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Babylon revisited 

Locally made box set unearths forgotten gospel gems

When Lance Ledbetter began researching gospel music for the "20th Century Archives" radio show on Georgia State's WRAS, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Nearly five years later, Ledbetter's search has yielded some 160 recordings that might have been forgotten forever if he hadn't brought them together for the six-CD box set, Goodbye, Babylon.

Released by Ledbetter's newly formed re-issue label, Dust-to-Digital (www.dust-digital.com), Goodbye, Babylon features sacred music and sermons recorded between 1902 and 1960. The collection is a comprehensive point of access to an increasingly forgotten era of American spiritual music, the likes of which the genre has never had. Packaged in a cedar box, stuffed with cotton and a 250-page booklet highlighting the featured performers, Goodbye, Babylon is a spectacle for the eye and ear that breathes new life into this antique music.

It all began when Ledbetter received Harry Smith's renowned Anthology of American Folk Music, handsomely reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997. The four-CD set dedicated only half of one disc to gospel music. Ledbetter set out to find more, but the material was scarce. His search led to a collector of rare 78-rpm records, who began sending tapes of his collection to Ledbetter for 50 cents per disc.

Soon, the idea for a re-issue label was born. "I would spend hours listening to these tapes and go places I had never been," Ledbetter says. "These recordings made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I thought, 'Why isn't anybody re-issuing this stuff?'"

Ledbetter also crossed paths with a second collector, who pushed him to cover as much material as possible. He filled five CDs of songs and field recordings -- from well-known artists like Hank Williams Sr. and the Carter Family, to little known figures like Sister O.M. Terrell and Rigdel's Fountain Citians. The sixth disc unleashes a collection of fiery sermons meant to scare the pants off of sinners and saints alike. Throughout Rev. J.M. Gates' "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus," A.W. Nix's "Black Diamond Express to Hell" or George Jones' "That White Mule of Sin," the congregation's reactions are just as eerie as the preachers' deliveries. The passion of the sermons blasting sinners from all walks of life, filtered through the wrinkled recording quality, capture the religious fervor of the old South with haunting clarity.

Prior to gathering material for Goodbye, Babylon, Ledbetter worked as an intern for the formerly Atlanta-based boutique label, Table of the Elements. TotE is well known for the elaborate packaging and obscure nature of its releases, and it was in TotE's footsteps that Ledbetter followed. During his internship he had met the label's graphic designer, Susan Archie, who would later go on to receive a Grammy for her work on the Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charlie Patton, a box set by similarly styled archival music label, Revenant. Archie agreed to design Ledbetter's release. He also called upon Air Show Mastering to clean up the recordings, and on David Evans to write the liner notes -- both of whom worked on the Patton box set as well. It only made sense that when Ledbetter's release hit the streets, critics and fans immediately began making their own Grammy predictions for Goodbye, Babylon.

Ledbetter has heard the buzz and certainly appreciates the enthusiasm, but he doesn't want to take his focus off of the task at hand -- giving these recordings the proper release they deserve. "For me, everything adds up to what it's going to take to get people to hear the music," Ledbetter says. "If the packaging has to be great, then it has to be great. If that means there's going to be a Grammy at the end of the year and a Grammy draws people's attention to it, than so be it."

CHAD.RADFORD@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

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