How to Handle the Hate in America’s Musical Heritage

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tags: racism, music, Folk Music, recording, Americana

ATLANTA — 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,” the 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?”


Read entire article at New York Times

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