“Roses While I’m Living” by The Mynabirds | The 78 Project

by Michael Todd

Stop and consider what it takes for these words and the live video below to reach your eyes and ears. Think about the number of technological breakthroughs, the myriad great minds who made the digital age possible. Now rewind.

It all has a beginning, and The Mynabirds are one of a handful of artists so far to lend a reminder of how recorded music of a portable variety took some of its first steps. Through a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax,” The 78 Project uses one microphone, one authentic 1930s PRESTO direct-to-disc recorder and one blank lacquer disk to go back in time, if just for a few minutes.

Director Alex Steyermark says a personal obsession helped him track down a few PRESTOs through connections he's gained by working in the film industry as a music supervisor, producer and director. Although the recordings so far have turned out as planned, he said everything from temperature changes to a slight change in the height of the recorder's cutting head could cause problems.

"We sort of view the inherent flaws that come with the project as part of the charm," Steyermark says. "It reminds you that there was a time when the sheer effort of getting a recorded performance captured was not easy."

"Alan Lomax has said that a large part of his training before embarking on his first field recording trip was learning how not to be afraid of the PRESTO. We at The 78 Project know exactly what he means. It’s a fine line between a beautiful, even groove filled with the earth-shattering sounds of a live musician singing their heart out, and a wobbly, uneven, catscratch."

The 78 Project's writer and producer Lavinia Jones Wright says she asked The Mynabirds' Laura Burhenn to take part in the first week of recording because of Burhenn's love of Americana music and her strength as a performer. Burhenn's family comes from West Virginia, and her ancestry could very well tie her genetically to the video's song — "Roses While I'm Living" by Dock Boggs — as her mother's maiden name is also Boggs.

"Laura has a beautiful warm, loving spirit, so we shaped the piece around that, gathering friends together in my backyard to listen to her record her song, and to lend some stomps and claps to the performance," Jones Wright says. "Our hope was to capture a feeling of friendship and gratitude, and to show, through her interpretation of the song, Laura's strong connection to her roots."

"Roses While I'm Living" returns to the past while paying mind to the present. Burhenn chose it as a reminder to care for loved ones and life while she still has a chance. She wrote a new chorus for the song, and Rachel Ries sang harmony, thanks in part to mutual friends in These United States, who introduced Ries to Burhenn.

"When I was asked to participate in the 78 Project, I knew immediately I wanted to explore my Appalachian roots, even though the Southern spirituals and blues of the early American song canon are more my style," Burhenn says. "'Roses While I'm Living' was the perfect song in Dock's catalogue. It's a hymn without being religious or preachy, and there's a darkness and also a lovingness to the lyrics.

"It's important to remember that a lot of these early songs were passed down orally for generations," she continued. "It was only until the early recording pioneers, like Lomax, went out and carved the songs into acetate that they were allowed to escape the eternal storytelling tradition."

Along with the performance, Burhenn talks more specifically about her choice in the video below:

"Give me roses while I'm living
Sing to me sweet songs while I'm here
Kind words of care, love, comfort the living
They do not calm the dead, my dear"

Michael Todd is a Hear Nebraska contributor. He'd like to live in a time in which ghostly electronic beeps from some unknown source didn't trip his mind's security system. Seriously, what was that noise? Reach him at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.