Archive for the ‘Dust-to-Digital’ Category

“What kind of idiot would enjoy listening to that?”

January 12, 2015


edited from Mark Jacobson (

Lead Kindly Light, by Sarah Bryan and Peter Honig, is a nifty package consisting of a hundred or so old photographs, many of them found in secondhand stores throughout the Carolinas, and a pair of CDs containing digital remastering of primarily country-fiddle 78s from the 1920s and ’30s.

Harking back to a July 27, 1927 recording session featuring the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, Honig imagines a scene in which the group’s leader, Ernest Van Stoneman, tells his fellow pickers that the storied Victor Records producer Ralph Peer believes more money will be made if the Shuckers can come up with a proto–Hee Haw skit to accompany the music. None of the musicians are too crazy about this, but fiddler Eck Dunford suggests everyone can play a bit and then pretend to take a swig of corn liquor.

 “Aw hell,” complains Stoneman, “what kind of idiot would enjoy listening to that?”

 “Peter Honig will,” Dunford returns. “I just know he will.”

Reached at the home where he lives with Ms. Bryan near Durham, North Carolina, Honig told me, “Ole Eck was right about that. Just can’t get enough of it.” A fiddler himself, Honig, 61 — who grew up in the less piney confines of Westport, Connecticut — takes a good-natured if unsentimental tack on the 46 recordings in Lead Kindly Light.

“There are a lot of fiddle tunes because that’s mostly what I’ve got, and you don’t hear them as much on much of archival reissues the way you do guitar and blues records. I’ve been acquiring this stuff for more than 30 years, but I don’t have a giant collection by most standards. I am not encyclopedic. I have what I like and play them often. I’m not romantic about the past or think that things used to be better than they are now. I just think the music was better. Or I like it better.”

The same publisher-packager, Dust-to-Digital, offers Parchman, a collection of photos and field recordings made at the Mississippi State Penitentiary by the unmatched Alan Lomax during the 1940s and ’50s. Not to slight the magisterial contributions of someone who was the first to record Muddy Waters and got Jelly Roll Morton to recount, self-aggrandizingly, his life and times, but works by Lomax and other professional folklorists often smack of the museum. The template of the maniacal, sweaty-browed collector who will do almost anything to lay his hands on a Maltese-falcon-like 78 was set for all time by the cartoonist R. Crumb, the best known of these backwoods record stalkers. Lead Kindly Light takes a more joyfully relaxed approach to its beloved materials.

Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers

October 1, 2014


Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers (Dust-to-Digital CD)

Description: CD Digipak with 32 page booklet featuring liner notes by Tony Russell and photographs from the collection of Maxine Payne

Images & Recordings from Rural Arkansas: Recently discovered photographs inspire two new publications.

In the 1930s, the Massengill family of rural Arkansas built three portable photography studios on old truck frames, attached each to the back of any car that would run, and started a mobile photo booth business that would last for a decade. Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, featuring Massengill family prints and photo albums collected by artist Maxine Payne, illuminates a sliver of the Depression-era South previously unseen by the public.

Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers & Hoss Hair Pullers serves as the soundtrack to Making Pictures and allows us to hear how the voices of that time and region sounded, by carrying the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the 1920s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s.

Produced by April and Lance Ledbetter utilizing transfers from the Music Memory archive, “Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers” features original recordings made between 1928-1937. The CD and the 32-page booklet serve as a companion album to the newly-released photograph book, “Making Pictures: Three for a Dime” by Maxine Payne. All of the photos in this package are from the same cache of photographs taken by the Massengil family in their mobile photo-booth trailer throughout rural Arkansas in the 1930s-1940s.

“For the traveling recording men of the late 1920s, Arkansas offered enticing pickings. The region was thronged with vigorous, idiosyncratic stringbands. This album carries the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the ’20s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s. Scarcely more than a decade, but a period, in music as in all American life, of galvanic change.” – Tony Russell, from the liner notes

Ten Years After

July 22, 2013


Ten Years of Dust-To-Digital: The Ongoing Mission of Moses Asch by Christopher Nelson

In his lifetime, Moses Asch devoted himself to documenting what he called “people’s music.” Asch churned out dozens of releases each year on his label, Folkways Records, covering marginalized sounds from every corner of the globe. The Folkways canon is impossibly deep and far-reaching, constituting one of the world’s greatest collections of recorded music; had it not been for Asch, many of these relics would never have reached a larger audience.

After Asch’s death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institute acquired Folkways Records and honored its founder’s wish to keep all 2,186 titles in circulation. While Smithsonian Folkways ensures that the artifacts Asch uncovered will be preserved for future generations, the need to document rare music persists. This is Asch’s mission: to keep documenting.

Those of us who seek pleasure in uncommon sounds, who remain curious about the ways in which the human condition aurally manifests itself, can take great comfort in knowing that for the past ten years, Atlanta, Georgia’s Dust-to-Digital Records has carried on that mission with aplomb.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Dust-to-Digital’s first official release, Goodbye, Babylon, an expertly curated collection of gospel songs, sermons, and sacred harp music from the first half of the 20th century. Dust-to-Digital founder Lance Ledbetter was inspired to make the collection while hosting a radio show at Georgia State University on Sunday mornings.

Ledbetter noticed a gap in the selection of old gospel music he was playing, and set out to fill it. With the help of his wife, April, Ledbetter spent four and a half years after graduating from college carefully researching and collecting material for what would eventually become Goodbye, Babylon. In October 2003, at the tender age of 27, Ledbetter released Goodbye, Babylon in an issue of 1,000, each set of six CDs housed in a cedar wood box and cushioned by tufts of raw cotton. It is a masterpiece, and reflects the Ledbetters’ thousands of hours of work. (more…)

I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces

December 1, 2012

Description: 184 page hardback book with 2 CDs, 150 sepia photographs reproduced in full-color, the CDs feature 51 vintage recordings from 1925-1955.


Compiled by Steve Roden, … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces brings together a collection of early photographs related to music, a group of 78rpm recordings, and short excerpts from various literary sources that are contemporary with the sound and images. It is a somewhat intuitive gathering, culled from artist Steve Roden’s collection of thousands of vernacular photographs related to music, sound, and listening.

The subjects range from the PT Barnum-esque Professor McRea – “Ontario’s Musical Wonder” (pictured with his complex sculptural one man band contraption) – to anonymous African-American guitar players and images of early phonographs. The images range from professional portraits to ethereal, accidental, double exposures – and include a range of photographic print processes, such as tintypes, ambrotypes, cdvs, cabinet cards, real photo postcards, albumen prints, and turn-of-the-century snapshots.

The two CDs display a variety of recordings, including one-off amateur recordings, regular commercial releases, and early sound effects records. there is no narrative structure to the book, but the collision of literary quotes (Hamsun, Lagarkvist, Wordsworth, Nabokov, etc.). Recordings and images conspire towards a consistent mood that is anchored by the book’s title, which binds such disparate things as an early recording of an American cowboy ballad, a poem by a Swedish Nobel laureate, a recording of crickets created artificially, and an image of an itinerant anonymous woman sitting in a field, playing a guitar. The book also contains an essay by Roden.


One or two tracks from the accompanying CDs have been reissued several times over the years, Kelly Harrell’s Rovin’ Gambler, Sam Jones’s Cripple Creek and Sourwood Mountain or Sylvester Weaver’s Damfino Stomp, for example.  But many tracks appear here for the first time.  Marc Williams’s version of the old Anglo-American ballad William and Mary is new to me, although it could be based on the earlier commercial recording that Sam McGee made of the song and which is available on a Document reissue (DOCD-8036).

It is also good to hear Alf Taylor’s quartet working their way through Brother Noah Built an Ark.  Maybe their version is not as strong as the one recorded a few years later by A A Gray & Seven Foot Dilly (reissued on Document DOCD-8002 as The Old Ark’s A’Moving, but it is good to hear anything that Taylor, a fiddle-player and one-time Governor of Tennessee, made.

Surprisingly, to me at any rate, is the fact that I am quite taken by the raw vitality and sincerity of gospel singer such as the Reverend Edward Clayborn, whose Then We’ll Need that True Religion seems to owe a debt to the work of Blind Willie McTell, and The Reverend Calbert and Sister Billie Holstein, a little-known couple who apparently did most of their preaching and singing on street corners.  Then there is Xango, an arrangement of an African chant made by the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, and sung by the black classical singer Roland Hayes.

Dust-to-Digital and Art Rosenbaum

November 25, 2012


A couple of times a year, Lance Ledbetter and his wife, April, gather friends at their Atlanta home to assemble a few thousand small wooden boxes and stuff them with raw Georgia cotton, a 200-page book of liner notes, and a collection of rare American gospel recordings. Then they head to the post office.
Ledbetter spent years picking through the record shelves of eccentric collectors all over the country, rescuing what he calls “cultural artifacts” from obscurity.

After releasing the Goodbye, Babylon box set in 2003, he figured on selling 100 copies or so. To say he underestimated his project’s potential would be an understatement. Bob Dylan bought a box for himself and gave one as a birthday gift to Neil Young, who gushed over the collection on National Public Radio. Then, in 2004, the set received Grammy nominations for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Package.

Ledbetter treated the success as a mandate and made his label, Dust-to-Digital, a full-time affair. He’s been resurrecting 78s and re­releasing the work of unheralded American folk, blues, and jazz musicians ever since. In the process, he has introduced listeners to musicians from Laos, Burma, and Syria. Once too shy to call musicologists to get information for his exhaustively researched books and liner notes, he’s now getting calls from scholars who ask about rare recordings they’ve been sitting on or simply say thanks.

An Atlanta news station produced a delightful two-part documentary [see above] on Dust-to-Digital that takes you into Lance and April Ledbetter’s home and base of operations. The documentary also focuses on the work of folklorist Art Rosenbaum, whose decades of recordings have been released as two Art of Field Recording box sets.  In a 2005 interview with the website Gospel Flava, Ledbetter talked about his base motivations for risking massive debt to release Goodbye, Babylon and start his own business: “People probably thought I was crazy or that it would never sell, or whatever. But I didn’t care. The music moved me so strongly that I wanted it to be out there for others. And I wanted there to be a book that explained what this music was and where it came from.”

Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM

June 16, 2012

Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM (Recordings from 1909-1960s)

Dust-To-Digital CD 22

112 page book with 4 CDs, dozens of full-color images from the era, the CDs feature 100 never-before-reissued recordings from the 1920s-1960s.  Compiled by Jonathan Ward.

by Jonathan Ward

It is truly astonishing to consider the tremendous variety of music that was pressed to shellac discs on the continent of Africa. Popular songs, topical songs, work songs, comic songs, songs of worship, ritual, dance, and praise—the sheer range of musical styles resists any easy categorization. Further, African geography itself resists boundaries. The boundaries of cultures and languages are often far more complex than political boundaries. Complicating things further, entire countries seem to have been skipped over by both commercial 78 rpm record companies and ethnographers during the 78 rpm era. No doubt it was the same with many cultures. But that doesn’t mean that 78s weren’t everywhere, even in remote parts of the continent. By the mid-1960s, 78s were still a popular if not preferred medium in much of Africa, as a significant amount of the population still used wind-up gramophone players.

I have created this compilation with one simple goal in mind: to showcase a diverse amount of long-forgotten music from Africa that transports me as a listener. It is one person’s offering of music that is wholly unavailable except in its original elusive and fragile format. While it is not definitive, nor am I attempting to construct or invent a narrative, there are important connections to be made. Around one musical corner is another corner, and another. Within these 100 tracks, traditional music stands side by side with popular music as traditional culture coexists with so-called modernity. As a non-African, I offer this set as an example of the riches that lay in waiting when considering the tens of thousands of phenomenal African 78 rpm discs that were issued, played, dispersed, and in large part, forgotten.

“Opika Pende,” is a saying in the Lingala language that means “be strong” or “stand firm.” It can also mean “resist.”

How Low Can You Go?

April 2, 2012

How Low Can You Go? : Anthology of the String Bass (1925-1941) 

Dust-to-Digital (3CDs) DTD-04


Not so long ago, the string bass stood tall and proud — roughly the length and breadth of a poor man’s pine coffin — in every musical aggregation throughout the land from Bangor to Buenos Aires, from the highest high life to the lowest lowdown: From tuxedoed symphony ensembles to tipsy calypso bands to honkytonkers in oil-field dives, from elegantly gelled tango orchestras to jazz combos in unspeakable speak-easys to methed-out rockabilly trios right off some flatbed.

This three-CD box set, the first ever anthology of the upright bass, explores the earliest recorded history of the instrument. Without it, the revolutionary sound of American mongrel music of the last century would have been thin gruel indeed.

The personal feel of this project is evident even in the whimsical packaging that recalls the early Victrola era. A 96-page book contains notes on each track and bios and photos of most of the players, as well as short essays on the evolution of the string bass and the life of Bill Johnson… Oddities like the kazoo choir of Dickie Wells’ Shim Shammers and the jazzy South Pacific sounds of Andy Iona and His Islanders hold their own against the driving big band jazz of Luis Russell. Alongside the rumble and slap of the upright bass, they all contain the magic spark peculiar to the 78 rpm record, the indefinable phantom thrill that somehow went missing as the music and recording studios became more sophisticated.

Never a Pal Like Mother

February 8, 2012

Dust-to Digital CD (DTD-19)
96 page hardback photo book with 2 CDs
Essay by Sarah Bryan; Foreword by Rosanne Cash
65 sepia photographs
The CDs feature 40 vintage recordings from 1927-1956.

Reviewed by (

The Atlanta-based independent record label Dust-to-Digital is chiefly known, for better and for worse, for its 2003 gospel box set “Goodbye, Babylon.” It’s for the better because the set’s meticulous presentation (songs compiled by the label’s founder, Lance Ledbetter, and released in a cedar box designed by Susan Archie) was without compare; it established a standard that other labels have tried, mostly in vain, to emulate. It’s for the worse because the label has continued to release impressive sets of vintage music that don’t always get the attention that “Goodbye, Babylon” received (though Dust-to-Digital’s “Art of Field Recording” series, which drew on the work of the folk revivalist Art Rosenbaum, was the subject of a New Yorker piece by Burkhard Bilger in 2008).

Never a Pal Like Mother,” the label’s nineteenth release, collects forty songs about motherhood from the first half of the twentieth century; the music—furnished by famous collectors like Joe Bussard—is complemented by a book of liner notes, essays, and vintage photographs. The folklorist and collector Sarah Bryan, who provides some of the photographs, also supplies an essay focussing on the way the period shifted the concept of motherhood: how wars, Westward expansion, and immigration divided families just as advances in technology, especially cheap cameras, made it easier to remember them. “Each generation knew what it was to miss home and mother,” she writes. “This shared nostalgia became a mainstay of pop culture.”

Some of the songs in “Never a Pal Like Mother” will be familiar to even casual fans, such as Robert Wilkins’s “That’s No Way To Get Along,” the basis for the Rolling Stones’ “Prodigal Son.” Others won’t be, like the rare calypso “Mother’s Love,” by Mighty Destroyer. Elsewhere, there is close-harmony country (“God Bless Her (’Cause She’s My Mother),” by the Louvin Brothers), hillbilly exemplum (“Mama Says It’s Naughty,” by The Maddox Brothers & Rose), sentimental balladry (“The Pal That’s Always True,” by Doc Hopkins, which gives the set its name), and idiosyncratic gospel (“A Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter,” by the great Washington Phillips, who accompanied himself on a strange stringed instrument, possibly of his own construction, that no one has ever been able to exactly identify).

Many of the groups were popular in the twenties and thirties and have since faded from memory: the McNulty Family, the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Leo Soileau. There’s even “Mama Don’t Allow It” by the legendary Frankie (Half-Pint) Jaxon, who sang in a high, feminine voice and in fact worked as a female impersonator before retiring from music and going to work at the Pentagon, of all places.

Though motherhood is the dominant theme—this is roots music about the root of the species—it’s not the only one: songs touch on sex, money, politics, and (frequently) religion. Roseanne Cash’s short, sharp introduction laments the disappearance of the world that produced music like this. “These songs,” she writes, “could never be written in the age of jet travel, therapy, delayed adolescence, the internet, nor could they survive current popular ideas of human psychology.” Her point is taken (songs like “Little Moses,” popularized by the Carter Family but heard here in a version by Mr. and Mrs. Harmon E. Helmick, sound especially ancient), but many songs do suggest later treatments of the same topics. The Carter Family’s “Hold Fast to the Right,” with its scene of maternal advice, points to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Got a Job”; “Mother Bowed” by the Pilgrim Travelers looks ahead to Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock”; and the Carolina Twins’ “Where Is My Mamma?” is a direct ancestor of John Lennon’s “Mother.”