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.
Goodbye, Babylon set the bar remarkably high for the post-Folkways world of collected historical recordings. The collection pairs recordings from more well-established artists, such as the Carter Family and Blind Willie Johnson, with recordings by artists who are virtually unknown. At its core, Goodbye, Babylon is an eight-hour collection of sermons and songs about Jesus, but its appeal to the secular world as a reflection of unbridled human emotion is what makes it so enduring. Take, for instance, the track “Goin’ to Rest Where Jesus Is,” a three-minute jaunt by Blind Joe Taggart that aches with joyous praise. These sounds are filled almost to bursting with elation. Even the best speaker systems can barely contain them.
In the 10 years since Goodbye, Babylon, Ledbetter has continued to push the bar ever higher with Dust-to-Digital. Although many of its releases focus on music of the religious Deep South, the label’s catalog has expanded significantly. 2008’s Victrola Favorites: Music from Bygone Days is a surreal trip through time. Its scope is astounding, with 48 tracks that range from Dixieland jazz to traditional Portuguese fado to Hindustani classical music. 2011 also saw the release of Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You, a comprehensive survey of John Fahey’s recordings on Fonotone Records. Despite Fahey’s already mythical status in the canon of American folk music, the release sheds new light on his role as a trailblazer through the murky backwoods of the old, weird America. Indeed, no matter how many different cultures and sounds are represented on Ledbetter’s label, these collections remain fully cohesive in presentation. Herein lies the true power of Dust-to-Digital and the skill of Ledbetter and his team as curators: each successive release is not only a historical document, but also a well-told story.
Dust-to-Digital’s latest release, Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music from Greece 1905–1956, came out in June. It features 42 tracks of instrumentals that together constitute a unique survey of the different styles of Greek music made in the first half of the 20th century. Ledbetter has two more major releases slated for later this year. In early September, he will team up with Lonnie Holley for the second time for an album called Keeping a Record of It, a follow up to Holley’s Just Before Music, which came out on the label last November. Ledbetter has also coaxed Holley into giving regular live performances, with a date at All Tomorrow’s Parties in late June and a more extensive touring schedule to follow. Also due out later this fall is Longing for the Past, a four CD collection of music from Southeast Asia culled from 78-r.p.m. records with the help of collector David Murray. Ledbetter promises that this release will be the first of its kind. As with all of the releases on Dust-to-Digital, however, it will serve as an important exercise in preservation and awareness—the spirit of Moe Asch lives on.
CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.