The 78 Project time travels through sound

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Yesterday’s technology combined with today’s musicians make for an unforgettable experience.

By Rita Savard | Photos courtesy of The 78 Project

Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright have cracked the secret of time travel.

If you believe music can transcend time and space, then The 78 Project offers a sonic journey into the past, present and future via a 1930s Presto recording turntable, whose inventor, George Saliba, hails from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Directed by Steyermark and produced by Wright, the award-winning documentary spotlights their year on a cross country road trip where musicians from all backgrounds were asked to pick an old song with special meaning to them and then record it using the 1930s technology.

There was a catch. The Presto turntable is direct-to-disc, allowing only one chance to cut a three-minute maximum recording.

“It can be nerve-wracking,” Wright says. “But that was part of the wonder of it all. The musicians can immediately hear the play back of their recording, and they were always swept away with how beautiful their performance sounded. It is incredibly powerful and moving to watch and listen to that moment unfold.”

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John Paul Keith recording The Knoxville Girl at the Hi Tone in Memphis.

Named for the speed at which they revolve, 78s are the distant ancestors of today’s digitally downloaded singles.

From the bony, restless picking of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads to the deep bluesy wail of Lead Belly or the tasty boogie woogie bass in Mary Lou Williams’ jazz piano, 78s — and the music lovers determined to preserve a piece of time — were responsible for capturing and storing songs of the past so they could make it to our ears today.

Much of the recognition belongs to legendary musicologist Alan Lomax, who, in the 1930s, traveled all over the country with a Presto recording thousands of performances from then-unknowns like Lead Belly, the Carter family, Muddy Waters, Guthrie, Son House and countless more.

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Producer Lavinia Jones Wright and Director Alex Steyermark huddled over their Presto recorder.

Many of those recordings cut from Lomax’s ambitious undertaking now live in national archives at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and The Smithsonian, which the filmmakers visit.

With a wink and nod to Lomax, whose spirit seems ever-present in The 78 Project, Steyermark and Wright pull together an unforgettable collection of songs from a cross section of veteran and up-and-coming artists recorded everywhere from a Brooklyn botanical garden and a Mississippi church to musician’s own kitchens, front porches and backyards.

John Doe of X, Victoria Williams, Dylan LeBlanc, Sea Of Bees, Little Wings and many more show up along the way. Even actor John C. Reilly makes a surprise appearance on a rendition of “Careless Love” with Tom Brosseau.

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John C. Reilly and Tom Brosseau performing Careless Love.

From the East coast to the West coast, watching the musicians’ expressions as they listen to the finished product never gets old.

One scene even places the filmmakers inside the home of Bob Saliba, son of Presto inventor, George Saliba.

Although Saliba went on to manufacture his powerhouse instant recording devices in New York City, he was the son of Syrian immigrants and spent his childhood and teen years in Lowell before moving on to study engineering at MIT.

Presto’s lacquer coated instantaneous recording discs were the industry standard for all from radio and television networks to home recording.

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Manufacturing Prestos in the 1930s. Each recorder was made by hand.

Part of the fun is also watching Wright meticulously brush the fine threads away from the spinning record during each recording— a task that has to be done with care to prevent a ball of thread from building up, which, when combined with the friction of the moving object, could burst into flames.

In the end, The 78 Project produces one hot soundtrack.

Director Steyermark who has worked on film music collaborations with Spike Lee, Ang Lee, and Jonathan Demme, says the journey isn’t so much about being rooted in nostalgia, but the experiences that transform when the here and now plugs into the past.

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Dawn Landes listens to her recording of The Brown Girl at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Bringing that notion home in The 78 Project is musician Coati Mundi, who puts a Latin rap twist on an Appalachian ballad called “Billy Boy.” Pieces of the song have been stuck in Mundi’s memories since he first overheard the tune being sung by a relative while he was just a boy growing up in Spanish Harlem.

“It’s a moment that gets to the heart of what we’re trying to show, about where these songs come from and how they are still influential today,” Steyermark says. “And there’s something really special about this kind of unadorned process — one microphone in the recorder and one take. It puts the focus on what recording really is, which is trying to freeze and capture a moment in time.”

Look for The 78 Project playing at The Luna Theater in January, lunalowell.com and listen to the music at the78project.com

About The Author

Rita Savard
Founder & Executive Editor

Founder and Executive Editor Rita Savard grew up in Lowell and is a forever-proud Acre girl. An Emerson College alum, she was also an award-winning journalist at The Sun newspaper before exiting to start Howl in 2012 — the answer to managing her addiction for local pop culture. She falls in love with music, movies, books, stray dogs and telling people’s stories.