Lance Ledbetter Interview
Dust To Digital’s Divine Grace
By James Calemine
The story of Dust To Digital is a divine one. In the late 1990s, Lance Ledbetter set out to discover rare recordings of gospel music. His journey led him to issuing landmark box sets that rank as some of the most memorable recordings in American music. Dust To Digital transfers rare 78 rpm records to digital form. In 2003, Ledbetter began the Atlanta, Georgia, label. The same year, Dust To Digital released a remarkable 6 CD box set--Goodbye, Babylon--that was lauded and praised by critics and music fans alike. Bob Dylan later gave a copy of Goodbye, Babylon to Neil Young as a gift.
The music of Dust To Digital is not mainstream, but it never goes out of style. Of course, most music fans aim for the more accessible discoveries based on taste. However, any music fan that discovers Dust To Digital will not forget the experience. It’s old American music from mostly the 1920s, 30s 40s and 50s. The songs, literature and artists on this label represent the most authentic and enduring of all spiritual music. Most of the music from Dust To Digital’s catalogue can only be heard through the label’s 13 releases. Each box set represents a different genre and style of music. The packaging itself remains unforgettable, complete with top-shelf books and every Goodbye, Babylon box set was packed with Alabama raw cotton. In the Preface of the Art of Field Recording Volume 1 book, Ledbetter wrote of his redemptive intention:
“In February 1999 I set out on a search to find early 20th century recordings of gospel music—the rawer and the more unbridled passion, the better. The music was for a weekly radio show I was producing in Atlanta, and the reason I was focused on this specific genre was because of the difficulty I had encountered locating reissues of religious music to broadcast. My initial findings led me to Joe Bussard, a record collector in Maryland who had amassed 25,000 commercially recorded 78 rpm records. We talked on the telephone, and he started sending me cassettes of his gospel collection. Listening to them, I was in disbelief that so much of this incredible and historic material was unavailable on CD. I began to see this research as a reissue project rather than a radio playlist because I knew the music could reach more listeners on CD than over the airwaves.
“Once I decided to reissue the music on CD, I started to look beyond Bussard’s collection and to seek out more recordings. This led me to the Library of Congress, an institution that had been sending out fieldworkers since 1928 to gather American folksongs. Using battery-operated recording devices, the LOC’s field collectors could record musicians in their natural environment, which is a stark contrast to the studio recordings on 78s. For gospel music this was significant because an engineer could go to a church or a festival and capture much longer performances than previous technologies allowed. Not only did the equipment allow for portability, but wider diameter discs were used in the 1930s and 1940s, and magnetic tape, which came into general use in the 1950s, also had advantages. No longer was a little more than three minutes the maximum length of what could be recorded…”
Among other accolades, appreciators and critical recognition--the prestigious Grammy Awards pursue Dust To Digital’s soulful products with dedication. In 2004, Goodbye, Babylon was nominated for Best Historical album and Boxed Set. In 2006, the Fonotone Records release was nominated for the same category. Last year, Dust To Digital won a Grammy for the Art of Field Recording Volume 1. This weekend (January 31), Ledbetter travels to Los Angeles for the Grammy’s again since Take Me To the Water is up for another Best Historic Album nomination. In this definitive Swampland/Mystery And Manners interview, Ledbetter discusses the provenance of the Dust to Digital, each release in detail, the art of recording, musical intent, historic significance and what is on the horizon for this inimitable label. In my humble opinion, Lance Ledbetter is an American hero of the highest order…
James Calemine: We’ve got a long journey ahead of us…so let’s begin. Where did you grow up?
Lance Ledbetter: I grew up in LaFayette, Georgia. It’s about 30 minutes south of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
JC: Did you have a musical family?
LL: Not too much. My mom played piano, but far as our family goes…her side of the family that we would see every so often had several musicians in it.
JC: You were born on an Easter Sunday. Did you have a real spiritual family?
LL: Oh yeah. Very religious Christian upbringing…
JC: Did you hear a lot of music growing up?
LL: Yeah, I did. When you compare it to Goodbye, Babylon it was some of the same songs but probably not as ecstatically captured like it was in the 20s and 30s. I learned a lot of songs back then.
JC: Where did you go to school?
LL: LaFayette High School and then Young Harris College and then Georgia State. Young Harris was just a two-year school in northeast Georgia.
JC: In college you had a good appetite for old music. Then you started working in a radio station, right?
LL: Yeah, when I was transferring from Young Harris college I really enjoyed music and two of the things I wanted to do no matter where I went to school was work at a radio station and to intern for a record company. Two main objectives that were probably more important than school—it was just what I was going to be doing because those were the two things I was interested in. I moved to Atlanta and probably within two weeks I was doing both. I got hired on at WRAS and started interning with a company called Table of the Elements.
JC: You’ve told me this story before, but for the sake of the readers I want you to tell it again. What was the impetus for Dust To Digital and what became Goodbye, Babylon? You wanted to be able to preserve all this soulful spiritual music…
LL: What turned me onto it was when I went to Young Harris …well, growing up in high school I had a close-knit circle of friends who were really into different types of music, mostly rock music…
JC: By the way, can you play any instruments?
LL: Yeah (laughs), I was in some rock bands back in high school. When I went to Young Harris--that was my first exposure to a lot of kids from the Atlanta suburbs that were into the hippie-folk world. So, that was new territory for me because we didn’t really have that where I grew up. So, I made friends with some of those people. The music they were into was not really to my taste, but where we always found common ground was at a place in North Carolina that we would go—John C. Campbell’s Folk School—that was a place that carried on traditional music—folklore-type activities and that was my first exposure. Then when I moved to Atlanta, I was staying up on all types of music publications.
JC: What year did you move to Atlanta?
LL: 1996. It was right after the Olympics. I was always reading a lot of music publications and the Internet. It was around this time, a buzz started about The Anthology of American Folk Music was re-issued and how it was such a groundbreaking LP box set when it came out in the 50s. I read about it over and over in different magazines and then in 1997 when it finally came out I got a copy from a friend who worked at WREK. I was really curious to hear what all the music magazines were talking up so much. I got it and took it back to my apartment and listened to it—not knowing what to expect—and I fell in love with it. It was one of those moments where your life changes. Nothing was the same after that.
So, I was still working at WRAS and then there was a show called "20th Century Archives" that came on Sunday mornings. The DJ who did that show was Brian Montero. Our common ground was we were big John Fahey fans. We sort of co-hosted a Friday free-form show. He played a lot of Yazoo LPs and different things from that era. When he was going to leave the station because he was graduating and didn’t think anyone wanted to take the show over. At that point in time, all I had was The Anthology of American Folk Music. I said I was willing to give it a shot. I started doing the show "Raw Musics". I started going around town looking at different used LPs and re-issues from the 20s and 30s.
That’s when I realized I could find country, blues and jazz but with a show time at 9AM, I wanted some really good gospel music. That’s when I started looking into who were the record collectors that actually owned the records that Yazoo and such put out and that’s when I came across an article online about Joe Bussard. I got in touch with him and that’s when I told him what I was looking for. I think it was $20 a cassette he started sending. One gospel tape a week. It took me a year and a half just to go through what he sent me. It would blow my mind. I was playing a lot of it on the radio. It started really eating me how so much of that stuff he was sending you couldn’t find it in a record shop. It was nowhere to be found. That’s when I started thinking, ‘OK, I’ve always loved record labels and how they have this curatorial existence.’ I wanted to find out how you re-issue some of this gospel music. Originally, I thought it was going to be a single CD. Over time—a year and a half—listening to those cassettes it dawned on me.
JC: So, I’m sure it gets into copyrights. How did all that work?
LL: Well, what I did with several of the re-issue labels that I followed I talked to their owners and I found out from them what you’d have to do. What rights are necessary for you to put this out. Is this label still around? Who do you talk to at the label? Just a lot of footwork. Also, trying to find out who these artists were. There are so many of them—you’d look them up on the Internet and nothing would come up. After a while and a lot of searches I started noticing how some of these artists were showing on this play list of a radio station out of Washington D.C. The name of the show was "The Dick Spottswood Radio Show". I emailed him, and at that point in time, I’d been working on it for about a year or so I had a substantial amount of research that I’d been putting together from what I could find.
His response was sort of like, ‘Wow, we’ve been waiting for something like 78 collectors and DJs that focused on this.’ I guess everyone sort of noticed there was this black hole for gospel music. Fortunately, when I came knocking researchers and musicologists just opened the door. When I showed them what I was putting together I’d say 95% of them were eager to help however they could. They were very receptive. They knew it was an untold story—one of the big ones. So many focus on blues that was one of the driving forces that led me to gospel music because there was so much great music. I wanted there to be an access point people could approach this music. The stuff that was out there was so scattered…
JC: At this point did you have any particular landmark artists you wanted to expose?
LL: It wasn’t even the particular artists. What I wanted to do when I was compiling Goodbye, Babylon was I wanted to highlight sub-genres of gospel music…this gospel Christian genre umbrella.
JC: Like Sacred Harp…
LL: Exactly. You got blues guys masquerading as Deacons of their church for the recording companies, jug bands from Memphis that were going in a cutting spiritual records. There were so many different types of music. What I wanted to do was represent as many—if not all—of the sub-genres I came across and I wanted them to be the very best example of what was represented. I just kept digging deeper and deeper. I was talking to a lot of musicologists—a lot of them were helpful too. They’d point me in another direction, ‘You need this guy from Kentucky’. It just kept growing.
JC: So, were you still at the radio station by this point?
LL: What happened, in February of 1999—ten years ago this past February—I decided this was bigger than the radio station, and in my mind the radio station was kind of a hindrance to research, so I left the radio station. When I started going on it at a 40 hour a week basis in February of 1999. I started pouring over cassette tapes a record collector was sending me—about two per week. I was living in an apartment in Decatur and I had my tape deck set up, my headphones and I was just making notes on tracks I liked, artists I kept hearing more stuff that I liked and certain artists I didn’t care for just trying to research all of this out and that part of the project took a year and a half.
It wasn’t until about a year into it when I had extensive lists that I put on my computer, that’s when I started felt like I was ready to find out the musicology side of things. To seek out people who really knew more than I could find. That’s when I started to realize with Joe Bussard on the phone up in Fredericksburg, Maryland. He has about 30,000 records.
JC: He’s the Fonotone Records guy…
LL: That’s right. He’s one of the premiere 78 collectors of American vernacular music in the world. I’d ask him questions and Joe knows a lot, but when it came down to the minute details Joe just didn’t know a lot about them. Then I started to wonder who knows about this stuff. Then I went around to musicologists. I got in touch with Dick Spottswood and he knows a tremendous amount about every kind of music from that era. What he knew about the gospel artists and songs was spectacular. The other thing he knew was, ‘Oh, I see you’ve got some Sacred Harp on here—you’ll want to talk to Buelle Cobb in Alabama.’ He heard the African-American secular quartets and he told me I’d want to speak with Doug Seroff in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He knew the network of the extreme specialists.
So, that was the first year and a half was a huge band of songs. The next year and a half was doing all the research. Musicologists from all over the country—even several in England, one in Italy and one in the Netherlands—I was going around asking about particular articles written about particular person. Or a song I was interested in. did they found out information about this song--or a specific recording session. Who was playing tambourine on this track? We were getting down to the brass tacks. That took another year and a half.
It can almost be broken into three chapters: collecting the audio, figuring out how you re-issue it. The next year and a half was gathering the research. The third year and a half was putting it all together. At that point, I had over 300 tracks and I whittled it down to 160. It’s 135 songs and 25 sermons. I organized The Goodbye, Babylon tracks by theme. Then we started laying out the book. There’s a woman here in Atlanta, Susan Archie, who is most well known for the Charlie Patton Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues box set, which is gorgeous—everything you could say about it. It took a year and a half to lay the book out. I found the box company up in Canada. Technically, they make boxes for corporate giveaways, and I asked them if they could do this box set. They told me to send them the specs and they could do it.
Then I talked to my uncle's brother in Alabama and we lined him up to get cotton for the boxes. The cotton came from when I was talking to Susan about the book; she kept saying there should be a motif. I designed the wood box in my head then had it drawn up and we got a prototype. I was looking at where the CDs fit in the center of the box and there were these two areas on the left and the right and I told Susan I was thinking about using raw cotton to make it more organic and natural. I always wanted it to look like something that you’d find in the General Store in 1928. As soon as I told Susan I was going to use raw cotton—she was like, ‘That’s it! That’s your motif.’ So, she sort of ran with that on the CD sleeves and the book.
JC: What’s the significance of the book cover?
LL: It’s based on a Sacred Harp hymnbook. It’s an oblong book and the Sacred Harp hymnbooks are oblong. The size was already based the text on a 1911 Sacred Harp hymnal.
JC: Finally, the first copies of the timeless Goodbye, Babylon appear on your door-step...
LL: That was a story too. At that point and time living in Midtown and the wood boxes show up. We were going to do 1,000. In my mind, it was all just going to logistically happen as it happened. I should point out also, when we were designing the book, the thing I wanted to do was I wanted each page to represent the artist and the song—from Mahalia Jackson to Roosevelt Graves to Hank Williams to Ola Mae Terrell. Each person would be equally represented. To me, I felt the way this set was put together it was just the sum was going to be greater than all the parts. In my mind, sister Ola Mae Terrell was just as great as Hank Williams.
So, anyway, when the boxes showed up in Midtown, they weighed 2 pounds apiece, and there were 1,000 of them. This 18-wheeler pulls up to my apartment. It was crazy. We dealt with it as it came. Then the books showed up. The CDs showed up. My girlfriend April—who is my wife now—her sister had a condo that she was selling. It was vacant and she moved out and we ended up renting that from her, which was in Midtown also where we started doing a lot of our assembly. It was a surreal thing because we didn’t think…I thought we’d just sell 50 to 100 copies. I didn’t think it would take off. It all showed up in October of 2003, and I would say by February of 2004 we sold out of the 1,000.
JC: Tell the story of Bob Dylan giving Neil Young a copy of Goodbye, Babylon as a gift. That story served as the seed of how I actually tracked you down a few months later…
LL: Yeah. That was 2005. It was an article that was used on September 17, 2005. That was surreal as it gets. In January or February of 05 is when we went out to Los Angeles because it got nominated for two Grammy awards. I thought that was surreal as it could get. I remember it was like a Saturday morning and I got an email from my friend, a blues researcher up in Canada and he asked me if I just heard Weekend Edition, and he said Neil Young is on there talking about Goodbye, Babylon and I should listen. When they posted the audio it was surreal. Neil Young just talking about Goodbye, Babylon…
JC: How did Dylan get a copy of it?
LL: I guess he bought it from us. When he came through on his tour I got invited over to The Tabernacle by their sound guy Jules. Dylan’s guitarist at the time—Larry Campbell and his sound guy Jules—were big fans. They said Dylan was too. I went to dinner with them. I even got to watch Bob’s show from the side-stage, which was incredible. They just said Bob was a big fan. I didn’t get to meet Bob, but they gave me his badge and one of his harmonicas, which was a crazy experience. His badge looked like a sheriff’s badge that said ‘Dylan’. The harmonica has a piece of grip tape on it with the letter B. It came right off the side-stage right after the show. I got to hang out on the bus with the band and talked to them. I couldn’t believe they were such big fans. It was intense…
JC: Neil Young and Bob Dylan have a lot of fans, so I’m sure that stirred some curiosity. Everyone wants to know what Dylan is giving Neil. You know, Larry Campbell played on the new Black Crowes record—recorded at Levon Helm’s—and I gave the Crowes’ guitarist, Luther Dickinson copies of Goodbye, Babylon, Fonotone Records and the Anthology of the String Bass…he loves that stuff.
LL: I remember you telling me that. You always spread the word. That whole year was crazy. We’re putting together Goodbye, Babylon—hand-assembling, working our fingers to the bone. One thing in the back of my mind while working on Goodbye, Babylon—I went from 300 tracks to 160. I earmarked the 140 tracks that got left off. There were 15-18 tracks I thought would be a killer Christmas CD. Christmas CDs get a bad rap, but I thought some of the songs were so killer.
JC: That turned into the Dust To Digital release, Where Will You Be On Christmas Day?
LL: That’s it, Where Will You Be On Christmas Day? which came out in 2004—just in time for Christmas and that was pretty much driving around in Atlanta in between assembling Goodbye, Babylon listening, just hand-picking stuff. And those 15-18 tracks left over from Goodbye, Babylon besides talking to several musicologists we were able to fill out the CD at 24 tracks.
JC: It’s amazing no one ever really found any of this stuff. Fortunately, you came along.
LL: I know. I don’t know why. I think a lot of it has to do with now—even though Goodbye, Babylon took five years to compile—an awful long time—but I think if you had tried to do it in the 60s or 70s—it would’ve taken a lot longer; maybe ten or twenty years. Now, information can be sent rapidly. The research is much more available even now since I’ve put out Goodbye, Babylon. I just did the liner notes for our Baptism CD that is about to come out. There are huge newspaper archives online—it’s really changing. So, I think why people in the past haven’t done it is because I think it would have been virtually impossible.
JC: That’s true of this information age. What about actually transferring the 78s to digital? The technical aspect of sound quality…
LL: Absolutely, I’ve talked to people from the 60s when the 78 re-issue world-companies came up. It was done for a completely different purpose. Back then it was done just so collectors could hear other people’s records. They might have every Mississippi John Hurt record except two records and somebody could do a re-issue of all of them so the hardcore collectors could hear the ones that are missing. I’ve talked to several of the people who did the mastering and now pretty much mastering is going to be done on the computer. Splicing is done easily—it’s a mouse-click away. Taking pops and hiss out of 78s in those days was done with razor blades. You can’t imagine. If they have a pop now, it takes a second. Back then they’d splice it together again and listen to it all over just for one pop. So, that’s one example of how things have changed.
JC: It’s all a serious history lesson. So, after the Where Will You Be On Christmas Day? CD came out how did things progress from there?
LL: Well, when Goodbye, Babylon came out and it had the level of success that it did we were pretty overwhelmed by going right in and running a record company full force. That’s when we had to decide if we’d go away for another four and a half years and come back with an epic box set like Goodbye, Babylon, or would it be better to put something out that year to keep our name on people’s minds and send the message to our audience and music fans that we would be putting out things besides epic box sets. That’s when the idea came to me that we should do a Christmas CD and get it out in time for Christmas.
JC: Did you know Goodbye, Babylon was nominated for a Grammy at this point?
LL: It was weird timing because Goodbye, Babylon came out in October of 2003 and missed the deadline for 2004. The cut-off days are always weird. I had these songs left over from Goodbye, Babylon that would be great for a Christmas compilation. Once again, Dick Spottswood really came through on the Christmas stuff. I reached out to him and told him my idea about the Christmas album. We had those 15 tracks, and he contributed his ideas based on his radio show because he was doing thematic programs. He’d done a Christmas show for 40 years and it came together with just he and I working on it.
JC: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned Joe Bussard was sending you cassette tapes. Were those tapes just for Goodbye, Babylon or did they turn up on what came to be the next Dust To Digital release, Fonotone Records?
LL: No, that was stuff that ended up on Goodbye, Babylon. What we would do, whatever we would decide would be for the box set he would drive down to Washington D.C. and have a fellow by the name of Jack Bowers—he’s still alive—he’s in his 90s to do the digital transfers. He recorded Duke Ellington back in the day.
JC: You engineered an alliance with Joe Bussard, and that was the next Dust to Digital release…
LL: Joe and his family came to us and saw us as a potential vehicle for Joe’s Fonotone Records label that he ran out of his parent’s basement from 1956 to 1970.
JC: Is the Fonotone Records box set still out of print?
LL: It is. We did several thousand copies and the demand—there are still people that want it, but for us to press up one thousand copies it would be expensive. There needs to be more of a demand. It’s not a good financial idea yet.
JC: It’s another beautiful box set…with a church key, photographs, a killer book and some of the best Appalachian music you’ve ever heard. There are deft pickers on that compilation…
LL: Yeah, on Fonotone it was three different types of performances that Joe recorded. One was when Joe would go out on these record trips looking for 78s he’d bring his tape recorder and record musicians for them to make a record. The second was Joe and his friends who would listen to the old 78s and then do their own renditions of the songs. The third was for record researchers like Mike Seeger’s or Steven Grossman—different people who wanted copies of records so they could learn from them and Joe would always say, ‘I’ll make you a copy of everything if you make a record for me. To me, the one thing that came across working with Joe on that Fonotone Records—it was all about fun. He was running a company as a kid out of his parents’ basement. He was just having a good time. The Fonotone Records box set came out at the end of 2005.
JC: For the next release—How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass—did you plan it to be the next release or was it a decision that came up quickly? You already covered, blues, gospel, country, Appalachia and now it was jazz.
LL: That was the idea of Dick Spottswood too. He had done a few things for Rounder Records. He’d focus in on different instruments and he suggested to us that we should examine the string bass. There was material he put together for it. I thought it was a great idea that had never been done before. I thought it was a historical box set.
JC: It was a real New Orleans-based project. You were continually covering new ground…no one geographic area. How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass also contains an indelible book…
LL: That’s what we always try to do is create an overwhelming experience for the listener. To let them travel back in time and re-create an experience.
JC: The next Dust To Digital release is a CD and DVD of Desperate Man Blues, which preserves the story of Joe Bussard who started Fonotone Records. He’d ride up to the most rural country home and buy records from them…
LL: That’s right. They shot that film (on DVD) right after Joe did all the digital transfers from Goodbye, Babylon. My friend Todd and I went up to visit Joe for the first time. I’d talked to him on the phone before, but I went up this time to visit him. The film crew from Australia just left. They were there for three weeks and he told us about it. Then I finally saw the film about a year and a half later. I love that film. I tried for a long time to convince the filmmaker from Australia to let us re-issue it. He wasn’t so sure about going with such a young company, but finally he decided to let us put it out and I’m happy we did. That was probably the most releases we had come out at one time towards the end of 2006. Within a month’s span we put out How Low Can You Go?, Desperate Man Blues and the I Belong to This Band.
JC: The Sacred Harp records are fascinating. Had you ever heard that genre before you began researching it?
LL: No, I didn’t. The first time I heard Sacred Harp singing was on the tapes Joe was sending me. There was not a lot of information on it, and I was blown away when I heard it. It got my attention and ear pretty quick. I started to do some research, and I’d probably say a month or two after I heard the 78 I got in touch with a guy named Buell Cobb from the Sacred Harp Institute in Alabama and he invited me over to a Sacred Harp convention. There were about 150 people singing and it sounded just like the 78s. It was incredible. When I started looking on my own after hearing the music off the tapes and got in touch with Buell Cobb I didn’t know if it was still being performed or anything. We put some of the Sacred Harp 78s on Goodbye, Babylon. For us, we just wanted to show our appreciation for that musical form.
LL: That was through George Mitchell. As you know he’s done incredible work over the years with so many great musicians. I’d come across his work in the research for Goodbye, Babylon. When the Goodbye, Babylon box set came out, I wanted to give him a copy. He invited me over to his house and we had lunch and talked for a long time, and that’s when Art’s name came up. That was another name I came across while working on Goodbye, Babylon. I’d never really thought about getting in touch with him because I didn’t know him. George said I should. So, I sent Art a copy of Goodbye, Babylon, and then I drove over to Athens and we had lunch and talked about The University of Georgia library archive. We went down in the basement to the archive and it was unbelievable how much tape and DATs that Art had down there. We listened to some of it and it was just unbelievable. I couldn’t believe there was so much great material that was only accessible if you went to the UGA media room at the library. Art and I talked about how to go about issuing this material. We did the sample CD and then the following two years we released Volume 1 and Volume 2 of The Art of Field Recording.
I think Art brings a very unique approach to this music. To me, the strongest parts of what he done is that he didn’t limit himself. A lot of people if they really get into music and records and field recording they tend to gravitate to a certain genre. Like they will just collect blues or country or jazz. What’s amazing to me Art was collecting gospel, blues, bluegrass, country—he has an adventurous spirit as far as what he enjoyed musically. To me, that was an incredible part of the story. Another part was his wife Margo accompanied him on these field trips. She would photograph the musicians. You would actually get to see a picture of the actual song being recorded as you were hearing it. That’s amazing. The final thing that was great about the story was he’d paint from memory these musicians. From a box set standpoint, all the elements where there to have a really strong presentation of Art Rosenbaum’s incredible contribution to music.
JC: Another thing was he’s a great musician…
LL: That’s right. He more than downplayed that on the box set. He’s on a couple of the tracks playing backing music, but absolutely, he’s a very great banjo player—he’s written a couple of books on instructional guides on how to play banjo. It’s pretty amazing because a lot of the material that he recorded…the reason he started recording people back in the 50s was because he wanted to learn their music. He’d ask Pete Seeger how to play his songs. Pete told Art, ‘Don’t learn from me. Learn from the guy who taught me.’ Art took that to heart and started to go out on his own and explore and try to find musicians to learn from. It’s the source. Art has some really strong criteria he believes an artist should have for him to record them. One is, he wants either a family member or friend that handed the music down. He doesn’t want to record something someone learned from a record or CD. I think that’s pretty unique to have such a strong and definite criteria for recording people.
Volume 1 came out in 2007. That was really a big year for us because at that point in time we got an email from a writer from The New Yorker whose wife bought him How Low Can You Go? a year or so earlier. Somehow he subscribed to our email list and he wrote me an email about a release party at The Melting Point in Athens for the Art of Field Recording Volume 1. The writer talked to his editor and got enough money to come down and survey and see if there was enough material for a story. He came down and spent the night hanging out with Art. I saw him the next morning and I asked him if he thought there was enough material for a story, and he said there was enough for ten stories! He was blown away, which was special all this was with Art and his connections to these musicians and how interesting the musicians were. The set came out in 2007, and the New Yorker article came out in April of 2008 and that was the biggest thing that came along since the Goodbye, Babylon set came out. That was the most attention we’d ever had.
JC: The Art of Field Recording Volume 1 won a Grammy.
LL: It did. It came out in 2007 and was nominated for Art’s liner notes and Best Historical album. We ended up flying out to Los Angeles in November 2009. I really did not expect it to win. I think we were up against Miles Davis and Nina Simone. I just thought there was no way. They did the announcement where they did the liner notes before they did the Historical category. Terry Gross’ husband from NPR won the liner notes. I thought we’d seen this before—we’ll take the loss, but in the next category they announced our names. It was one of the top five feelings of your life. You just can’t believe it. We went up onstage and gave our speeches. They took us on a little media junket and talked to different radio and television people. It was incredible. To me, it was so special to see Art getting to experience all of this because he’d been working on all of this for 50 years. And at this point to get recognized up onstage was great. We go out there at the end of this month to see if Take Me To The Water will win. I’m not so sure. We’re going up against the Woodstock box set and the Woody Guthrie box set.
JC: There’s a real spook to the Dust To Digital release of Melodii Tuvi: Throat Songs and Folk Tunes From Tuva as well as The Black Mirror recordings. Those are the label’s dark horse recordings because they aren’t American…
LL: Oh yeah. It’s music outside of the English language. They are more challenging releases, but we were really excited to do both of these. Those two CDs came out at the same time as Art of Field Recording Volume 1. We were very happy just to be able to get a box set and those two CDs out.
JC: Say something about the Victrola Favorites release…
LL: That ended up missing the Christmas push. We usually try to get them in stores before Christmas time. That came out in January of 2008.
JC: Did you and Art plan to break up the Art of Field Recordings into two Volumes?
LL: Yeah, we did. We set out from the get-go to do Volumes 1 and 2. Really I think Volume 2 is in a lot of ways better than Volume 1 based on what we learned as far as some of the audio and where we could go to get better source material. I think it came out even better. The fact that Volume 1 won the Grammy it’s always going to be the one that gets recognized the most. Volume 2 was not nominated. I thought maybe—I wondered why it wouldn’t be—but maybe it’s anti-climactic to have won it last year and then be nominated for something so similar for the next year. I think that was the case.
JC: When I attended the Grammy Award party last April at the Highland Inn that’s when I saw the book Take Me To The Water. Now, at the end of the month you’re flying to Los Angeles because it’s up for a Grammy. Talk about the book…
LL: That’s right. That party was a great night. What happened with that book was there’s a collector named Jim Linderman. He collects folk art and different furniture from different periods—he’s just a collector. One thing he was interested in collecting for about 20 years is baptism photos. After Goodbye, Babylon came out sometime in 2006, I started receiving emails from Jim Linderman saying, ‘I got these photographs,’ and then he started sending these photographs and JPEGS to see if I’d be interested in doing anything with these photos. It was a little like the Christmas CD because I knew in doing Goodbye, Babylon there were some strong baptism songs and there were ones we’d considered and didn’t put on there. I thought the photographs were so powerful that I wanted to work something out with Linderman. So he came down to Atlanta and came to the house. We sat and talked. He brought two large archival books with him. After we talked he told me he trusted and liked me enough to leave these photographs with me. He got on a plane and flew back to New York. We scanned all the photographs. Then I wondered how I was going to do it. The whole book took about a year and a half to really get it right.
JC: Outside of Goodbye, Babylon, what Dust To Digital project has taken the longest to get out?
LL: Well, that one took a lot of time, but the one that took the longest was the Art of Field Recording Volume 1. Art Rosenbaum, myself and my wife April worked on Volume 1 pretty much on a daily basis for 13 months. Everyday we were going through material, photographs, Art was writing and we were editing. It was a massive amount of work for Volume 1.
JC: Let’s talk about a new release by Reverend Johnny L. Jones…
LL: He’s a special guy. Tremendous musician. The way we learned about him was through Cole Alexander who is the guitar player for the Black Lips. He had a cassette copy of one of Johnny’s records that came out in the 60s and 70s on Jewel. There was another local musician—Bradford Cox from Deerhunter—who I spoke with about him. Cole thought it was just the greatest gospel music he’d ever heard. So, he tracked down one of Johnny’s records. There’s a radio station in Grant Park here in Atlanta—WYZE—that’s a gospel music radio station. He decided to stop and go in. Johnny was from Atlanta and he ran a church called Second Mount Olive Baptist Church. Cole was curious to find out if he was still around. He went to the radio station and asked them if they’d ever heard of him or knew anything about him, and they said he did a radio show there every Saturday.
Cole ended up meeting him, and hanging out with him for a while. Then he contacted me and told me the story and that it might be something I’d be interested in pursuing. I said I’d talk to Johnny. When I talked to Johnny I thought he’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got those first seven records I did for Jewel back in the 60s and 70s and that’s all I got.’ Well, we start talking and he told me he had reel to reels of tapes from his recorded congregations that wouldn’t all fit in the back of my truck. He’d been recording his service every Sunday for broadcast on the radio station since 1957. He’s still preaching at The Second Mount Olive Baptist Church. He’s 73 years old. He’s one of a kind. He’s someone to talk to, a very special guy. We ended up transferring about 90 hours of his performances on digital. We’ve got the first record that came out last month. We’re working on the second one, and we want to see how the response is on that in the record stores and the music world. There’s so much material.
At the height of his surge, the church suffered several tragic incidents like fires, but at the zenith of his congregation in Atlanta the number of people coming to his church every Sunday was about 1,700. There are some powerful recordings. He had an organ player, electric guitar, electric bass and drums backing him up; pretty much a rock band behind him. They let people sing along…
JC: These type stories cheer me up…
LL: Oh, I know. To know that there is somebody out there like Johnny Jones making music. We’ve been to his service several times and it’s two and a half hours long. Two hours of it is music. He has a very musical mind. He started playing piano when he was 12 and he just kept going. He’s always upbeat, always positive.
JC: Talk about the Au Clair de la Lune project.
LL: That was something I read about in the New York Times. The back-story is a fellow by the name of David Giovannoni from Maryland—he and I met at an audio conference in Seattle several years ago. I read this article saying the Academy of Arts and Sciences in France had found these sheets of paper that had this wavy edging to it and soon they announced this David hopped the next plane to Paris because they knew exactly what it was—what they were. An invention back in the 1850s and 1860s discovered a way to capture sound on paper. When David heard about that he went and did these scans on these pieces of paper called Phonautograms.
They brought them back to America and had an audio laboratory in Berkeley, California, to figure out an algorithm to get the sound off the paper. Sure enough, they got one to play back. I got in touch with David and said this was too important to have the first recording of the human voice that’s ever been played back. We wanted that voice as a physical object. It would be a tragedy if we didn’t put it on a CD. He agreed. He let us cut a 7-inch. The inventor Edwin Leon Scott, he’s reciting the lyrics to “Au Clair de la Lune”. It’s pretty chilling. It’s not something you want to listen to if you’re feeling upbeat or something to pat your foot to, but as a music historian or librarian you want this in your collection because you want to be able to refer back to the first recording of the human voice.
JC: So, Utne Reader magazine named you one of the 50 Visionaries changing the world…
LL: This magazine called The Utne Reader got in touch with us and said I made this list as one of the people changing the world, that’s all it says…
JC: Well, I agree with them…
LL: Thanks James. I appreciate that. By the way, I wanted to congratulate you for your name being mentioned in The New York Times for the Jim Dickinson interview…
JC: Thanks you kindly. So, what’s on the horizon for Dust to Digital? Any upcoming releases you can talk about?
LL: One we’re really excited about is—we’ve been talking about it for a couple of years and it’s finally going to happen. There’s one track on Goodbye, Babylon called “It Ain’t No Grave” by Brother Claude Ely. It’s the first song on CD 2. His nephew was over in a London record shop and he heard his uncle coming through the speakers. He asked what it was and they told him it was a box set called Goodbye, Babylon. Macel learned there was this ongoing interest in his music. He decided he was going on a search and talk to as many people as he could—family members, people in his church all around Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee trying to find people that could tell him about his uncle. He wrote a biography on Brother Claude. He interviewed me for the book with the connection on Goodbye, Babylon and part of his story. I told him I knew he was probably going to shop it around to University Presses, but I told him if he ever wanted us to work on it with him that I’d love to do it.
Time goes by, different presses changed hands, various delays, editors and finally he contacted us. We agreed on terms to put it out. The agreement was drawn up and not a month into it we find out Rick Rubin produced Johnny Cash record coming out at the end of February called Ain’t No Grave. The title song is by brother Claude Ely. I was excited about the book no matter what, but for us something like this to happen is big. I think we have a certain amount of people that are like you and me that are really interested in old music. I think for something like this where you have the Johnny Cash record coming out with that song on there I think a lot of people who really love that song and record we’ve got a whole book about the man who wrote the song, the history of the song, his history and a CD of all unreleased material by brother Claude. For us, it creates an audience that we normally don’t get. Hopefully, they’ll work well together.
JC: When will that be out?
LL: Right now we’re set for July 1, but we’re hoping—especially with the buzz around this new Johnny Cash album, we’re trying to get it done just as quickly as we can.
JC: Anything coming out before then?
LL: Yeah, there will be. We’re sending off next week a record—we signed a 78 collector who is doing his first project with us. We’re going to put that out on vinyl. It’s World String Music that’s coming out as an LP. It’s a great compilation he put together. Other things are, the same person is also compiling and we’re finishing up a box set of 4 CDs of African music from the 20s, 30s and 40s. We’re also getting the first John Fahey recording out this year—that’s been a long time coming. I’m ready for that to be out. We’ve been working on it for the past couple of years, but we’re finally moving forward on it. It will be out this year as well.
JC: Well Lance, congratulations man. You’re one of my heroes. I’ll be pulling for you at the Grammys. Keep up the good work.…
LL: James, thanks so much. Thanks for all the exposure. I’ll get something out to you in the mail next week…
Dust To Digital Wins Grammy (2/8/09)
Dust To Digital Atlanta Grammy Celebration Party (4/5/09)
Dust To Digital's Fertile Atlanta & Athens Roots (11/6/09)
Holiday Spirit & Soul (11/27/09)
Take Me To The Water Earns Grammy Nomination (12/14/09)
Swampland Reviews of Dust To Digital Releases
Take Me To The Water
The Art of Field Recording Volume 1
The Art of Field Recording Volume 2
Where Will You Be On Christmas Day?
Anthology of the String Bass
Desperate Man Blues
Sacred Harp Recordings