Preserving American Music One Handcrafted Project at a Time


In 2003, a cedar box appeared in my mailbox, with the words “Goodbye, Babylon” and an illustration of Babel’s famed tower on the front. I slid back the top of the box to find a thick book, a few clumps of Georgia cotton, and six CDs crammed with rare gospel songs from 1902 to 1960—blues, Sacred Harp, country & western, bluegrass, early jazz, a cappella quartets, you name it—the result of four years of hard work from Lance and April Ledbetter. The set, Goodbye, Babylon, received a Grammy nomination, and Bob Dylan thought enough of it to give Neil Young a copy. What was a one-off project turned into a record label, Dust-to-Digital, helmed by the Ledbetters in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve bought some of their 60-odd releases myself, and the Ledbetters were kind enough to send more to illustrate what they’ve done to preserve American music. (They also have over a dozen releases of music from around the globe.) They preserve it by disseminating it, not merely by archiving it, virtually or otherwise. You can purchase MP3s and PDFs at Dust-to Digital’s website (www.dust-digital.com), but I can’t fathom why people wouldn’t want to hold these beautifully made items in their hands.

Various Artists: Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris. 3 CDs, 1 DVD, 120-page book.
This summer Dust-to-Digital announced their newest release, Voices of Mississippi, with three CDs, a DVD, and a book about documentarian William Ferris with photos and stories of the people he recorded. One look at the cover and I had to find out about the Black man (I capitalize out of respect) sitting on a dilapidated piece of porch furniture, boots untied, dress shirt on. There were several sculpted heads at his feet and one in his hands with sunglasses and human teeth.

The man turned out to be James “Son Ford” Thomas, singer, sculptor, and grave-digger from Yazoo County. He tells of helping his one-armed stepfather dig graves, and how he never could dig one faster even with two arms. He and his bright guitar open the Blues disc, and any guitarist could spend hours trying to tease out the tuning, ghost harmonies, and varieties of picking all within the same phrase. There are plenty more guitar delights: the famed Mississippi Fred McDowell is on three tracks, and Scott Dunbar’s fingerwork merits close attention. 

As for singing, Walter Lee Hood’s voice on “Darling, If You Must Leave” is a showstopper, easily reaching a B on the treble staff. In “Stackalee and Billy Lyons” the singer and pianist, Maudie Shirley and Wallace “Pine-Top” Johnson, are so out of sync that it’s almost unlistenable. Louis Dotson’s track of bottle-blowing and vocalizing is trippy: at first, I thought it was a young woman, a pan-flute, and a saxophone trading notes. Most of the songs were recorded in the late 1960s with very clear sound.

The Storytelling volume has interviews with the Voices of Mississippi singers as well as Alex Haley, Bobby Rush, B.B. King, Allen Ginsberg, and Pete Seeger. Particularly telling is Son Ford talking about how he knows it’s wrong (in his Christian thinking) to play the blues, but how God would understand if it helps you get by. (I’ve lived that same crisis of conscience; my reviewing blues records should tell you which argument won out.) Fair warning: some of the stories get creatively R-rated.

The Gospel volume runs the gamut from The Southland Hummingbirds to the Clarksdale Church of God in Christ singing “Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down).” It’s a fairly standard congregational song propelled by handclaps, tambourine, piano, and electric guitar, but it turns into an eight-minute jam, the clapping patterns becoming more complex, the guitar taking off on solo lines, and the singers losing themselves in shouts, moans, and tears of joy. Tracks 1 and 10 are switched from what the book and sleeve say, but I like having “My Mother’s on That Train,” with its eerie onomatopoeia, as the opener.

One of the most fascinating short films on the DVD included with Voices of Mississippi is of Othar “Otha” Turner, one of the last practitioners of the fife-and-drum blues. It’s striking to hear blues and spirituals played on the wild, thin-toned fife. That sound belongs outside in the hills and mountains rather than in close quarters, where a guitar and harmonica flourish. Fannie Bell Chapman: Gospel Singer is a portrait of a family who would go from house to house, singing and holding healing ceremonies and mixing voodoo elements with the glossolalia and miracles of Charismatic Christianity. Green Valley Grandparents is a touching tribute to community elders who visited and played with special-needs children in a local institution, and to the children, who gained new skills and more independence as a result. Hush Hoggies Hush was right down my alley: four minutes of farmer Tom Johnson and the praying pigs he had trained. I’ve used this phrase from a Tennessee preacher before, but Dust-to-Digital epitomizes it: “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one.”

The Four Women Artists films open with Eudora Welty explaining storytelling’s place in Southern culture. In the three films that followed, I had trouble settling into the slow pace and the everyday details the quilter, needleworker, and painter talked about. They did remind me of a world, however, where visions and dreams direct people’s life and art. The fundamentalism of my youth pushed the ideal of an experiential, ineffable, personal relationship with God, but rigid doctrine and an anti-Charismatic bent shooed away anything too mystical. Dreams were skeptically viewed as avenues where the devil could draw us away from objective Bible truth. Even post-fundamentalism, I don’t have these experiences, but I often wonder what they would be like, and I wonder if people I grew up with had them but were afraid to speak of them. I don’t usually get this personal in reviews, but one of the purposes of art is to question or change the viewpoints of the observer, and Dust-to-Digital and these artists have succeeded.