Southern Heroes

Dust-to-Digital: The Song Savers

An Atlanta couple safeguards and showcases the music of the South

Photo: Barry Falls

Dust-to-Digital, the Atlanta-based culture trove and record label founded in 1999 by Lance Ledbetter—his wife, April, joined him the following year— reinvented the box set in 2003 when it released Goodbye, Babylon, six CDs of gospel songs and sermons, rescued from a vestigial South and presented in a cedar box with raw cotton. On the discs, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers sang about what to do “If the Light Has Gone Out of Your Soul.” Blind Willie Johnson answered with “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There.” Reverend George Jones warned not to ride “That White Mule of Sin.”

The timing seemed dismal. Apple had just opened the iTunes store. American Idol had redefined pop standards. Goodbye, Babylon served as a corrective. “The aim was to preserve and amplify,” says Lance, looking back on two decades of collecting 78 rpm records and field recordings and packaging them for the twenty-first century. “We wanted to remind people that powerful music was out there, that magic was out there.” The Ledbetters have since founded Music Memory, a nonprofit that archives early-twentieth-century records. The label has won three Grammy Awards, including Best Historical Album of 2018 for Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris

What began in the South has since ranged widely. Qat, Coffee & Quambus showcases vintage 45s from Yemen. Music of Morocco collects 1959 field recordings by the novelist Paul Bowles. But the South remains their lodestar. Push play on Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers, and all hell breaks loose. “If we lose this music,” April says, “we lose where we come from.”


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