at the home of the musician Gerard Dupuy.

The following video of and writings about our time spent in Gerard’s generous company originally appeared in the Oxford American.

This article originally appeared in the Oxford American, May 2014.

The Spirit Music of Gerard Dupuy

Inspired by the field recordings of Alan Lomax, director/producer Alex Steyermark and producer/recordist Lavinia Jones Wright created The 78 Project, an ongoing documentary journey to record today’s musicians with yesterday’s technology. Using just one microphone, an authentic 1930′s PRESTO direct-to-disc recorder, and a blank lacquer disc, the musicians are invited to cut a record anywhere they choose. The result is an artifact—a 78rpm record—and a new connection to our cultural legacy. 78 Project participant Rosanne Cash called the experience “time-travel.” Click here for “Back to the Future,” author William Gibson’s introduction to the project. 

Last summer, The 78 Project visited southern Louisiana to film and record Cajun music at the source, as Lomax had done in the 1930s.


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“Bonjour! Comment ça va?”

The Cajun Stump Jumper starts each phone call in French, and laughs in a deep, delighted rattle when he realizes that his French is not understood.  Fifty percent of The 78 Project speaks French fluently, but that half is always driving.

He barrels on in English, inviting us—commanding us, really—to stay in his house. His wife will make us dinner and we’ll go for a ride in his truck, check out his old cabin from the 1920s. Every sentence comes through the phone with an infectious joie de vivre. “A little pleasure with our business!” he says twice.

Though well-spoken, Gerard Dupuy’s English—like his French—flirts with slang, and, perhaps as a result of his having taught Adult Education at Angola prison for 30 years, he can be disarmingly direct. His accent is bending, and the tone of his voice commands the mood of the conversation. Throughout most of the summer, Gerard has been painting his house. He’s not finished yet, he tells us, but it is pas de problem—we can come whenever we’d like if we just give him about a week’s notice. He’ll cancel that day’s painting. He gives us his address and two routes to his place. One, he says, is more scenic. Then he pauses for a moment, listening to someone else in the room with him. “My wife says you all gonna get lost.” He laughs. “Don’t use your GPS. It’ll get you to my place eventually, but it’ll take you through a swamp.  It’s pretty! But I don’t think you’d make it.”

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We meet Gerard at a scrapyard in Moncla, and follow him down a long dirt road to his house. “We’re the north fort of Cajun culture!” Gerard tells us, as he parks his truck to lead us across his lawn and into the kitchen, where he removes the tobacco pipe from his mouth and takes a drink of water.

Moncla is a tiny corner of the town of Marksville, located in the ankle crease of Louisiana’s boot. The seat of the Avoyelles Parish, Marksville is a late-eighteenth-century hub of immigration where French, French-Canadian, Spanish, African, and Native American people mingled together. When Gerard calls it the north fort, he’s referring to the fact that these days the hub of traditional Cajun music sits to the south, in and around Lafayette—where we spent the early part of our week—in the arch of the sole.

Nothing we saw around Lafayette is a more genuine piece of folk art than Gerard’s house.  As he leads us through it, he explains how he has constructed it over his lifetime, one winding and intuitive section at a time. It’s a glorious, rambling narrative, varied in material and construction. The top-floor landing is flooded in the colored light from a grand 5-foot stained-glass church window, as if the house has one steady, kaleidoscopic eye on the bayou.

Gerard, wanting to show us the rest of his property, offers to drive us along the Red River that scribbles its northern border. We climb into his truck, worn-out from years of off-roading and construction work. The heat is stuck on in the cab. There’s a trick to getting the door to shut. Bottles, knives, and tools rattle around on the dashboard, musical instruments bang around in the bed.

Words spill from Gerard in a continuous, melodic stream, as if his whole lifetime of stories sits spring-loaded at the front of his mind, ready to unwind for each new set of ears. Though he stands only around five feet, he is solidly built and incredibly strong. In driving, his movements are light, quick, and confident. When he talks, he looks back and forth between the road and our faces, the worn leather hat that has molded itself to the shape of his head accenting the gesture. His stature and style cut a profile eerily similar to what you might imagine his French ancestors looked like two hundred years ago. His precious fiddle lies across our laps and bangs our knees as we barrel over the ruts and dips in the dirt road.

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Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who we recorded in Lafayette last week, recounted a story of his cousin in Marksville. He’s a fiddle player from the older generation, Louis said, and his signature is a Cyprus stump that he brings with him to gigs. He once saw Gerard fall back on the stump and continue playing wildly, rolling around, overcome, while his accordion player played on unfazed.

He’s the Cajun Stump Jumper, we said.

Cho! Co!

I didn’t know he was known that way!” Louis seemed excited at the new connection. “Just thought he was a guy who jumped a Cyprus stump.”

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Driving through the woods past his daughter’s house, Gerard asks us about our week in Louisiana so far. He wants to know about the young musicians we’ve seen and recorded in our travels around the country: from his own cousin Louis in Arnaudville to Sea of Bees in Sacramento, Little Wings in Topanga Canyon, Ella Mae Bowen in Nashville, Adam Arcuragi back home in New York, who Gerard knows from a bill they once shared in Marksville. We tell him we’ll record the band Feufollet in a few days in Lafayette.

The New Cajun is a culture of welcome. Welcome is what we have found everywhere. Xenophobic, insular culture, c’est passé. Today everyone can be Cajun. The young people of Louisiana tell us that they are learning to speak French by choice, learning accordion and fiddle out of respect for their heritage. For Alex, speaking the French of his mother’s Quebecois family each day is a deeply personal experience. And the curiosity of the musicians, their sincere eagerness to collaborate and share, is moving to us both. We all yearn to belong to something bigger than ourselves, and though each of our stories will be different, we are bonded by our journey to find them.

When we mention Feufollet, he wants to know what we know of the feux follets, the fires in the swamps; the little lights that some Cajuns believe lead you home and some believe lead you to mischief.

“Patchafa.” He says. He sees the lights sometimes, late at night. “Patchafa,” he repeats. “The swamp devil.” Gerard stops the truck periodically, grabs his fiddle, and jumps out to play it, trying the sounds everywhere, testing the air, singing a bit. His dogs, Hooch, Kijo and Gypsy, who’ve been following us, stop and wait patiently when he does this. Once Gerard feels satisfied, we move on.

Dupuy’s property is overgrown, and the road through it is worn with ruts so deep the truck gets stuck sometimes and we have to rock it out. He tells us the story of one Christmas when he was working at Angola and his truck got stuck in a snowdrift far out on the farm.  He had to radio for help and wait for the inmate on duty to come pull him out. Angola is a huge place, and he waited a long time in the dark.

We turn a bend in the road, and the 100-year-old wooden cabin appears. The forest around it crowds in close, but Gerard’s handiwork and love for the structure has kept it from being taken. He loans out the cabin for Civil War reenactments, he tells us. It doubles as a fort, and he doubles as a rebel (Dupuy’s grandfather was a Civil War soldier with a survival story that involved a hollow log and a spider web).

On the back porch we meet the famed Cyprus stump. Gerard shows us how it works, playing his fiddle while seated on the edge of it, stomping out a rhythm on a homemade pedal-and-pipe machine. He does not jump, the mood never reaches that pitch. It’s more of a mellow, early evening song.

Moving inside, he improvises a blues on guitar and harp.

Patchafa! The first will be last and the last will be first! 

He plays the whole house. The ceilings answer his feet on the floor. He is telling the story of our day so far, singing to the people and ideas that have passed through our conversation.

The song is done. A light rain starts to fall. A little look at the river, then it’s time to relax. A short mission into town and the truck is loaded with boudin, dried shrimp, Coors Light. He drives us up the levy road under a big moon as armadillos scurry to avoid the truck’s tires.

“What the shit you all doing on a back road in Louisiana right now, eh?” He chuckles.Gerard woods3Sml

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When the sun comes up, work begins on the house (Gerard is repainting) and the sounds of ladders hitting the wall wake the household. His energy is miraculous considering that 3 a.m. this morning had found us in the Fort DeRussy Cemetery, asking the advice of his spirit acquaintances.

Keep the lights on and the motor running. Watch out for loup-garou. Werewolf. Nous sommes invités.

This morning we are tired, but the night’s long efforts had paid off. Inspiration had struck! We would be ready to record tonight.  The reason for the song may have been discovered: Unpredictability is the key to survival. You have to unchord.

Today, before we make our record, Gerard wants to take us around town in the daylight, improvising our tour like he improvises his songs.  We take our little gray Kia and he sits shotgun, pointing out noteworthy places and announcing unscheduled stops. The car feels powered by his enthusiasm, guided by the track of his sweeping, looping narration. “That’s the oldest establishment in town, there! You like crab burgers? Let’s get us some!”
Gerard asks us a lot of questions about New York. He wants to know about Coney Island and the Bronx, Hurricane Sandy and September 11th. He wants to know about our backyard gardens at home—what do we grow? His memory is fantastic and he can converse on almost any topic. There is a hunger to know, to relate.  He hasn’t travelled much, besides a recent music-driven pilgrimage to France, but he knows about people.

Gerard tells us repeatedly, jovially, that he is not technically Cajun or Acadian. Nor is he, technically, Creole. He identifies most as French Colonial, his ancestors having come to the area in the 1700s and maintained their European cultural ties. It’s the reason that the trip to France, which he mentions often, was so meaningful for him. And he has an intense pride and interest in Civil War stories. He feels the importance of his people choosing to fight in a war to defend a land they had only newly adopted as their own. In his mind, he is a Frenchman who fought for the South.

He takes us to the nearby public wildlife refuge so we can see the gnarled Cyprus roots, the swamp weeds, the alligators. We watch a gator slowly stalk a bird, gliding toward it like a log. Gerard bends down to the water to wiggle his fingers below its surface. Can it be safe to be so close to the water with gators in it? We’ve hiked down the embankment to the water with him. “They’re timid. Timid,” he declares. “Till you draw blood.”

In the car as we head back to his house to record, he’s pensive, a little tired from the three hours of sleep. He says very little for the first time since we’ve been with him. In the heat and the tiring light of the Louisiana afternoon he suddenly seems his age.

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We return to the house and start to set up. Gerard naps, briefly, and returns to the kitchen recharged and smartly dressed in a clean black t-shirt, blue jeans, and boots. The weariness of the afternoon is gone like a mirage.  His hat, his constant companion, sits with integrity at the top of the new outfit.  His performance attire.

He is far away again, somewhere just distantly off this plane of existence, not quite in our reality now, ready to converse with his French Colonial ancestors and whatever other spirits might be out tonight.

We have set up in his music room, attached to the kitchen by two French doors, and he joins us there, taking a look at the Presto, and then wandering over to inspect his bass, guitar, and fiddle to see which is speaking to him. As he tries each one in turn, he explains that his intention when he plays is usually to affect the experience of the room as a whole. To create a common experience.  He explains that he can’t know what we’re thinking about as we’re listening, just as we cannot be privy to what he’s thinking about when he’s playing.

“But at least I’m controlling the feelings with the vibrations.”

The first song he calls an interpretation of a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras captain’s call, the other is an improvisation. Both are completely dragged into being on the spot and neither contains a trace of traditional song structure.

Gerard plays the instruments by bowing them at various levels of tension and hitting them with short lengths of PVC piping. He slides the short pipe between the strings of the bull fiddle and bows it until it emits a high-pitched, faraway moan. Wind through a reed. His shredded bow draws rhythmically across the low, coiled strings. They tremble with the intensity of the gesture and respond, quivering at his beckoning.

“Mardi Gras!” He hollers. He waits, then hollers more. He is invoking. Defante! Defan Pauvre! He seems to say. Nous sommes en d’oeuille. We are in mourning.
His music tonight is a war chant, an exorcism, a question to the universe about what’s just beyond the furthest reaches of our sense of sight and sound.  The spirituality it expresses exists beside and beyond the Catholic pageantry of his French ancestry, the scholarly Mormonism of his wife, the witchy Voodoo of the swamp woods all around.

Dit mon la verite’!

It feels like a new religion he is inventing on the spot. There seems to be no bottom to it, no satisfying finish possible once things have gotten this far away from the ground, but the songs eventually conclude. They must. The record is full and the Presto switches off.

He is back in the room.

“Great spirit,” he says. “Uncharted waters, man.”

The 78 Project Movie

The 78 Project Movie is now available on DVD and online! The 78 Project Movie continues to screen in theaters around the world. To celebrate the launch of The 78 Project Movie in theaters nationwide, The 78 Project creators took the film on a road trip (much like the way we shot it!), appearing live at screening events around the country. The film has […]

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Premiere Night at 78rpm: Listen to Kevin Russell’s “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” 78, recorded live at SXSW Film

Three weeks and 1,836 miles ago, The 78 Project Movie played for the first time on the big screen. It was the night we would have dreamed of, if we’d dared to, when we first began to edit together the hundreds of hours of footage we shot over the course of that life-changing year. The programmers and staff of SXSW were inspiring, and the hundreds of friends, family and festivalgoers who came to our four screenings showed us, our artists and our film incredible support. We’re so grateful to them.

Today we wanted to bring a piece of the evening to you, in the form of an acetate we cut right there on the SXSW stage at our movie premiere. Kevin Russell is a favorite son of Austin, TX, and we were honored to record him singing the lullaby that he has made a tradition in his family by singing it to each of his three children right after they were born.

Recorded live at the Vimeo Theater during SXSW Film Festival

We’re honored to be invited to show the film at more great festivals, starting in April in a city that has been integral to the film’s very existence, at the Nashville Film Festival. The 78 Project Movie will be showing in the Music Films / Music City Competition. Also in April, The 78 Project Movie will screen at Independent Film Fest Boston. Keep an eye on the festival websites for tickets, and let us know if you’ll be there!

Sign up for our email list in the homepage sidebar to get the latest news on upcoming screenings.  We’ll keep you in the loop.

Fairer Than Day: Hear The Secret Sisters’ 78s “In the Sweet By and By” and “Little Again”

The Lindsley Avenue Church of Christ on a warm August day was ethereal, filled with morning light and the excitement of a new record about to be made. The Secret Sisters had a glowing loveliness brighter even than the stained glass as they warmed up to make their 78. While we set up, the girls took out the hymnal and sang their way through it.  They knew every song, and their voices from so many years of praise and practice, were like perfectly tuned church bells ringing from their happiness.

Lydia and Laura were raised in the church at home in Alabama.  So singing a hymn brought back memories of their childhood. But their flipside, “Little Again” is an even more personal tune, sung by the two little girls who grew up together, running in rivers, scraping their knees, and building a sweet sisterly closeness into a lifelong musical bond.

Thank you to the Lindsley Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville for generously letting us in and lending us their beautiful space.

Louisiana Bound: Our last road trip to make The 78 Project movie

A Sunday in the Bayou is as perfect as it sounds. Bright sun, fresh eggs from the chickens outside, and music all through the house. We made it to Louisiana!

It’s been an eventful first couple of days on the road, and this trip feels filled with excitement and promise.  We started out with a visit to the Library of Congress Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA.  Built into the side of a mountain, the building is a beautiful sight coming up the road.  And inside, it’s filled with treasures. Matt Barton, Brad McCoy, and Bryan Hoffa were kind enough to show us around and demonstrate some of their process. They played us a 7″ shellac disc from 1905 to show us how they capture the sound, and taught us their tried and true trick for centering a disc punched with an off-center hole. It involves a pencil.

Rare recordings and recording gear, and expert archivists working hard to make the material available to the public.  The history of our nation’s recordings are being preserved in Culpeper, and it was inspiring to see the wonderful work that they’re doing. And in fact, about 10,000 of the historical recordings they’ve transferred are available to stream on their National Jukebox.

A quick stop in Lynchburg, VA and the lovely hospitality of some new friends Joan and George recharged our batteries for the long drive to Nashville.  We crossed state lines at the Birthplace of Country Music: Bristol, TN/VA and we took in the sites for a few.  It’s not every town that can lay claim to the first recordings of Jimmie Rogers and The Carter Family as well as count Clarence Ashley, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Uncle Charlie Osborne as one-time residents.  If you find yourself there, might we suggest you eat at Eatz?

 

Nashville was as warm and welcoming as always, and it was wonderful to be there exactly one year to the week since we last came this way. But we couldn’t stay long, we were Louisiana bound!

Since this is our last movie trip, it’s a great opportunity to support The 78 Project. We have vintage Louisiana postcards in hand, ready to mail out to thank you for your generosity. And it won’t be a long journey now from road to screen for the film.  We’d love to see your name in the credits, and to see you in person at a screening. And if you donate to The 78 Project through our fiscal sponsorship with IFP your donation is tax-deductible. Donations we receive now will go to our post-production fund and will be essential in giving the film a beautiful finish!

Donate to The 78 Project

Episode #15: The warmth of our spirits: Dylan LeBlanc “Innocent Sinner” video clip and acetate

We’ve been hard at work in the editing room since returning home in January from our California road trip. And though we sit in the same room every day as we sort the hours of footage we’ve shot so far for The 78 Project movie, there’s no possibility of sameness or fatigue. Each day we are transported to another room, any of the many different and beautiful rooms all around the country we’ve been invited into to film and make 78s.

This week as scenes from our Southern journey emerged on our editing monitors, the drudgery of winter had disappeared and suddenly summer was bearing down with the last of its might. We were transported to a sunny high-ceilinged room in Nashville mesmerized by a sultry and spectacular sound: the voice of Dylan LeBlanc.

We wanted to show it to you the moment we saw it.  Haunting and reverent and filled with purity and magic, it called to us like the endless roads of our journey, reminded us of the warmth of your support, made us want to say thank you right now and always.

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