In 1999, Lance Ledbetter launched a record label with a very simple mission: to find and release high-quality cultural artifacts. In the intervening years, that label—Dust-to-Digital—has exhumed music from 1950s Morocco and early 1900s Greece, among many other places. They’ve released obscure folk songs (which earned the label a Grammy nomination in 2004) and Cambodian rock. But while Ledbetter and his wife April, who co-runs Dust-to-Digital, have enjoyed success in recent years, the early days weren’t so glamorous. Says Ledbetter, “it took a mountain of credit card debt to license and manufacture” the label’s first release, the massive 160-track Goodbye, Babylon. “To say we were ‘all in’ would be an accurate assessment.”
Comprising 135 rare gospel songs and 25 sermons, Babylon took a long time to compile and was released four years after Ledbetter founded the label. The CD collection includes everything from gospel quartets to sacred harp choirs and string bands. “In the vein of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, Goodbye, Babylon is an anthropological project as much as a musical one: an investigation into the devotional rites of early-20th-century Americans,” said a five-star review in Uncut magazine. In 2004, Goodbye, Babylon was nominated Best Historical Album by the Recording Academy, losing to Lost Highway’s Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.
The label scaled back for its next release, a 24-track compilation called Where Will You Be Christmas Day? “It caught some people off guard since Goodbye, Babylon was a deluxe 160-track behemoth in a cedar box, and the follow-up was just 24 tracks in a digipak,” Ledbetter recalls. “And on top of that, it was a Christmas album.” But Christmas Day? wasn’t your usual yuletide offering. “We had field recordings from Alabama, Ukrainian fiddle music, sleigh bells from Italy, and even a Christmas tune from Puerto Rico. But I still think it’s one of our best titles for repeated listening.”
After that unconventional Christmas album, Dust-To-Digital released its first box set specifically focused on an individual label, the five-CD compilation Fonotone Records: Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969), which gathered the best 78s recorded for Joe Bussard’s label. With such releases, Dust-To-Digital were doing for old roots and blues music what labels like Analog Africa or Soundway have been doing for African and Latin music, releasing rare and obscure art that otherwise would have been lost or hidden in library archives.
Dust-to-Digital soon had its own section in well-known records stores—from Honest Jon’s in West London to Amoeba in Los Angeles. The label also earned more Grammy nominations, for Fonotone Records 1956-1969 and the 2006 box set Music of Morocco. A year later, the label actually won a Grammy in Best Historic Album for Art of Field Recording: Volume I. “This was a big release for us,” Ledbetter recalls. “Although we had been nominated for Grammy Awards before, this was the first set we produced that actually won.” The releases that followed in the second half of the 2000s included Black Mirror: Reflections In Global Musics (1918-1955) and Melodii Tuvi: Throat Songs And Folk Tunes From Tuva.
Having worked closely with record dealers and archivists since its inception, the label also dedicated full LPs to the collections of individuals, such as sound archivist Patrick Feaster on Pictures Of Sound: One Thousand Years Of Educed Audio: 980-1980 and visual and sound artist Steve Roden on I Listen To The Wind That Obliterates My Traces – Music In Vernacular Photographs, 1880-1955. In 2012, the label released an album from outsider artist and musician Lonnie Holley. The imprint’s first release from a contemporary artist, Just Before Music collected Holley’s otherworldly improvised recordings, which had been gathering dust in his Alabama home. The release led to Holley playing across the world and becoming something of an underground star. But it’s in its archive recordings—like those of Texan gospel blues singer Washington Phillips and Appalachian Visionary Blind Alfred Reed—that Dust-To-Digital plays its most important role. Below are the label’s highlights.
Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969)
The second box set from Dust-To-Digital, this 2005 compilation was also the first to focus on one label. The release stems from a relationship that label owners developed in their very early days. “Working on Goodbye, Babylon, we spent a lot of time getting to know a very idiosyncratic record collector from Maryland named Joe Bussard,” Ledbetter says. “When Joe was a teenager up until his late 30s, he ran a 78-rpm record label and that was Fonotone.” The recordings he made, and that are featured here, fit into three categories. “Firstly, the musicians who came to Joe’s house who wanted to hear his 78s, then musicians Joe encountered when canvassing the Southeast, and finally recordings made by Joe and his buddies reinterpreting songs from the 1920s and 30s.” Highlights over the 130-track, five-CD compilation include the fingerpicking guitar of John Fahey—under the pseudonym Blind Thomas and as part of Mississippi Swampers.
“We had a lot of research on these Fahey recordings from when we produced the Fonotone Records box set years earlier,” explains Ledbetter. “Revenant Records had started working on an outline of a box set of the Fahey material, too, so it made sense for our two companies to merge efforts. Once that happened, lead researcher Glenn Jones and I worked on stitching the story and recordings together.” The booklet, which comes as a .pdf with digital purchase, includes the label’s usual thorough essays as well as a song-by-song analysis, an unpublished interview with the pioneering guitarist from 1967, and images provided by Fahey’s mother. “The photographs that Glenn and Melissa Stephenson had saved from John’s mother before she died became a vital part of visualizing what John had been like growing up when he made his first recordings for Joe Bussard,” says Ledbetter. Over 115 tracks of never before released music from one of the greats of American folk and blues who influenced everyone from Pete Townsend to Sufjan Stevens.
This Grammy Award-winning album was compiled by Art Rosenbaum author of the Old Time Banjo Book and one of the leading performers and teachers of the instrument. “Art really does it all,” says Ledbetter. “He plays and teaches banjo, he paints, he draws, he writes and for more than 50 years he travelled everywhere from Michigan to Georgia making field recordings.” The result of those travels was this collection of over 100 recordings. Opening with the incredible gospel blues of Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart’s ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ it takes in everything from the bluegrass of fiddle player Gordon Tanner from Georgia to the ‘Cowboy Waltz’ of Earl Murphy and Bill Ashley. To help navigate the compilation are Art’s essays and the illustrations and photographs he produced with his wife Margo, which come as a .pdf with digital purchase.
“I am a long time fan of the Excavated Shellac blog run by Jonathan Ward,” Ledbetter explains. “Jonathan and I became friends and one day I asked him if he could put together any type of reissue, what would it be? He didn’t hesitate and responded, ‘A box set of African 78s’.” The result was over 100 tracks of never-previously- reissued material from Ward’s record collection. “The difficulties with licensing music from companies in Africa took a lot of time, but in the end, the set came together as well as we all could have hoped,” explains Ledbetter. As with all Dust To Digital releases, the LP came with a serious .pdf booklet in which Ward explains, “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.” A deep and wildly diverse exploration of the many corners of African music from the early recorded sounds of 1900 through to the 1960s.
Just Before Music
This outsider artist turned avant-garde musician was represented by collector William Arnett whose son Matt heard Holley’s primal, spiritual blues on one of the hundreds of DIY cassettes he hoarded in his Alabama home. He approached Ledbetter who was immediately impressed by what he heard. “I booked time at Chris Griffin’s studio in my neighborhood and the two of us spent over a year recording and mixing Lonnie to get the best material possible for this album,” he says. The album was a departure for the label being the first from a contemporary artist. But Holley repaid the faith in him with a deep and otherworldly LP of his improvisational keyboard playing and singing. Co-produced by Matt Arnett the LP found Holley compared with everyone from Arthur Russell to Sun Ra and Slim Harpo. Although there are touches of these innovators in his avant-garde otherness and gritty blues aesthetic, his music is very much his own. He went on to record a second LP for Dust to Digital, Keeping a Record of It.
Longing for the Past
The 78 RPM Era in Southeast Asia
David Murray runs a blog called Haji Maji, whose tagline is “Scratchy old 78 rpm records from Asia.” Murray and Ledbetter began talking about putting together something like the Dust To Digital 78rpm compilation OpikaPende, but instead of Africa the focus would be Southeast Asia. “David wrote some of the notes contributed almost all of the original records, and did all of the graphic design for the set,” says Ledbetter, whose label thrives off such collaborations. While labels like ZudRangMa Records and Soundway have helped shine a light on the post ’60s and contemporary sounds of the region, Dust To Digital reveal the deep folk roots of the 78RPM era. The result is an incredible selection of nearly 90 tracks from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, with a 300-page .pdf booklet written with the knowledge and passion of a serious collector.
Sorrow Come Pass Me Around
A Survey of Rural Black Religious Music
While other Dust To Digital releases present previously released material in new sequences, this LP was a reissue of a 1975 compilation on the Advent label of spiritual and gospel songs from 1965-1973. “A few tweaks that we made to the 1975 album include the work we did with David Evans, the producer and compiler of the original gospel field recordings, to create new cover art and expanded liner notes [for the accompanying .pdf booklet],” says Ledbetter. This 2013 collection of field recordings made by Evans, John Fahey and AI Wilson highlight the variety of different styles of religious music from the South. “This album tries to present a broader range of performance styles and contexts with the hope of showing the important role that religious music plays in the Southern black communities,” wrote David Evans in the album notes. Beginning with the title track by Ephram Carter And His Fife & Drum Band, highlights include a version of ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ played on an old lard bucket by Compton Jones and Pattie Rosemon’s soaring gospel song ‘Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say.’
“During the ’60s and early ’70s as the war in Vietnam threatened its borders, a new music scene emerged in Cambodia that took Western rock and roll and stood it on its head – creating a sound like no other,” announced the press blurb for John Pirozzi’s film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. “The documentary is very moving as John tells the tragic history of Cambodia through the music and musicians who suffered a genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge,” says Ledbetter.
Dust-To-Digital’s 2015 release was compiled by record collector Nate Hun and Pirozzi as a soundtrack to the film. Much of the moving music here comes from those killed under the Khmer Rouge regime, like Sinn Sisamouth who opens the LP with the deep jazz blues of ‘Under the Sound of Rain’, and Ros Serey Sothea, a singer with a spine-tingling voice (check the incredible ‘Heaven’s Song’) thought to have been worked to death in a labour camp. Elsewhere the ‘out there’ psych rock of Yol Aularong & Va Sovy’s ‘Dying Under a Woman’s Sword’ and the haunting blues of Cheam Chansovannary’s ‘Oh! Phnom Penh’ show the wild diversity of music made in Camodia during its golden age. “Thankfully,” Ledbetter concludes, “Cambodia is in much better shape today, and it is the current government that oversees the licensing of music on this album.”