Dust-To-Digital Producers On Curating And Showcasing 'Harry Smith B-Sides'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to listen to some great recordings from the 1920s and '30s that might have been lost to us if it weren't, for the record-collecting habits of one man. I let our producer, Sam Briger, take it from here.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: In 1952, the Folkways record label released the "Anthology Of American Folk Music," a six-album set of music curated by Harry Smith. Smith was an eccentric collector of 78s, the first phonograph records, who chose 84 of his favorite songs recorded between 1926 and 1931. They were mostly country and blues songs from rural Southern artists. Smith's anthology went on to have a huge influence on the folk music scene of the '50s and '60s and then the rock music scene after that. A new box set of the B sides of the anthology - in other words, the sides of the 78s that Harry Smith didn't choose - has just been released by the record company Dust-to-Digital. It's called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." When producing the box set, the founders of Dust-to-Digital, Lance and April Ledbetter, had to decide what to do with three of those tracks that were racist. The songs were removed from the CDs but are present in the box set's liner notes. Before we get to my interview with the Ledbetters, let's hear a mix from some of the songs of the original "Anthology Of American Folk Music," which is still available today from Smithsonian Folkways.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIKE DRIVER BLUES")
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT: (Singing) Take this hammer and carry it to my captain. Tell him I'm gone. Tell him I'm gone. Tell him I'm gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONNA DIE WITH MY HAMMER IN MY HAND (JOHN HENRY)")
THE WILLIAMSON BROTHERS AND CURRY: (Singing) John Henry told his captain man ain't nothin' but a man. Before I be beaten by this old steam drill, gonna die with my hammer in my hands, gonna die with my hammer in my hands.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN HARDY WAS A DESPERATE LITTLE MAN")
THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) John Hardy was a desperate little man. He carried two guns every day. He shot down a man on the West Virginia line. And you oughta seen John Hardy getting away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN THE REVELATOR")
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, who's that writin'? John the revelator. Who's that writin'? John the revelator. Who's that writin'? John the revelator. A book of the seven seals.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COO COO BIRD")
CLARENCE ASHLEY: (Singing) Oh, the coo coo is a pretty bird. She wobbles as she flies. She never hollers coo coo 'til the fourth day of July.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN THE OLD PLANK ROAD")
UNCLE DAVE MACON: (Singing) Rather be in Richmond with all the hail and rain than to be in Georgia boys wearin' that ball and chain. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more way down the Old Plank Road.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FISHING BLUES")
HENRY THOMAS: (Singing) Says you've been fishin' all the time I'm goin' fishin' too. I bet your life your lovin' wife can catch more fish than you. Any fish bite if you've got good bait. Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate. Any fish bite you've got good bait. I'm gonna fishin' - yes, I'm goin' fishin' - I'm goin' fishin' too.
BRIGER: So that's a mix of some of the songs from the "Anthology Of American Folk Music." And today, I'm speaking with April and Lance Ledbetter, founders of the record label Dust-to-Digital, which has just recently come out with a box set called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." Lance and April, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LANCE LEDBETTER: Thanks for having us, Sam.
APRIL LEDBETTER: Glad to be here.
BRIGER: So let's start with talking about the "Anthology Of American Folk Music." It first came out in 1952. Why is it considered such an important collection of music?
L LEDBETTER: I think when the set originally came out on Folkways Records, it became sort of a Rosetta Stone for aspiring musicians, aspiring folk musicians, singer-songwriters. I think you read about people like Pete Seeger, who carried the box set anywhere they went, or people like Bob Dylan, who recorded three songs that are on the "Anthology Of American Folk Music" and included on his first record. It opened up a world of music that was only 20 years old. But so many of these young musicians had never heard anything like it.
BRIGER: Right. And Dave Van Ronk, who was a staple of the folk music scene in New York, I think he called it his Bible.
L LEDBETTER: That's right. And John Fahey said it was one of the greatest achievements of mankind. He said he would take it over the Dead Sea Scrolls. So...
A LEDBETTER: I would say I think the anthology sort of created what became this lexicon of folk music that people now think of as standards that at the time had been pretty much forgotten by most people.
BRIGER: So the music from the anthology comes from a really short period of time. It's from 1926 to 1932. What does that period represent in the history of recorded music? Like, what is that period there?
L LEDBETTER: Well, in 1925, the microphone becomes used in recording 78s, and then by 1926, it's widely available. Almost every record company switches from what they called acoustic recording, which you've seen the pictures of people singing and it looks like a megaphone. They called it singing into the horn. And the technology was available to sing through a microphone that's very similar to the same technology we're still using today. And so the sonic qualities were so much greater in 1926 and by '27, you start hearing these records that - they just sound so clear and so pristine. And there was also a boom with the record companies. They were sending more engineers in hard-to-reach places. They had stopped asking musicians to come to New York and Chicago, and they started sending these engineers to places like Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga., Charlotte, N.C. And they were recording music that had previously not really been documented.
BRIGER: You know, with the advent of the microphone, did that allow for a different kind of music to be recorded?
L LEDBETTER: It did. I mean, there were changes that were made. You know, one in particular was the stand-up bass. The stand-up bass was something that the technology had not developed yet. And it could crack when they were recording the master. The sonic frequencies - the low frequencies of the bass could crack the recording. So you hear, you know, a lot of tuba on those early horn recordings. And then there was this switch from a lot of jazz bands and country bands that were playing other instruments. They start moving from the cello to the bass and the tuba to the bass. And that was brought on by technology.
BRIGER: I think it's fascinating you said that the earliest record companies were actually furniture companies because the phonograph machines were encased in these often, like, beautiful cabinets, right? Like, they were, like, burl chestnut or whatever. So they were pieces of furniture.
L LEDBETTER: Absolutely. They were beautiful objects. You look at the advertisements, and the ads for these phonograph machines would have it just as, like, a prestigious part of your living room set up. And the family would be gathered around it. It was a major source of entertainment, and it was a beautiful part of your living room.
BRIGER: So these companies were interested in finding musicians who were Black and white, but the music got segregated under the record labels. Can you explain that?
L LEDBETTER: That's right. And this was part of the beginning of genres that, you know, you go into a record shop today and you still see things classified by genre. And this was the very earliest examples of that. And they were recording African American artists, and they were putting that in what they called their race series. And they were recording country musicians and putting that in what they called either their hillbilly series or their old-time music series. And it was very segregated in the sense that you would open up one of these catalogues and even the numbering system, like, the the 15,000 series might be all white people. And the 12,000 series might be predominantly African American. And there was a numbering system. And it was also broken up in the catalogue. And they just believed that - I don't know. Maybe they underestimated their audience or maybe - I don't know. But they thought that if we record this Black person playing music, only Black people will want to hear it, and I think that's what sort of set up that genre-established system.
BRIGER: Well, do you have a favorite song from the anthology, April? Do you want to pick a song?
A LEDBETTER: If I - I would pick "Coo Coo Bird" by Clarence Ashley.
BRIGER: OK, great. Why don't we hear that?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COO COO BIRD")
ASHLEY: (Singing) Going to build me a log cabin on a mountain so high so I can see Willie (ph) as he goes on by. The coo coo is a pretty bird. She wobbles as she flies. She never hollers coo-coo 'til the fourth day of July.
BRIGER: Well, that's "The Coo Coo Bird" by Clarence Ashley, which is one of the songs from Harry Smith's "Anthology Of American Folk Music." And my guests are April and Lance Ledbetter, founders of the record label Dust-to-Digital, who have their newest box set, which is called "The Harry Smith B-Sides," which are the sides of the 78s that Harry Smith didn't choose for his anthology.
One thing I noticed about the anthology is that there's not a lot of female artists on the collection. Do you think that that reflects something about Harry Smith or about the record business at the time or a little bit of both?
A LEDBETTER: I think it's the business at the time for sure.
L LEDBETTER: I think it was less documented. I mean, I know that Harry Smith talks about - like I said, he doesn't - there's not a lot of interviews with Harry, but, you know, he did come across Memphis Minnie. And I know that was an artist that he really enjoyed, but to April's point, I agree. I don't think the record companies were documenting women musicians nearly as much as they were men musicians.
BRIGER: Can you tell us a little bit about how you try to restore the tracks?
L LEDBETTER: I can, yes. So in 2011, April and I founded a nonprofit called Music Memory, and we have been digitizing several collections from prominent record collectors. And one thing that sort of sets us apart from maybe, like, the Library of Congress is, you know, whereas they would require to have the records on their site to use their facilities, we actually go and set up in the record collector's home, which is - a lot of times, that's the only way you can access these records because some of them are so valuable, these collectors, they would never let them out of their sight.
L LEDBETTER: So we do high-resolution audio transfers, and then we've been working with the same audio and restoration engineer since 2005, Michael Graves, who has a studio called Osiris Studio, and he is a wizard. He can make these 78s - just bring them back to life, and technology has come so far, even in the past 15 years since we've started working with Mike, that the tools that are available now are just unbelievable. And it used to be - like, the shortcut was always to roll off the high end, and you could cut into the vocal and all this. Now there's so much great software that you can make it sound perfect without taking out any of the voice or the instrumentation. It's just - it's so different.
BRIGER: So you're not losing any of the range.
L LEDBETTER: No. You're losing zero range. I mean, it's amazing, and I should also add, too, the needle technology has come a long way. There are people in England that are making styli for turntables now where you can record the sides of a groove. Like, if it's a really rare record and it's been stripped in the center by a steel needle from the 1920s or '30s and it's worn out, they can actually make needles now that can record the side of the groove where there is - it's been less damaged.
BRIGER: Wow. So people haven't seen a 78, like, the needle, like, it's an actual - it's almost like a needle that pulls the sound from the 78. And it's this big, pointy needle, and it must really rip the record apart. So you're saying the record - the 78 has a groove, and so generally, the needle will go directly into the bottom of the groove. But these needles are able to capture, like, the valleys of the groove?
L LEDBETTER: That's exactly right. So the needles used to come - back when they were selling the phonograph machines, there would be a box of, like, 100 needles or a tin. You'd see needle tins. And they would say to change your needle every two to three plays. Well, when the Depression came, I don't think people were changing their needles after two or three plays. They were using the same needle hundreds of times. And so what would happen is they could strip that groove. And there's some people in England - Expert Stylus is the name of the company - and they've developed a way where you can - they call it an elliptical needle. And they can actually clip the needle, and it's almost recording - instead of going straight down, it's going to the left and the right and making a stereo recording of the sides of the groove.
BRIGER: That's amazing.
A LEDBETTER: It is amazing.
BRIGER: Let's take a short break here. My guests are April and Lance Ledbetter, the founders of the record label Dust-to-Digital, whose newest box set is called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOYT MING AND HIS PEP STEPPERS SONG, "INDIAN WAR WHOOP")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation with Lance and April Ledbetter, whose record label Dust-to-Digital's newest project is called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." It's a compilation of the sides of 78s that Harry Smith didn't choose for his very influential collection from the 1950s called "The Anthology Of American Folk Music."
So as we were talking about earlier, Harry Smith took all this music from the '20s and '30s, and one of the things he was trying to do was to integrate this music that was made by white and Black musicians that had been segregated in various ways by the record companies, by putting them under separate labels and by marketing them only to other white listeners or Black listeners. Unfortunately, when it came to your project, looking at the flip side of the songs that Harry Smith chose, you came upon some pretty disturbing songs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
L LEDBETTER: Yeah. So when Eli Smith and John Cohen contacted me in 2013 to approach this idea of "The Harry Smith B-Sides" and we decided to converge the research I'd done in 2004 with their new energy, this was a topic of conversation pretty early on, that there were several songs on the flips of these - of the "Anthology Of American Folk Music's" records that had racist lyrics. And between the time in 2013, when we first started talking about this, and 2015, when we finalized the liner notes, we felt that leaving the three songs with racist lyrics, included them - including them on the CDs was the right decision because we were looking at it more as historical accuracy and looking at it as a sense of preservation, that this is the full version.
And between 2015, when we made that decision, and 2020, we changed. We changed that decision. And it really came about when we started listening to the test pressings for the vinyl. And we heard the songs differently. And I remember April and I, we felt like we needed to do something to address this - these songs. And that's - unfortunately, John Cohen passed away in 2019. And so it was just Eli, April and myself. And we were conversing on how to deal with this in 2020.
BRIGER: So was there a moment when you finally decided what you were going to do with these songs?
L LEDBETTER: There was. It culminated in early June. April and Eli and I had been discussing on the telephone just what to do. And that Saturday - the Saturday was June the 6th - we decided we were going to include a note in the box set that said, here's where these three tracks are. They have racist lyrics. Feel free to fast forward or skip these tracks. And I don't think any of us felt like that was the perfect solution. But that's what we had agreed to do. And so Sunday, the next day, June 7, we go to the Grant Park Farmers Market, April and I did. And we're there to get our peaches.
And we're friends with the person - John Short - the person who runs the operation. And everyone's underneath the canopies and getting their produce. And John comes up to me. He's a big fan of music. He is a fan of Dust-to-Digital. And he asked me if we'd been working on some new projects that would be coming out after the pandemic sort of slowed down. And I told him, actually, we've been working on a big set called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." And he asked me what it was. And I told him that it was the flip sides of every 78 that Harry Smith chose for the "Anthology Of American Folk Music." And John leaned over. And he said, you mean what we're listening to now? And he turns up the volume on the speaker.
And I'd heard it playing ambiently. But all of a sudden, you hear the volume come up. And at that point, my mind went completely to those three tracks. And I just thought, what if one of those tracks with the racist lyrics was one of the tracks that John turned up and filled these canopies full of those songs? And I looked around and just saw a diverse group of people under the tent - Black people, Hispanic people, white people, old people and young people.
And I just thought that there was no note that you could include in a box set that would explain why they were hearing that music and those lyrics. And it was at that point that the decision was made. We need to take those tracks off because once they're on those CDs, they're broadcast in homes and on the radio. It's putting music out there that, in 2020, we just didn't feel like it needed to be in the public sphere.
BRIGER: Right, because, I mean, even if you explained for historical reasons or archival reasons, we are including these upsetting, racist songs, you have no control about what happens to that music once you send it out.
L LEDBETTER: That's exactly right. The last thing, I think, that runs through people's minds if they hear some of these songs is, is there a note that explains why I'm hearing this? It can cause hurt. It can cause - you know, it's a reminder of a part of our history that I just, you know, did not want to be putting that into the world.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with April and Lance Ledbetter. Their record company has released a new box set called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll hear from comic Amber Ruffin, a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" and host of her own comedy show. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I WAS A MOLE IN THE GROUND")
BASCOM LAMAR LUNSFORD: (Singing) I wish I was a mole in the ground. Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground. If I was a mole in the ground, I'd root that mountain down. And I wish I was a mole in the ground. Oh, Kimpy wants a $9 shawl. Yes, Kimpy wants a $9 shawl. When I come over the hill with a $40 bill, 'tis...
(SOUNDBITE OF UNCLE BUNT STEPHENS' "SAIL AWAY LADY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Lance and April Ledbetter, whose record label Dust-to-Digital has a new box set called "The Harry Smith B-Sides."
Harry Smith was an avid collector of 78s. He chose some of his favorite blues and country recordings of the 1920s and '30s and presented them in a now-famous collection called "The Anthology Of American Folk Music." It was first released in 1952. The B-sides in the new anthology are the flip sides of the 78s Smith included in his anthology.
BRIGER: Let's hear another song from "The Harry Smith B-Sides." And this one wasn't part of your gospel box set "Goodbye, Babylon," but the A-side actually made it onto the Harry Smith anthology, was in your box set "Goodbye, Babylon." And this is a wonderful song by Rev. Sister Mary Nelson called "The Royal Telephone." What can you tell us about Rev. Sister Mary Nelson? She's got just a wonderful voice.
L LEDBETTER: Wonderful voice - it sounds like she has young children singing with her that may or may not be her children. It's part of this sort of genre or niche of gospel recordings that were made where they would kind and try to recreate church in the studio. And they would take other members in. And like I said, this might be her children that are with her. And it kind of has that sort of church sound where you have multiple voices going. But no biographical information is known about Sister Mary Nelson.
BRIGER: OK. Well, this is Rev. Sister Mary Nelson. The song is called "The Royal Telephone," and it was recorded in 1927.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROYAL TELEPHONE")
REV SISTER MARY NELSON: (Singing) Telephone to glory, oh, what joy divine. You can feel the current riding (ph) on the line. When you call the number, be sure you get the throne. Then you can talk with Jesus on this royal telephone. Well, when you call up heaven, you better stop to look and see if you are certain your name is in the book. When are you discouraged and know not where to roam, well, you can talk with Jesus on this royal telephone. Telephone to glory, oh, what joy divine. You can feel the current moving on the line. When you call the number, be sure you get the throne. Then you can talk with Jesus on this royal telephone. Well, there will be no charges. Telephone is free. It was built for service just for you and me. There will be no waiting on the royal line. Just telephone to glory. He'll answer just in time. Telephone to glory, oh, what joy divine. You can feel the current riding on the line. When you call the number, be sure you get the throne. Then you can talk with Jesus on this royal telephone. Well, if your line is grounded...
BRIGER: That was "The Royal Telephone" by Rev. Sister Mary Nelson. It was recorded in 1927, and it's part of the box set called "The Harry Smith B-Sides."
So, you know, some of these songs are so wonderful. Do you ever wonder why Harry Smith didn't pick these songs and pick the ones that he did?
L LEDBETTER: In the interview with John Cohen that Harry gave in the late 1960s when he was living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, Harry says that he picked some songs for their historical value. And in order to get the earliest Child ballad, he would pick something over one that he might find more enjoyable. So I think he had his own sort of schema going that he was committed to. And maybe that locked him into some songs that maybe he would have liked to put "Bulldoze Blues" on there, too. So...
BRIGER: What happened in 1931 that kind of ended this sort of period of increased recording?
L LEDBETTER: That was the beginning of the Depression. And if you look at the sales figures for records recorded in '31, '32, '33, some of these records only sold 400 copies or 300 copies. And, you know, it's some of the greatest music, but it's also some of the hardest to find. And I think, based on those sales figures, the record companies had to pause their efforts. You know, the electric guitar becomes more prominent after the Depression. Certain things - like, once the electric guitar becomes the lead instrument, the fiddle goes back into the background. And also, you know, blues music goes from being more country blues to more urban rock blues. Just - a lot changed in that short period. So you're right. It's - that '27 to '32, it is - it's a real time capsule of a style of music that it only lasted a small, brief period.
BRIGER: Well, Lance and April Ledbetter, thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.
A LEDBETTER: Thanks for having us. It's been fun.
L LEDBETTER: Thank you, Sam.
GROSS: Lance and April Ledbetter spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. The Ledbetters' new anthology is called "The Harry Smith B-Sides." It was released on their record label Dust-to-Digital.
After we take a short break, we'll hear from Amber Ruffin, a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" and the host of her own comedy show. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON'S JUG STOMPERS' "MINGLEWOOD BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.