Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital Records unearths the origins of blues legend John Fahey
For the past eight years, Steven "Lance" Ledbetter has spent his days divided. The man behind Dust-to-Digital Records, the Atlanta-based archival label he runs with his wife, April, Ledbetter has dedicated thousands of hours to researching, conceptualizing and lavishly repackaging long-forgotten music. The music that he's given new life in the modern world can't easily be labeled. Gospel recordings pulled from old shellac 78 rpm records from the early 20th century, 78s from as far away as Thailand and South Africa, and even primitive Old South field recordings have all found a home under Dust-to-Digital's wings. Each release takes shape as an extravagant doorway into an obscure pocket of the past, with pain-staking attention paid to every detail while embracing the music's spirit. Each one is its own unique work of art.
But since 2007, everything Ledbetter has touched has come together in the shadow of his most ambitious project to date. After unearthing a late-night basement recording session made in Maryland that took place more than a half-century ago, Ledbetter has spent the past four years paying reverence to the first, unheard recordings of acoustic blues icon John Fahey — a new chapter in what many considered a sealed legacy, dubbed Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.
The five-disc set presents Fahey in his nascent form, following him over an eight-year arc when he came into his own as a musician. Its release can be seen as the culmination of everything Dust-to-Digital has sought to achieve, the prize relic from Ledbetter's archaeological dig for music's hidden treasures, put on display for a small but wildly appreciative audience. There is risk, though, in spending so much time polishing one stone. True, given Dust-to-Digital's sterling reputation, the likelihood is that Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You will be a triumph that casts new light on Fahey's roots. But given its admitted rawness — Fahey himself suggested the songs be released after he was dead — it could come to be seen instead as chronicling only his embarrassing first steps.
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is Dust-to-Digital's first release by an artist that already has a fan base, while moving into the arena of artist-retrospective, moving beyond thematic compilations; a clear evolutionary step forward. It will be met, then, with raised expectations. How then will Your Past — and the various other releases that Ledbetter has channeled his passions into with Dust-to-Digital — leave a mark on the world? Perhaps the more pertinent question: Does it matter? Or is unearthing such a rare thing itself reward enough? "Music is a continuum that constantly feeds off of itself," Ledbetter says. "Dust-to-Digital's role is to save the music that we deem important, and inject it into the present to not only show its relevance, but to save it from being forgotten."
On October 15, 1958, at around 3 o'clock in the morning, Joe Bussard heard a knock on his front door. It was a chilly Wednesday morning in Frederick, Md. Outside stood a shivering and blurry-eyed John Fahey, a friend who'd come all the way from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, about an hour away. He was an unassuming young man, dressed in plain clothes. "He may have had a bottle of something with him," Bussard says with a wry laugh.
Fahey was 19 years old, a few years younger than Bussard, but the two had spent countless hours together, lost in the grooves of shellac 78 records, wrapping their heads around the jazz, blues and hillbilly music that defined America leading up to the second World War. But Fahey hadn't come all this way in the witching hour just to listen to more records; he was ready to record one himself. Although he'd been playing guitar since he was 15, Fahey hadn't worked up the nerve to sit down in front of a microphone until now.
Bussard was the sort of flannel-clad character that could have been plucked from any Norman Rockwell painting. He was known as an ornery country music fanatic, and owner of Fonotone Records, a homespun label he'd started a few years earlier in '56; and he owned a record cutter that he kept in the basement. It was there, in his makeshift studio, where he set up a single microphone, plugged it into a reel-to-reel tape machine and pressed the record button. The deep black spools of tape yawned to life, and Fahey's nervous hand strummed with the confidence of a windup music box on its last leg. "Franklin Blues," "Smoketown Strut" and "Steel Guitar Rag" were among the handful of "sides" that he recorded in that basement between 3 and 5 a.m., and it was only the beginning. Between 1958 and 1965 he continued recording with Bussard, taking his first steps toward musical greatness.
It's hard to imagine today, but in 1958 the pre-war blues they'd been quietly digesting on those old 78s embodied the most obscure music that anyone could then dig up. The humid, Delta blues grit that he heard in the grooves of records by artists with names like Curley Weaver, Barbecue Bob and Charley Patton greatly eclipsed his naked attempts at re-creating their mood and atmosphere. But over time he got better, experimenting with odd guitar pieces and hymns, eventually adding his own instrumental takes on the blues standards of the '20s and '30s.
A decade later, Fahey would be signed to the formidable folk imprint Vanguard, rubbing elbows with Joan Baez, all the while nurturing like-minded, experimental acoustic blues players such as Robbie Basho, Bukka White and Leo Kottke with his Takoma Records. Fahey would go on exploring pre-war blues, hillbilly music, ragtime and eventually Indian raga, giving rise to a following of fanatical record collectors and musical devotees. Eventually, he even won a Grammy in '98 for his contributions to the liner notes to Revenant's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 1-3 — a label that Fahey co-owned with Austin, Texas, lawyer Dean Blackwood.
Outside of the few 78s of Fahey recordings that Bussard made for people who mail ordered through Fonotone's catalogue, no one has heard them. And since Bussard didn't keep track of what he sold, no one knows how many copies of these records were even made. Ask Bussard and he'll chuckle, "Boy I'll tell ya, we sold a lot of 'em!" But coming from the guy who cut each record by hand, "a lot of 'em" could mean anywhere between six and 600 records.
As Fahey's presence grew, the Fonotone sessions he'd recorded so long ago faded into obscurity. For nearly 50 years the tapes sat in Bussard's basement, enduring mildew and dense clouds of cigar smoke. In time, the recordings could have easily been forgotten, but when Ledbetter ran across the tapes while transferring Fonotone's masters to a digital format in '06, he knew that he'd found something special in the basement. "I thought, 'For a lot of Fahey fans, hearing these recordings is like life and death!'" Ledbetter says. "I knew it was big, and we made a verbal agreement right then and there to come back to it later on."
Unearthing musical holy grails such as these has been the driving force behind Ledbetter and April's ambitions with Dust-to-Digital since the label was conceived. What began as a hobby for Ledbetter grew into an obsession, and ultimately an industry institution recognized around the world for its dedication to giving long-forgotten music the royal treatment. Such goliath collections as 2003's Goodbye, Babylon early gospel music compilation, the Fonotone cigar box ('06), and Art Rosenbaum's Grammy-winning Art of Field Recording: Volume I ('08) are all the fruits of Ledbetter's fascination with musical archaeology.
Unlike similar labels such as Mississippi Records and the Numero Group who use recognizable branding to denote their releases, Dust-to-Digital's offerings are singular to the subject. The only thing tying each one to the next is grandiose presentation. Ledbetter isn't prone to blather on with self-congratulatory talk. The work speaks for itself, and his passion is obvious in the meticulous attention to detail that goes into each release.
Establishing such a strong presence in an era when physical media has become an outdated concept speaks volumes to the label's vision and aesthetic. The extravagant presentation defies the disposable protocols of digital music as each release materializes as the kind of must-have box set that is displayed on people's mantels, and has an uncanny knack for filling musical voids that many didn't know existed until laying their eyes and ears on the product. Each release also defies easy listening, as the sheer volume and scope of each one can be daunting to the uninitiated.
While Dust-to-Digital — and its vinyl counterpart, Parlortone Records — began as an outlet for Ledbetter's excitement over digging up and presenting musical treasures that cannot be found in record stores, the label has expanded beyond just Ledbetter's pet project to become a conduit for kindred spirits who have dedicated their lives to preserving these obscure chapters of music gone by.
Both Lance and April are unassuming in their ways. They're intellectual without pretense, and their encyclopedic knowledge of old-time American music can be intimidating. However, both of them exude a classic Southern charm — they smile and shrug off such flattery. But Ledbetter's relaxed tone comes to an abrupt halt when discussing the quality of Dust-to-Digital's releases. "I personally will not sign off on anything until it's ready, and it makes people crazy to work with me," Ledbetter says without a hint of irony as he leans back in his chair and looks over the thick, magnifying lenses of his glasses. "If we're not getting laser-point execution on every aspect of what we're doing, I can get a little pissy."
The seeds for Dust-to-Digital were planted when Ledbetter began researching gospel music for the 20th-century archives show "Raw Music" on Georgia State's student radio station, WRAS (88.5 FM), in spring 1999. After Ledbetter picked up a copy of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways), he was puzzled. Of the set's four CDs, only one-half of one disc featured gospel music.
Curious to find more, he scoured libraries, record stores and the Internet, digging up whatever traces of primitive American gospel music he could find. During his research, one name popped up at nearly every turn: Joe Bussard. After finding an article from Washington City Paper titled "Desperate Man Blues: Record Collector Joe Bussard Parties Like It's 1929," he had a lead. The story painted a picture of Bussard as the self-proclaimed "king of record collectors," describing him as someone who had "spent most of his waking hours in pursuit of old 78s. To call it a hobby would be an insult: It was his life."
After reading the story he looked up Bussard's number and gave him a call. Immediately they hit it off, and soon Ledbetter paid a visit to his fabled basement stronghold. Bussard's collection of more than 25,000 78s turned out to be a rich resource for the music Ledbetter had set out to find.
Within days Bussard was filling up cassette tapes with volumes of antique songs and field recordings and mailing them to him — 50 cents per song. For Ledbetter, taking them all in was akin to a religious experience. After receiving the packages in the mail from Bussard, Ledbetter would clack in the tapes, put on a pair of headphones and spend hours lying in his bed, transported to a time and place he'd never been. "These recordings made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," he says. "I thought, 'Why isn't anybody reissuing this stuff?'"
Lance and April started dating just before Lance's gospel music quest began. "I didn't get it at first," April says. "When Lance started talking about how busy he was going to be with all of this gospel music, I thought, 'Why is he doing this great big project?' But the more time I spent with the music, I saw that there was so much passion and excitement to it than I had ever realized. The more you listen to it, you see that without gospel music, a lot of other genres of music wouldn't exist now. But because it's religious music, a lot of people aren't willing to give it a chance," she adds. "You have to be an adventurous listener for a lot of our releases."
Although Dust-to-Digital was founded on gospel music, and has even released Jesus Christ from A to Z — recordings by living artist Reverend Johnny L. "Hurricane" Jones, the label has a much broader palette. Thai country groove music from the '50s and '60s, Chinese opera, Persian folk songs, hillbilly, jazz, blues and more have all appeared under the label's name.
Before delving into Goodbye, Babylon, Ledbetter had interned with the formerly Atlanta-based avant-garde music label Table of the Elements, known for the elaborate packaging and demanding nature of releases by such early minimalism luminaries and outsider musicians as Tony Conrad, John Cale (Velvet Underground), Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and even a few of Fahey's later records.
During his time with TotE, Ledbetter also made friends with the label's regular designer Susan Archie. "Lance was the courier boy!" Archie recalls. "He used to deliver artwork and materials to me. One day he said, 'I have this gospel music project that I want to do.' He'd thought the whole thing through."
Around that same time, Archie won a Grammy award for her design work on Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton for Revenant in '03. The prospects of bringing her on board boded well for Ledbetter, and in February of 2003, Goodbye, Babylon emerged as a collection of 135 songs and sermons recorded between 1902 and 1960, packaged in a cedar box, stuffed with cotton, complete with a 200-page booklet that paid elegant respect to the music, the likes of which the genre has never seen before or since. Lance and April were living in a 900-square-foot apartment in Midtown, and when the first shipment of Goodbye, Babylon arrived, there was barely an inch of space to move around the floor-to-ceiling stacks of wooden boxes.
Goodbye, Babylon was nominated for a Grammy award, but it didn't win. However, one night while listening to NPR's "Weekend Edition," Ledbetter caught a Neil Young interview. "I recently got a gift from Bob Dylan, a good old friend of mine," Young said. "He gave me a gospel collection of great old American music and early country roots from old 78s. It's the original wealth of our recorded music; it's the cream of the crop and has the history of each recording. It's a great old set called Goodbye, Babylon, and it's incredible. It's in a wooden box and everything, and it's just so beautiful."
"I hit the floor," Ledbetter says.
(Curiously, in 2010, six years after its release, Brian Eno included Goodbye, Babylon on his year-end list of favorite records. "Better late than never," Ledbetter laughs. "That felt like plenty enough validation for me.")
Ledbetter estimates that three-fourths of the material used for Goodbye, Babylon was culled from Bussard's collection, and it was sifting through Fonotone's cache that yielded Dust-to-Digital's next major endeavor, Fonotone Records: Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969).
Not too many of Fonotone's hand-cut records made it beyond the Mid-Atlantic, but that only made the music all the more compelling for Ledbetter to stamp it in time. The down-home catalog of recordings was a far cry from Goodbye, Babylon, but the music carried a distinct sense of community. Much of the material features Bussard and friends "pickin' and hollerin'" under various, somewhat ridiculous names, such as Possum Holler Boys, Tennessee Mess Arounders and Blind Thomas, an early alias used by Fahey, and the Mississippi Swampers, which was Fahey recording with his friend Mike Stewart, aka Backward Sam Firk.
Henry Owings of Chunklet magazine was tapped to design the cigar box set, which came stuffed with CDs, photographs from various recording sessions, and a thorough booklet of interviews and liner notes. "We wanted to create a mental picture of what was going on down in that basement all of those years, and incorporate it into the packaging," Ledbetter says. "When you open it, you're stepping into Joe's basement anywhere from 1956 to '69, and you get a feel for exactly what was going on down there."
Each release became more ambitious, each project its own treasure hunt into a forgotten time and sound. Following releases focused on specific instruments (the string bass) or a style of recording (Art of Field Recording: Vol. 1: 50 Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, which won a Grammy award in '08 for Best Historical Album).
One of the most fascinating offerings came in September 2009 when Parlortone, Dust-to-Digital's vinyl wing, debuted with "Au Clair de la Lune," a one-sided 7-inch featuring the earliest intelligible recording of the human voice. The recording was made in France on April 9, 1860 — 17 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. A man named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented a strange process by which a tuning fork was affixed to a piece of paper and suspended over an oil lamp. Vibrations on the paper recorded patterns in the smoke, which were then turned into sound, which is how the recording was captured. It's a noisy ghost of a recording, one that raised the label's profile.
Ledbetter continues to stretch the limits of what constitutes a music label. In August, Dust-to-Digital released artist Steve Roden's I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs 1880-1955. The book compiles found photos, disembodied recordings and writing that's related to the acts of listening to and playing music. It's an intuitive offering that's culled from Roden's collection of thousands of photos that he's amassed over many years. Facilitating projects such as this one have become a large part of Dust-to-Digital's MO, culminating with releases such as Jim Linderman's Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950. "He came to us with hundreds of jaw-dropping baptism photos that he'd been collecting for 25 years," Ledbetter explains. "By the time he found us, he'd already done half a lifetime's works, and he trusted us to handle it properly."
Other releases show how Ledbetter's detective work pays off, such as Parlortone's pairing with Los Angeles-based Excavated Shellac blogger Jonathan Ward for the LP Strings: Guitar, Oud, Tar, Violin and More From the 78 RPM Era. The two compiled recordings of exotic stringed instruments from around the world between 1920-1950. "I wrote to Ward and said, 'I'm totally impressed with what you're doing,'" Ledbetter says. "There's not a lot of info on the Internet, and not a lot of books out there on the subject, but the research was impeccable." Together they also produced the massive Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM collection of rare Pan-African recordings made between 1909 and the mid-'60s (out Oct. 25).
Five years after stumbling upon those original Fahey recordings in Bussard's basement, the find has yielded Ledbetter's Ark of the Covenant, the definitive document of Fahey's early years in Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You. The title comes from a conversation that Fahey had with Glenn Jones, the set's producer and guitarist for Boston-based post-rock auteurs Cul de Sac, shortly before Fahey died in February 2001 from complications following a heart surgery. "John was a reluctant participant," Jones says. "He said, 'Boy, Glenn. Your past comes back to haunt you! I couldn't play guitar very well back then, and if Dean wants to put those out he can pay me $10,000 and it won't really hurt my reputation. ... Or he can wait till I'm dead and put it out."
Around the same time that Ledbetter discovered the Fonotone masters, Revenant had hatched the first plan to release them as a set. But the label was winding down, and when a technical glitch erased all of the DAT transfers it'd made from the original masters, Dust-to-Digital picked up the pieces.
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is a split release between the two labels. The five discs that make up the set trace Fahey's evolution from wearing the influences of such early American musical icons as Charley Patton and Sylvester Weaver on his sleeve to gaining command over his instrument. What's most striking about its earliest material is that it captures Fahey singing. Except for the drunken Cajun-style rant he delivered with "je Ne Me Suis Reveillais Matin Pas en May" on The Voice of the Turtle in '68, Fahey didn't sing on his records.
In fact, it's awkward to hear him emulating such a distinctly black, Delta blues singing/growling style. It's plain to see what Fahey was embarrassed about, particularly with the oldest recordings. But there's a wealth of rich material hiding in the later recordings, all of which illustrates what went into making John Fahey the musician that he became.
By the time you listen to discs three, four and five, it's as though a couple of great lost Fahey albums have emerged. Some of the later tracks were recorded around the same time as Fahey's first official album, Blind Joe Death, which was initially in a limited edition of fewer than 100 copies in 1959. The same album mutated over the next few years, reappearing two more times, ultimately taking the title The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death in '67.
Fahey's stripped-down, steel-string acoustic style was progressive for the time, and six of the 115 songs featured in the set made their way onto Blind Joe Death — his renditions of blues standards such as "St. Louis Blues" (W.C. Handy) and "In Christ There Is No East or West" (Harry Burleigh and John Oxenham), along with original numbers "On Doing an Evil Deed Blues" and "The Transcendental Waterfall." Dust-to-Digital's set features the first working versions of these songs to appear in Fahey's canon. "I didn't want to pretend that everything on the set was up to par with everything that John made, because that would be a lie," Jones says. "I also didn't want to diminish the material, so much of which is important. If you want to understand what he became, you have to understand where he came from, and where he started," he adds. "There was a lot of the man in the boy."
In 2006, Lance and April got married, and eventually they moved out of their tiny apartment. For five years they ran Dust-to-Digital from their house in Ormewood Park, but with so many projects in the works, they opened an office in July 2010 on DeKalb Avenue near Little Five Points. Both share responsibilities with the label's day-to-to-day operations. Lance works on the conceptual side while April edits, advises and processes the mail orders they receive.
The office on DeKalb was their base of operations for just more than a year, but by the time this story is printed, they will have moved everything back to their home. "We're scaling back," Ledbetter says. "Managing a second location was just too much. Right now we're committed to 17 projects, and the simpler we can make things, the better."
Whether working from an office or their living room, Dust-to-Digital's impact reaches far beyond that musty basement in Frederick. "Our most important accomplishment is keeping what we deem as important music from being forgotten," Ledbetter says. In doing so the label has contributed to music as a whole. "Win Butler of Arcade Fire has said that Goodbye, Babylon was the inspiration for the album Neon Bible. Bob Dylan gave a copy of the same set to Neil Young, and Brian Eno gave one to Paul Simon, who sampled one of the sermons on his record So Beautiful or So What. I've had artists at bluegrass and blues festivals tell me that our titles are a constant resource for learning old songs," he continues. "Inspiring popular artists as well as amateur musicians is important for us, and if the adventurous listener that has never picked up a banjo in his life gets turned on to some old tunes, that's great, too."
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is the first and the last word on the transfiguration of the man, adding finality to his career and filling in the blanks on where it all began. And like Fahey's step into a brave new world, Dust-to-Digital has followed suit through his music. It's a journey clearly worth the effort, no matter the outcome.