Thursday, April 19, 2018


If I slept two or three restless hours on the night of Sunday, March 4, 2018, I don’t remember. All sorts of unsettling scenarios kept nagging me every time I began to drift—nobody would show up, the historic windstorm would double back, I would improbably fail my partners Emily and Erich with some horrendous oversight—until I threw myself out of bed at daybreak and began hoofing toward the Capital Fringe Trinidad Theatre in Washington’s H Street Corridor. I carried in my backpack what any good co-producer would carry: a couple of four-terabyte hard drives and ten home-made (hand-crafted!) sandwiches. 

A little back-story: After reading my research-post on the song “Li’l Liza Jane,” Emily Cohen contacted me last July. She and I had collaborated on several earlier projects, but hadn’t spoken in a couple years. We both declared that we required something else in our lives, something bigger than ourselves. After a typical Emily-Dan conversation (okay: sometimes we quarrel, we’ve had some classic donnybrooks, but it’s very productive!) we decided to embark upon a documentary film project. We would call it Li’l Liza Jane: A Movie About A Song. Around Thanksgiving, the luminary cinematographer Erich Roland joined the team as Director of Photography and we began planning the production of a fundraising trailer. In time, we settled on the Trinidad Theatre space and the date, March 5th. Everything would happen there and then. 

A couple days before my night of tossing and turning, a severe windstorm with hurricane-force gusts pummeled the D.C. area, upending trees and power lines. It spared the Trinidad Theatre, however, and it spared Emily, who lives in Wyoming, and who made it to D.C. after enduring a few frustrating air-travel delays. The crew—including Andrew Capino (Assistant Camera) and Lenny Schmitz (Sound Engineer)—had already begun to load-in a copious amount of gear when I arrived. Emily and her personal assistant (her father Mike) arrived with coffee. Our featured musician Phil Wiggins brought a bag of thirty harmonicas to the filming session. Our featured interviewees Faye Moskowitz, Bobby Hill, and Elena Day appeared, and all four of our people-to-be-filmed brought their A games. So did the fabulous Capital Fringe staffer, David Carter, who assisted us throughout the day.

Phil kept a harmonica in each hand and played both interchangeably as he cycled through his stirring rendition of “Li’l Liza Jane” again and again. Faye surprised us not only by singing, but singing “Liza Jane” lyrics that nobody had ever heard before. Bobby emphasized that African American people didn’t always have a chance to describe their plight, and so, told their stories in song. Elena emphasized that, at the heart of “Li’l Liza Jane,” stands an independent woman who would be an impressive person, now, during an era when women are empowering themselves. As opposed to the worst happening (as when I panicked, sleepless) the best had happened, instead. Each person put her or his stamp on the session.

Check out our trailer [click here] if you haven’t done so already. The amount of effort and professionalism on display speaks to the great affection we have for music, for one another, and for the support of a good cause. The full story of America’s favorite poor gal, Li’l Liza Jane, will be told, and with any luck, this trailer will be helpful in attracting funders to the project. Emily and I will be following every lead, tirelessly, in the days to come. By doing so, and by eventually endowing the film with adequate resources, we hope to reward the trust of all the crew members and interviewees who helped us to create this preview. Notably, we want to think of the men and women—dating back nearly 200 years, enslaved people and hardscrabble fiddlers alike—who recited some of the original versions of the tune, as well as Li’l Liza Jane herself. . . . .whoever, and how many different women, she may be.

               Trailer Day Trivia
               Varieties of sandwiches: 3
               Renditions of “Li’l Liza Jane”: 2
               Number of fog machines: 1
               Crew members: 5
               Number of temple oranges: 7
               Cans of sparkling “Refreshe”: 12
               Number of microphones: 3

               Guide to the Photographs
               1. Phil Wiggins
               2. Emily Cohen, Erich Roland, Andrew Capino, and Phil Wiggins
               3. Faye Moskowitz
               4. Tape
               5. Elena Day
               6. Bobby Hill and crew
               7. Emily Cohen and Dan Gutstein

               Still photography by Mike Cohen (1, 3, 4, 5, 6) and Dan Gutstein (2, 7)


Casey Smith said...





Ted Zook said...

What an amazing project; what a fine start!


Thanks for the kind words, Ted!


Gerald Ross said...

wow. great job Dan. can't wait to see this! glad to hear your co-director lives in WY. serious guts to live (or come from) there.


Thanks, Gerald. I really appreciate it. I know that you hail from Wyo., Sir. It's obviously a gutsy, inspirational place with much natural beauty. ----B.A.