So Atlanta has a new record label. Just as Table of the Elements moves away, along comes Lance Ledbetter's Dust-To-Digital to fill the void of elaborately-packaged, aficionado-aimed releases. But don't worry - unlike ToE's uppity leaning catalog, the music that is DtD's focus sounds like it comes straight up from the soil itself, as evidenced by the splashy debut of its first release "Goodbye, Babylon" a beautiful (looking and sounding) 6CD box set of Gospel/Sacred music recorded between 1902 and 1960. Clearly aiming to be the next in line of elite Grammy-Award-winning sets of prewar rural music (Smithsonian's "Anthology of Folk Music"; Revenant's Charley Patton set), "Goodbye, Babylon" fits the bill quite nicely, even using several of the personnel associated with the previous sets, but taking on a personality of its own.
Lance Ledbetter always wanted to start a record label, as far back as his high school days in little LaFayette, Georgia when he was listening to Merge Records bands. When he came to Atlanta to attend Georgia State he took an internship at Table of the Elements to get to know the ins and outs of boutique labels. What he got was a lesson in how to run a label with a specific vision, where each release is treated as an event, and where distinct packaging is a large part of the process. Meanwhile, he was learning something else from working at Album 88, GSU's student-run radio station. Courtesy of Brian Montero's Sunday morning show "20th Century Archives", Ledbetter learned about pre-WWII music, especially rural American forms like blues, country, and gospel, and realized he loved it. Lance quickly gravitated to a point directly between these two interests - the "scene" that revolves around John Fahey and Dean Blackwood's Revenant Records, a reissue label using similar packaging and marketing techniques to ToE, only focusing some of their releases on this prewar stuff. The other center of gravity was Smithsonian's lovingly reissued "Anthology" which Fahey had a hand in (Revenant nearly released this package itself before Smithsonian/Folkways decided to finally do it themselves), and which seemed to draw as many post-indie-rockers to the music in 1997 as it did neo-folkies when it was first released in 1952.
When Montero left the radio station in '99, Lance took over his slot armed only with "Anthology" for a show he dubbed "Raw Musics" (named after Revenant's slogan). He quickly began seeking out more music to play and discovered wonderful labels like Yazoo, County, Arhoolie and Rounder that released collections of old 78's and was hooked. One problem - he could not find enough Gospel music, a genre he was particularly drawn to from the era. So in January 1999 Lance began the four and a half year journey that has led to "Goodbye, Babylon".
It began by contacting collectors like Joe Bussard and going over tape after tape of gospel and related 78's. When he saw the potential for an expansive package, Lance enlisted the help of Dick Spottswood, mainstay of Rounder Records' reissues department and general go-to guy for quality historical compilations. Spottswood "took the set up several notches just with his advice" according to Lance. He came to be co-editor of the set's book along with Lance, a book which also includes such luminaries (many of whom worked on Patton set) as Kip Lornell, Ken Romanowski, and David Evans, who handles notes on disc six, made up entirely of sermons. One of the more interesting aspects of the set, the sermons were recorded in studios, with the limitation of being the length of a record side, and with parts of the congregation in the studio to provide atmosphere. Once sermons began appearing on radio, this practice disappeared. Among the memorable sermon contributions are Atlanta's own Rev. J.M. Gates, an incredibly popular preacher of his day, and Rev. A.W. Nix. About the latter's "Black Diamond Express to Hell" Lance says, "You hear it and you're not the same afterwards."
After the track listing came into focus, the work really started, with everything from licensing to transcribing the lyrics to every song. Each of the 160 tracks has its own page in the book, with a description and historical information, lyric transcription, and, in a superb touch, a bible verse chosen carefully (based on the song's lyrics) by one Stanley Ledbetter, Lance's father and bible expert. What about Lance? There's an awful lot of Christianity at work here. His planned next project, a set of prewar Sacred Harp singing, would further suggest we are dealing with a faithful disciple. Does this label have any basis in Lance's faith? Not really. Raised Methodist, Lance acknowledges that listening to all of this music while putting the set together was a "strong experience" but still approaches the music from a folkloric point of view.
Indeed, songs like Washington Phillips' "Lift Him Up, That's All" are powerful experiences to be sure. Phillips sang with an inspiring humility and played a mysterious instrument, sounding like a cross between a dulcimer and a harpsichord. Some say it was the obscure "dolceola"; others dispute this and are not sure what it is. All I know is it sounds like Phillips went up to heaven, borrowed the instrument, and brought it down to earth to sing about God.
"Goodbye, Babylon" is rich with special tracks like Phillips', from a rare early "sacred steel" record to Sister O.M. Terrell upbeat guitar number "The Bible's Right" to Brother Claude Ely, whose 1953 hopped up Pentecostal fervor is as energetic and exciting as anything on Sun Records. There are also several classic Gospel vocal quartets, sacred blues, and hillbilly gospel throughout the discs, but even though the set extends to 1960, don't look for any postwar musical trends - pretty much everything recorded from 1945 on is field recordings by the likes of Alan Lomax and Samuel Charters that capture authentic sounds still in the style of the earlier era.
When it came time to design the box, Lance went with the best in the business. He got to know Susan Archie when he was interning at Table of the Elements and he would deliver artwork to and from her independent graphic design firm. Like most everyone, he was duly impressed with the originality, class, and quality of her packaging ideas. She only got better as she began working with Revenant and the releases got more and more ambitious, culminating in her breathtaking work on the Charley Patton box. For "Babylon," Lance and Susan went with a screen-printed cedar box with raw cotton inside for a thematically organic garnish. Lance learned from ToE and Revenant how to make art out the package, but he also points out that labels like Yazoo and Rounder, in exposing him to great music, are equal in their inspiration. He knows this set is going to draw a lot of attention and he wants to make sure he doesn't spend almost five years on his next release, so no huge projects for a while (the Sacred Harp CDs should drop in '04). Marketing should not be much of a problem, but he's also still learning the ins and outs of distribution, a potentially dicey prospect with such an expensive first item. But with God as his co-producer, he's expected to do fine.
BACK TO MORE PRESS