Natural Selection: An interview with Lance Ledbetter

By  Julianne Ballou |  June 13, 2013

A music historian and record collector who’d spent most of his adult life following elusive blues musicians throughout the South once told me that he’d collected burlesque sketches as a boy. This was the closest he ever came to explaining the genesis of his massive archive, but the evidence was always there, in the artifacts: he had an uncommon intelligence for documentation. Another collector, Joe Bussard, precocious out of the womb, gathered birds’ nests and hornets’ nests as a child, moving on to records by the time he was eight or nine. Today he owns one of the largest and best-kept 78-rpm collections in the world. Atlanta’s Lance Ledbetter started with baseball cards. “You learn about condition. You learn about scarcity. How many are printed. Errors . . . You were told you could build your retirement from it . . . It was something [parents] encouraged, like, ‘Oh, you’re learning about price guides and money and all this stuff,’” he said in an interview with the writer Austin L. Ray. He transitioned to records in his teens and hosted a radio show in college, then created the reissue label Dust-to-Digital in 2003, with his wife April. That same year Dust-to-Digital released Goodbye Babylon, a five-disc box set of early gospel music, with a bonus CD featuring twenty-five sermons from 1926–1941. The set was packaged in a cedar box with raw cotton and included a 200-page book with Bible verses, lyrics, notes for each recording, and more than 200 illustrations. Its accolades were endless: two Grammy nominations, praise from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Greil Marcus, who called Goodbye, Babylon “the best country-religious music collection I have ever heard.” Today the Ledbetters continue to release rare, essential recordings through Dust-to-Digital, and they manage Music Memory Inc., a nonprofit digital repository dedicated to making available the countless recordings—mainly from 1925–1950—that don’t have obvious commercial value.

OXFORD AMERICAN: How did you start?

LANCE LEDBETTER: I’d been in Atlanta for a few years and I was going to Georgia State University, working at their college radio station and interning for an independent record company called Table of Elements. I had a show called Whisper on a String and I’d gotten turned on to this other program called Twentieth Century Archives. The DJ that hosted that show and I became friends. He didn’t really seek out anyone to take over his program when he graduated, and I said I’d volunteer to be the new host. While looking for material for the show, I started finding all this great music that you couldn’t get in record shops, through collectors. This was before the Internet, before blogs and iTunes. The fact that our station was so slow to start broadcasting on the Internet and the fact that I really wanted to share this music with a larger audience was the push I needed to start thinking about reissuing records. April and I were dating and we started working on the project that became Goodbye Babylon.

OA: How did you find the record collectors? Were you meeting them through your radio show?

LL: In the South, if you’re on the radio on Sunday mornings playing music sourced from old 78s, there’s going to be a demand for gospel music. I could find blues, country, and jazz, but I could not find a lot of gospel music reissues. I started looking at the reissue albums and CDs that I had, and usually the record companies would include the names of the people who’d loaned their original records in the credits. One name I kept seeing over and over was Joe Bussard's, so I sought him out. Eddie Dean had written an article called “Desperate Man Blues: Record Collector Joe Bussard Parties Like It’s 1929” for the free paper in Washington, D.C. I read the article online and learned about Joe, and then I found Joe’s phone number on or something similar. I called him up and I told him my conundrum, that I’d gotten a high volume of requests for gospel recordings but I couldn’t find many. Of course, Joe talked to me for close to an hour about how I didn’t know anything about music, how I’d never heard real gospel music like what was on his records. I began ordering cassette tapes from him that I would play on my radio show. That’s when I started thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe this incredible music is not available for people to hear. You can’t go into a shop and buy this music.”

OA: So you decided to turn your passion into a company.

LL: Not necessarily. I started off intending to do one record. It became a box set—but it was still kind of a one-project test run. I did not think it would become a company. We pressed 1,000 and I thought we would maybe sell 500 over a ten-year span. The rest of the 500 would be in the attic for the rest of my life, or something like that. I didn’t know what it would turn into.

OA: Once Dust-to-Digital had gained some momentum, what kinds of challenges were you dealing with?

LL: Goodbye Babylon was our life for at least a year. We ordered the wood boxes, we ordered the books, we sorted the CDs by hand. We put the books in, put the cotton in, shrink-wrapped everything, put the sticker on the packages. Everything was done by hand. The release itself took four and a half years to put together—it was a 200-page book, 160 tracks—and we weren’t ready for it to explode the way that it did. We had to decide whether we wanted to go back into the research laboratory for another four or five years and put together another comprehensive set, or create something for that year and start to think about ourselves as a company. We decided to focus on a single CD, and included some of the tracks that hadn’t made the cut forGoodbye Babylon. To this day we don’t put out nearly as much music as many other labels, but we’re always working on several projects at any given time.

OA: What factors come into play when you’re deciding what to release? Do you consider historical relevance? Variety? Or are your decisions based purely on taste?

LL: It differs for each release. For instance, the Christmas CD is not nearly as historically important as Goodbye Babylon. One of my goals is to fill in the gaps of what is publicly available. Jonathan Ward is a collector and researcher in Los Angeles who compiled the Opika Pende box set for us, which came out in 2011 and was nominated for Best Historical Album last year. That 100-track compilation fills a gap in historical African music that should not have been there. But it took someone like Jonathan Ward to go and spend his time compiling all this research. Our goal is for Dust-to-Digital to be a platform where someone like Jon Ward can share such important music and research.

OA: Could one say that the ultimate goal of Dust-to-Digital is preservation?

LL: I think it’s a goal. I just wouldn’t say it’s the primary goal. What we’re trying to do is take music from the past and apply it to the modern day. To me the word preservation has archival, white-glove connotations. A musicologist once told me his theory on preservation through dissemination. Make thousands of copies of records or CDs and send them all over the world. That’s the form of preservation he believed in, as opposed to the work a nonprofit organization does.

A lot of the people we work with have a similar background to mine, to the extent that record collecting was our education—buying records, reading the liner notes, listening, studying, comparing and discussing. I think there’s a lot of education that takes place via a record or record store.

What about in this digital society, where someone can simply sit in her bedroom, alone, and download music off the Internet? There’s less incentive to go out to a record store, or to get together with friends to listen to and talk about music. Is our relationship with music changing radically? Is authenticity in music, and in the listener’s experience, disappearing?

APRIL LEDBETTER: I think that whenever somebody is inspired or moved by music—that’s what makes the music authentic. I don’t think it's how you experience it, necessarily, but how you interact with it. What does it create within you? I think it’s totally possible to have an authentic experience alone in your bedroom. It may not be what somebody else might judge as authentic, but who are we to say?

LL: A record collector once told me his belief that radio and records killed what many people think of as authentic music. It used to be you had to learn from a person. A lot of times that person was a relative, someone in your family; otherwise, you might have to travel to learn new music. When the opportunity came to listen to the radio, or to records—especially records, which you could play over and over, and learn everything the musician was doing—imitation became more rampant and then all of a sudden authentic music wasn’t being made. That’s one perspective.

For a lot of people, there’s an implied authenticity to the music Alan Lomax recorded because he could’ve recorded anyone, and he had enough awareness—this was his life, to record people that were “authentic.”

OA: What do you think about that argument? Do you think that’s legit?

LL: If you go to the Alan Lomax cultural equity archive, you can sort of create your own adventure. They’re trying to get all of his recordings available online, and you can dig through them. But before that website, labels reissued Alan Lomax’s recordings. Those reissues were incomplete. Somebody made judgment calls about what music to include and what to omit. By the time the record gets to the listener there have already been producers that have given their take on Alan Lomax’s take. The same goes for the production work Dust-to-Digital does. When Jon Ward picked 100 tracks of African music, and when I picked 160 tracks of gospel music, we made judgment calls. By the time someone listens to the compilation, he or she is hearing several layers of judgment calls.

OA: So you’d say curation is its own art.

LL: Yes.

OA: Do we owe the artists and communities whose music we’ve turned into cultural and commercial capital anything in return?

AL: I think that by selling the music, you’re giving back, in a sense, because you’re continuing a tradition beyond its culture of origin, and for a lot of people, when something is really close or familiar, it’s less interesting. A lot of times older people who are still with us, who are on the Art of FieldRecording sets, were so excited that their music was out and that people are experiencing it.

I found the Art of Field Recording on a women’s glamour blog, which really surprised me. It felt so out of place because it was surrounded by advertisements for handbags and makeup.

AL: That’d be funny if it was one of our moms.

That’s what I thought at first. I was like, “I wonder if this is a friend or something.”

AL: But I think sometimes people catch on. I mean you really never know who will respond to a release. We’ve been in Bon Appétit. I think the Christmas CD was in Bon Appétit, which just seemed very random to us.

LL: We’ve seen some of our releases leak into the popular culture. You know, it’s unexpected when it happens but it has happened several times in the past.

You’re fine with that?

LL: Oh, yeah. I think so. Don’t you, April?

AL: Yeah, of course.