Atlanta Journal-Constitution
9 December 2003

The Gospel According to Music

by Nick Marino

A software installer in Atlanta puts his passion for the genre's old sacred music into a six-CD collection of songs and sermons

It had to be big. In order to represent every subgenre of early 20th-century gospel music --- in order to really do it right --- Lance Ledbetter couldn't confine his "Goodbye, Babylon" project to a single disc, or even two. His project was not microscopic, it was panoramic.

It needed room for blues guitarists, sacred harp choirs, duets, quartets, string bands and preachers. It needed songs of praise and worship. It needed songs of fear.

Ledbetter didn't quite realize this at the moment, almost five years ago, when he plunged into the past looking for records of the best, rawest, most authentic old gospel. But once he started searching for material, he was amazed by what he found.

He found "Golden Gate Gospel Train," about a locomotive to heaven, and he found a pair of sermons about the "Black Diamond Express To Hell," on which "Sin is the engineer, Pleasure is the headlight, and the Devil is the conductor."

He found a street minister named Sister O.M. Terrell, whose mother was an Atlanta laundress and whose song "The Bible's Right" admonished adulterers and tobacco chewers. He found Elder Curry, whose Mississippi congregation sang about influenza, and he found the prisoner Jimpson, who wailed along to a beat of wood chopping. The fidelity of this last recording would've been flawless, if not for the startling moment when a flying wood chip struck the microphone.

In all, Ledbetter collected 135 songs and 25 sermons, spreading the wealth over six CDs. Some of the music is more than a century old; the most recent sermon was recorded in 1941.

With its sweeping breadth and painstaking attention to detail, the "Goodbye, Babylon" box set would have been a labor of love for anybody. But Ledbetter, a 27-year-old Atlanta software installer, carried the extra burdens of financing it on his credit cards and released it on his own label, Dust-to-Digital Records.

He doesn't like to think about how much he spent on the project, but he says he needs to sell out his initial run of 2,000 copies to break even. He's already more than halfway there, having sold the majority through the Dust-to-Digital Web site even before Sunday night's official CD release party at Eyedrum.

The party, which drew about 50 people, featured a performance by Kinman's Old Time Serenaders, four overall-wearing men performing traditional string band songs from the early 20th century (and late 19th century). Mingling in the audience were Ledbetter and Susan Archie, the Atlanta-based art director who won a Grammy for her work on the massive 2001 Charley Patton set "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" and who helped conceptualize "Goodbye, Babylon's" elaborate physical presentation.

Each copy of "Goodbye, Babylon" is hand-packaged in a fragrant cedar box stuffed with raw cotton. The cotton is a metaphor for "the struggle, strife and sorrow that so many of the [artists] endured," according to the illustrated 200-page "Valuable Song and Tune Book" that provides lyrics, context and corresponding Bible verses for every "Babylon" track.

The high concept extends all the way to the CD covers themselves, with each disc having a different image on its sleeve. Placed together, the covers form a picture of a rugged cross.

The promotional sticker on the shrink-wrap features the set's tagline --- "Sinner, you better get ready."

Consider it fair warning. The gospel beneath "Goodbye, Babylon's" sliding cedar lid is as raw as a flesh wound and as deep as the sea. It covers sin, judgment, deliverance and salvation, confronting the listener with unflinching commentaries on the glory of God and the downward pull of hell. The set unlocks sensory pleasures so deep and primal, it's as if you're feeling them for the first time.

"This music," Archie says, "it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. That or it brings tears to my eyes. It's powerful stuff."

The inspiration for "Goodbye, Babylon" came in 1997 when, while working toward his business degree at Georgia State University, Ledbetter discovered Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," a compilation of 84 folk songs from the early 20th century.

Ledbetter had always been an obsessive music fan --- he was, at the time, hosting an avant-garde program on GSU's radio station, Album 88 (WRAS-FM) --- but he'd never heard anything like the rustic "Anthology," which focused on sacred and secular performances from the 1920s and '30s.

No fan of swelling, full-bodied modern gospel (which he considers "sanitized"), Ledbetter found himself intoxicated by the conviction of the old sacred music. And so he set about producing his own anthology, a CD set devoted to restoring and reissuing the intense, vintage, demon-busting gospel that had been preserved through the years on scratchy vinyl.

True to the Dust-to-Digital name, Ledbetter found the material for "Goodbye, Babylon" in the collections of three old-record fanatics (two in Maryland, one in Canada), who transferred the music from record to digital audiotape. (Most of the songs were in the public domain, and legal advisers helped Ledbetter gain permission to use those that weren't.)

Once the music was on tape, Ledbetter transferred the tape to CD and sequenced the songs, then had a company in Colorado restore and remaster the sound. The idea was to eliminate some of the scratches and pops prevalent on the original 78s, while still maintaining sonic authenticity.

Much of the material sounds clean, but Ledbetter's favorite track is actually one of the most static-plagued --- Blind Joe Taggart's 1928 recording of "Goin' to Rest Where Jesus Is," a simple, jubilant and so-real-it-hurts song about getting to heaven.

"To me, it's a very imperfect song," Ledbetter says, "but it's almost so imperfect it's perfect."

Although Hank Williams, the Carter Family and Mahalia Jackson up the celebrity quotient slightly, more representative are Taggart, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Blind Mamie Forehand and the Jubilee Gospel Team --- people who might have been lost to history had Ledbetter not intervened.

The target audience for such a massive collection of obscure artists, Ledbetter says, "is the adventurous listener market --- people who are always looking for new things."

Sometimes, however, the new things are old things. "Babylon" shares a bloodline with 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which introduced mainstream listeners to the rural American music of generations past, and it owes an even deeper debt to Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music."

Like the "Anthology," Ledbetter's project is not only a collection of songs; it is also a historical document. "Babylon" paints a sympathetic portrait of the South, where much of this music was recorded and where many of these artists lived.

Life in the post-Reconstruction South could be grueling and, says Jay Orr, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, it was common for Christian artists to express their hardships in song.

"There's the sense of guilt, there's the sense of salvation, the sense of oppression that salvation seems to offer respite from," Orr says. "And all of those things find their way into the music [of the time]."

"Goodbye, Babylon" incorporates those themes and then some. The set --- in its music and accompanying text --- takes pains to dwell on the subtexts of race and class, along with the more obvious themes of faith and mercy.

As an almost inadvertent bonus, "Babylon" also foreshadows the birth of soul and early rock, with various tracks pointing to Ray Charles, James Brown and doo-wop.

The tracks also, of course, point to the sky. And "Babylon" artists deliver their God-fearing, gut-wrenching, soul-purging praises with a combustible passion. The fervor best manifests itself on the set's final disc, the sermon collection. There, listeners can find the Rev. T.E. Weems raising his preaching voice to a toe-curling scream, and can hear the Rev. J.M. Gates seem to enter a trance as he concludes the set with a haunting sermon called "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus."