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How to handle the hate in America's musical heritage
“The Harry Smith B-Sides,” at the home of Lance and April Ledbetter, owners of the record label Dust-to-Digital, in Atlanta, Sept. 27, 2020. A companion to the “Anthology of American Folk Music” had already been pressed the Ledbetters realized they couldn’t live with releasing racist songs. Diwang Valdez/The New York Times.

by Grayson Haver Currin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Lance Ledbetter was buying sweet Georgia peaches near downtown Atlanta on a sweltering June morning when he realized he was about to make a potentially catastrophic mistake: His record label, the Grammy-winning archival bastion Dust-to-Digital, would soon release its first racist songs.

In fits and starts for the previous 16 years, Ledbetter had worked on a companion to the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” the pioneering 1952 trove masterminded by the idiosyncratic collector, filmmaker and Beat philosopher-mystic Harry Smith. The six-LP series famously helped propel the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, and returned to prominence after it was reissued on CD in 1997. That’s the version that sparked Ledbetter’s plan to start Dust-to-Digital when he was a business student at Georgia State University.

“Dust-to-Digital doesn’t exist without it,” Ledbetter, 44, said recently, smiling in the sunny living room of the Atlanta home he shares with his wife and fellow Dust-to-Digital director, April, 41. The night he bought the “Anthology” in 1997, he stayed awake until 3 a.m., devouring six discs in one sitting.

“It changed my molecules, melted my brain,” he said. “It was an access point to a world I had seen growing up in Georgia but didn’t know.”

The concept for Dust-to-Digital’s latest project — “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” due Friday — seemed simple enough. Every song on Smith’s meticulously sequenced “Anthology” was taken from a 78-RPM single recorded between 1926 and 1934, an incomparable boom time in the history of American music, when blues, country and gospel were rapidly evolving. How would the “Anthology” sound if Dust-to-Digital flipped each record to its other side? The answer, however, has reinvigorated a long-lingering debate about how to handle the hate within the country’s early musical heritage.

Atlanta, like much of the country, seemed a live wire the morning the Ledbetters drove to the busy Grant Park market for peaches. The weekend before, protests had erupted across the city after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Ledbetters had not left home for days; they’d focused on finishing the four-disc “B-Sides,” listening to all 84 songs for the first time in five years. During a season marked by the fight for racial justice, though, a trio of old-time tunes with repeated racial slurs newly shook the couple. On the set’s fifth track, a former minstrel number transformed into a country jaunt called “You Shall Be Free,” Appalachian pair Bill and Belle Reed sang a racial slur five times and jubilantly harmonized about a lynching.

“I had headphones on, listening very close, and it made me feel sick,” April remembered. “How can we do this?”

In 2015, when the set was initially completed, the Ledbetters and their partners for the project — Eli Smith and John Cohen, New York folk aficionados and bandmates 50 years apart — grappled with that question. They opted to address the songs through pointed essays in the liner notes. For the next five years, as Dust-to-Digital struggled to license the 84 tracks from four companies including Sony and Universal Music Group, the world — and their own opinion — shifted. After Floyd’s death, they decided to affix a warning label to the box and insert another alongside the discs.

At the farmers’ market, the Ledbetters’ longtime peach vendor wondered what they had been working on during quarantine. When they told him, he strolled behind the counter and put on his morning soundtrack: the “Anthology.” Behind their masks, the Ledbetters quietly panicked. What if it would have been their set blaring from the speakers, broadcasting century-old racist songs?

“I didn’t want people washing dishes or having a dinner party when those songs came on,” Lance said. “If somebody turns up the volume, no one is going to say, ‘Oh, here’s a sticker! We’re supposed to skip this song!’ The world doesn’t work that way.”

The tracks had to go. The Ledbetters raced home and paused their order of 5,000 finished boxed sets, already on pallets and ready to board a ship in Shenzhen, China. Three of the four discs were re-pressed, unboxed, swapped and boxed again. The decision increased production costs by 10%. For the Ledbetters, the extra expense bought peace of mind.

Some listeners didn’t agree. Lance expected the cuts to produce a few academic papers. But in recent years, Dust-to-Digital has fostered an outsized and allegiant social media audience by sharing daily videos of legends like B.B. King or Sonny Rollins and international exotica, like gamelan ensembles conjuring heavy metal or a Russian man playing glass bottles.

On Facebook, commenters pounced. Some called the move “revisionist history” and “cancel culture,” others “sad” and “lame.” Emails were harsher still, accusing Dust-to-Digital of succumbing to “wimpy PC culture” or embracing censorship. “Do you think hearing a pejorative word will convert someone to Racism?” one read. “Are you that weak-minded?”

Traditional music has long struggled with issues of racial and class equity. In the United States, “folk music” has often been reduced to a lily-white realm despite foundational contributions by people of color in the blues, banjo music, zydeco and jug bands, to name just a few. Paying or crediting artists has been a perennial woe; when Smith first issued the “Anthology” on Folkways Records, the label didn’t license a single song.

Folklorists and historians, meanwhile, continue to tease out the sources of such materials, correcting names, stories and struggles previously left out of the history. Since the late ’70s, the Library of Congress has returned wax cylinder recordings of Native Americans to their descendants, a process called repatriation. The Association for Cultural Equity, launched by the field-recording scion Alan Lomax, is still doing the same with materials from the Deep South.

Folk singers have long bowdlerized troubling words in standards, dropping racial slurs or rewriting violent sagas to modernize their musical inheritance. The question of outright omission, however, is a more nebulous one in an age of instant online access. (It takes seconds to find the missing “B-Sides.”)

Steve Weiss, longtime curator of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection, said his staff has become more proactive about labeling “hurtful content.” Not presenting it, though, frames an incomplete picture. “These tracks are an ugly truth,” Weiss said. “If you’re going to have a real conversation, those songs have to be a part of it.”

But for musician Dom Flemons, that’s not the point of a set like Smith’s, which he calls his “Rosetta Stone.” Flemons, who is Black and Mexican American, has long subverted stereotypes of traditional music and the people who play it. He co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops and, as the self-proclaimed “American Songster,” commands a dizzying array of sources, styles and instruments. For him, Smith’s decision 70 years ago to omit each performer’s race — and the songs with racist epithets — suggested that “music is open-ended, a highway.”

“Especially for a box set that may serve as an introduction, you want to be very cautious to not make people feel excluded,” Flemons said. “You don’t want people to feel they can’t be involved.”

Dust-to-Digital followed Smith’s lead. The label’s 2003 debut — a six-CD compendium of the United States’ earliest gospel recordings, called “Goodbye, Babylon” — offered a similarly integrated interpretation of the country’s music. Mahalia Jackson’s towering “Amazing Grace” shared space with the Carter Family’s bucolic “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Texas blues titan Blind Lemon Jefferson with Appalachian lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

A former college radio DJ, Lance started assembling “Goodbye, Babylon” when he realized that most reissue compilations overlooked sacred music. He and April began dating as he began four years of painstaking work on the project. A Georgia State film student who loved deep research, she volunteered, transcribing fire-and-brimstone songs and sermons from scratchy recordings. April was charmed by Lance’s obsession; he was taken by her organizational charge.

The label defines their shared life. Even now, their dual offices occupy the bedrooms on their cozy house’s main floor; the living room’s centerpiece is a pair of customized LP shelves, flanking a window-framed record player and crowned by the triptych of their Grammys. The basement houses their shipping-and-storage operations and a bulky scanner. The Ledbetters sleep in the attic, in a small lofted bedroom.

“Trying to work together and be a couple was challenging,” April said, holding their cat, Louie, for Louis Armstrong. “It’s something we still navigate. Lance could work all day and all night, but I stop working, start thinking about dinner.”

“Goodbye, Babylon” became a surprise hit, selling more than 20,000 copies despite an initial pressing of 1,000. Bob Dylan gave one to Neil Young, who dubbed it “the original wealth of our recorded music.” The success allowed the Ledbetters to pursue more audacious projects, united by an ecumenical approach to what “traditional music” might mean. They have issued the work songs Alan Lomax recorded at Mississippi’s infamous prison, Parchman Farm, and several lavish collections of early African recordings. They have released archival blues from Black laborers in Florida and the Depression-era hillbilly laments of Blind Alfred Reed, a fiddler who sang of hard times in West Virginia.

Still, the “B-Sides” wasn’t the first time Dust-to-Digital confronted the revisionist romanticism inherent to their niche. In 2004, not long after “Goodbye, Babylon” arrived, the Ledbetters visited fellow collectors in Baltimore. They met Gabriel Jermaine Vanlandingham-Dunn, one of the few Black managers in the city’s network of independent record stores.

The grandson of native Southerners, Vanlandingham-Dunn wanted to buy “Goodbye, Babylon.” But when he slid open its cedar box, twin rows of raw cotton balls surrounding the discs infuriated him, a tone-deaf symbol of the racist South his ancestors endured. He asked Lance to justify the design and balked at the simplistic explanation — cotton was a thread between poor people across the South, Lance offered, much like the music itself.

“I remember telling him, ‘If my grandfather would have seen that, he would have shot you,’” Vanlandingham-Dunn said from Philadelphia, where he is a writer. “I reminded Lance that white people weren’t enslaved or denigrated the same way Black people were. It’s fine to enjoy this music, but if you’re not paying attention to the situation of the people who created it, that’s a real problem.”

Years later, Lance admitted he made a naive mistake. His pride in his concept and self-absorption with the new label, he reckoned, didn’t allow him to understand its impact on someone else.

Similar devotion to Smith and his “Anthology” almost prevented the Ledbetters from cutting the three racist tracks. Indeed, “B-Sides” feels like a reliquary for Smith: The box’s cover is a linoleum floor tile he designed, the book cover a riff on his typewriter art. The song descriptions emulate his incisive humor — “Pork Chop Speaks to Hungry Man, Offering Respite and Carnal Satisfaction,” reads one.

“We were beholden to this concept. We wanted to be historically accurate,” Lance said, sighing. “That was wrong.”

The critic Greil Marcus encapsulated Smith’s “Anthology” as a document of “Old, Weird America,” a wild and hardscrabble landscape that largely disappeared through cultural homogenization. But the most bracing thing about it and “B-Sides” might be how germane many of their songs seem.

“Ever woke up in the mornin’, jinx all around your bed?” Charley Patton moans on the “B-Sides” track “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” signaling the immortality of these situations. A president’s health fails during “The Road to Washington,” while the poor consistently pine for heavenly relief. People party, lust, repent and repeat. Addiction, depression and suicide abound. Had they not been cut, those racist tracks would only serve as insulting reminders of what else hasn’t changed in an American century.

Five seconds tick by for each of the missing songs on “B-Sides.” The gaps recall the empty pedestals and vacant spaces that now dot the landscape where Confederate statues once stood, many erected around the time these tunes were recorded. The silence is hard to ignore. As Nathan Salsburg, a guitarist and curator of the Alan Lomax Archive put it, “You don’t need those tracks to unpack their historical baggage.” The decision to cut them says more about the world the Ledbetters hope to help shape than any history they’re ignoring.

“Racism exists, of course. You have to make the choice to take a stand,” April said, leaning against wall-to-wall basement shelves stuffed with books about the South and music. “We create meaning through selection and choice. We like libraries, but we don’t work at one.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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