Soul Searchers 

Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital Records unearths the origins of blues legend John Fahey

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click to enlarge OFFICE SPACE: "Dust-to-Digital's role is to save the music that we deem important." — Lance and April Ledbetter - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • OFFICE SPACE: "Dust-to-Digital's role is to save the music that we deem important." — Lance and April Ledbetter

The seeds for Dust-to-Digital were planted when Ledbetter began researching gospel music for the 20th-century archives show "Raw Music" on Georgia State's student radio station, WRAS (88.5 FM), in spring 1999. After Ledbetter picked up a copy of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways), he was puzzled. Of the set's four CDs, only one-half of one disc featured gospel music.

Curious to find more, he scoured libraries, record stores and the Internet, digging up whatever traces of primitive American gospel music he could find. During his research, one name popped up at nearly every turn: Joe Bussard. After finding an article from Washington City Paper titled "Desperate Man Blues: Record Collector Joe Bussard Parties Like It's 1929," he had a lead. The story painted a picture of Bussard as the self-proclaimed "king of record collectors," describing him as someone who had "spent most of his waking hours in pursuit of old 78s. To call it a hobby would be an insult: It was his life."

After reading the story he looked up Bussard's number and gave him a call. Immediately they hit it off, and soon Ledbetter paid a visit to his fabled basement stronghold. Bussard's collection of more than 25,000 78s turned out to be a rich resource for the music Ledbetter had set out to find.

Within days Bussard was filling up cassette tapes with volumes of antique songs and field recordings and mailing them to him — 50 cents per song. For Ledbetter, taking them all in was akin to a religious experience. After receiving the packages in the mail from Bussard, Ledbetter would clack in the tapes, put on a pair of headphones and spend hours lying in his bed, transported to a time and place he'd never been. "These recordings made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," he says. "I thought, 'Why isn't anybody reissuing this stuff?'"

Lance and April started dating just before Lance's gospel music quest began. "I didn't get it at first," April says. "When Lance started talking about how busy he was going to be with all of this gospel music, I thought, 'Why is he doing this great big project?' But the more time I spent with the music, I saw that there was so much passion and excitement to it than I had ever realized. The more you listen to it, you see that without gospel music, a lot of other genres of music wouldn't exist now. But because it's religious music, a lot of people aren't willing to give it a chance," she adds. "You have to be an adventurous listener for a lot of our releases."

Although Dust-to-Digital was founded on gospel music, and has even released Jesus Christ from A to Z — recordings by living artist Reverend Johnny L. "Hurricane" Jones, the label has a much broader palette. Thai country groove music from the '50s and '60s, Chinese opera, Persian folk songs, hillbilly, jazz, blues and more have all appeared under the label's name.

Before delving into Goodbye, Babylon, Ledbetter had interned with the formerly Atlanta-based avant-garde music label Table of the Elements, known for the elaborate packaging and demanding nature of releases by such early minimalism luminaries and outsider musicians as Tony Conrad, John Cale (Velvet Underground), Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and even a few of Fahey's later records.

During his time with TotE, Ledbetter also made friends with the label's regular designer Susan Archie. "Lance was the courier boy!" Archie recalls. "He used to deliver artwork and materials to me. One day he said, 'I have this gospel music project that I want to do.' He'd thought the whole thing through."

Around that same time, Archie won a Grammy award for her design work on Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton for Revenant in '03. The prospects of bringing her on board boded well for Ledbetter, and in February of 2003, Goodbye, Babylon emerged as a collection of 135 songs and sermons recorded between 1902 and 1960, packaged in a cedar box, stuffed with cotton, complete with a 200-page booklet that paid elegant respect to the music, the likes of which the genre has never seen before or since. Lance and April were living in a 900-square-foot apartment in Midtown, and when the first shipment of Goodbye, Babylon arrived, there was barely an inch of space to move around the floor-to-ceiling stacks of wooden boxes.

Goodbye, Babylon was nominated for a Grammy award, but it didn't win. However, one night while listening to NPR's "Weekend Edition," Ledbetter caught a Neil Young interview. "I recently got a gift from Bob Dylan, a good old friend of mine," Young said. "He gave me a gospel collection of great old American music and early country roots from old 78s. It's the original wealth of our recorded music; it's the cream of the crop and has the history of each recording. It's a great old set called Goodbye, Babylon, and it's incredible. It's in a wooden box and everything, and it's just so beautiful."

"I hit the floor," Ledbetter says.

Rev. T. T. Rose and Singers: Goodbye, Babylon by dusttodigital

(Curiously, in 2010, six years after its release, Brian Eno included Goodbye, Babylon on his year-end list of favorite records. "Better late than never," Ledbetter laughs. "That felt like plenty enough validation for me.")

Ledbetter estimates that three-fourths of the material used for Goodbye, Babylon was culled from Bussard's collection, and it was sifting through Fonotone's cache that yielded Dust-to-Digital's next major endeavor, Fonotone Records: Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969).

Not too many of Fonotone's hand-cut records made it beyond the Mid-Atlantic, but that only made the music all the more compelling for Ledbetter to stamp it in time. The down-home catalog of recordings was a far cry from Goodbye, Babylon, but the music carried a distinct sense of community. Much of the material features Bussard and friends "pickin' and hollerin'" under various, somewhat ridiculous names, such as Possum Holler Boys, Tennessee Mess Arounders and Blind Thomas, an early alias used by Fahey, and the Mississippi Swampers, which was Fahey recording with his friend Mike Stewart, aka Backward Sam Firk.

Henry Owings of Chunklet magazine was tapped to design the cigar box set, which came stuffed with CDs, photographs from various recording sessions, and a thorough booklet of interviews and liner notes. "We wanted to create a mental picture of what was going on down in that basement all of those years, and incorporate it into the packaging," Ledbetter says. "When you open it, you're stepping into Joe's basement anywhere from 1956 to '69, and you get a feel for exactly what was going on down there."

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