By Jeremy Ray Jewell
The Atlanta-based label Dust-to-Digital would like to show us the flip side of The Anthology of American Folk Music, but they don’t like what they hear.
I’ve previously acknowledged how Dust-to-Digital has helped bring to light such fantastic Southern artists as Lonnie Holley. They have been a model for others who are trying to pull off a similar feat: recovering forgotten or overlooked folk artists and packaging them with the dignity and respect that they deserve (sometimes in spite of themselves). Since 1999, the Atlanta-based label founded by Lance Ledbetter has been at the top of the heap. But, with their recent release of The Harry Smith B-Sides, Dust-to-Digital has stirred up a controversy that potentially hampers its own admirable cause, to reveal the authentic roots of Southern folk culture.
The problem is that they have been caught shrinking away from their purist agenda. The B-Sides was intended as a “reverse” Anthology of American Folk Music, a way to hear what was left out of that enormously influential 1952 6-LP series, which was compiled from original 78s. The goal was to let the old records speak for themselves, with no imposed filter. Ultimately, however, The B-Sides was released short three tracks because of reasons of …. disagreeability. Any guesses about the culprit? That’s right, Dust-to-Digital, a label specializing in historical preservation, was apparently (?) caught unaware that old American music contained racism. Compounding the embarrassment is that, in a New York Times interview in which he defended the omissions, Ledbetter erroneously characterized the lyrics to one of the songs. But more on that later.
The Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, has been an indispensable part of the preservation of American musical traditions over the last 60 years. An inspiration for artists from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, it was responsible in large part for the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, and has continued to serve as a gateway for students of American roots music and ethnomusicology. Containing 84 recordings dating from 1926 to 1933, the songs were all taken from the personal 78rpm record collection of experimental filmmaker Harry Smith, the curator of the Anthology. Smith’s intricate notes, accompanied by his original artwork, lent an air of authoritativeness to the collection and set a standard of knowledge and detail of citation that subsequent generations of traditionalist musicians have had to grapple with. Its tracks were in a range of (Southern) musical vernaculars: blues, gospel, Cajun, Appalachian, Sacred Harp, and Jug Band. They were also grouped into three volumes: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.
The idea for The Harry Smith B-Sides dates from 2004, but was later shelved until 2013. The concept is straightforward: if the Anthology‘s songs were on one side of Smith’s 78s, what was on the other sides? Perhaps it was the urge to be completist that should be blamed for the subsequent missteps. Anthologies are inevitably the result of selection and omission, and the original Anthology was no different. Smith clearly had notions about what made a song viable for inclusion. The second volume, “Social Music,” seems clear enough in its intentions but, as Joseph Neff has suggested, Smith’s idea for his selection “diverged from the social-political folk concept as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and of course, Pete Seeger.” Smith was willing to not only show authentic voices of struggle, but to include more “reactionary” ones, as well. For Smith, “Social” meant works that enabled group cohesion: dances, religious reflections, and so on. One line that Smith never crossed is evident to anyone (including Dust-to-Digital) who picks up the original recordings. That line was explicit: overt racism — the n-word in particular. And yet, tripped up by its own myopic dedication to assembling everything that was left out, Dust-to-Digital ran into an unpleasant truth that Smith, the curator, sidestepped. If you want American cultural history unfiltered, you have to be ready for the inevitable ugliness.
Apparently, Dust-to-Digital was not. Although it did nearly go through with its mission to the bitter end: one reverse side per original track. Where both sides of a 78 were originally included on the Anthology, the B-Sides included both as well, though in reverse order (tracks from Buell Kazee, Furry Lewis, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, and Rev. J.M. Gates, specifically). Dust-to-Digital failed to completely follow, though. B-Sides ended up falling short of its stated aim because some tracks were omitted. They are Bill & Belle Reed’s “You Shall Be Free,” The Bentley Boys’ “Henhouse Blues,” and Uncle Dave Macon’s “I’m the Child to Fight”. All three include explicit, overt use of the n-word, a racial epithet of abuse. A traditionalist musician can’t help but feel sorry for Ledbetter, because all of us understand that this line is a very real and urgent one. It is universally understood in the old time music community that — outside of the most stringently historicist reconstruction — that word is not to be exposed today… for the love of the music, if not for the love of humanity. But the existence of prejudice should not be expunged from the historical record. B-Sides seems to have been confused from the beginning about how far to go: if absolute authenticity is your stated intention, then any tampering with the artifacts becomes an act of erasure. Period. Maybe in another 20 years they’ll release The Harry Smith C(ensored)-Sides to remind us of the history that has been omitted here.
The overall experience of the B-Sides? The first thing to say is that it is not nearly the achievement of the original. The careful liner notes made by Smith are replaced with a much more elaborate collection of notes and essays by folks like experimental producer and primitivist guitarist Daniel Bachman, multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, singer-songwriter Steve Gunn, and master banjoist and historical researcher George R. Gibson. What we have here is a kind of academic exercise in hypotheticals, equal parts homage and archive (in extravagant packaging), that doesn’t deserve to sit on the same shelf as the original Anthology. First off, many of the songs on the B-Sides, although remastered here, are already available in digital form elsewhere. And while those that aren’t should be, they would most likely be accompanied by a catalogue of other tunes that are not presented here. And that is why it is so disappointing that a label dedicated to preservation should be so ready to censor these primary sources. We live in a post-Anthology world, so it is difficult to envision now just how difficult a feat it was to create the Anthology — the collecting, the compiling, the researching, and all in the ’50s. The work begun by the Anthology sparked the creation of new, inspired art — but it was also an inspired (and inspiring) act of preservation. For all its resources, technological and financial, Dust-to-Digital fails to live up to the achievement of a homemade compilation made by a record collector (which describes not only the Anthology but also, ironically, the inspiration behind the original 2004 “Other Sides” idea, courtesy of collector Robert Nobley). Without providing meaningful curation or thorough preservation, B-Sides resembles a kind of Hollywood remake or TV reboot — sanitized nostalgia accompanied by bells and whistles.
Though it falls way short of the Anthology, B-Sides succeeds at one thing: creating a “through the looking glass” experience. The sensation, a kind of “uncanny valley” effect, is there from the very beginning, at least for those of us deeply familiar with the original compilation. Dick Justice’s first tracks, “Henry Lee” (Anthology) and “One Cold December Day” (B-Sides), are nearly identical waltzes in the key of G that feature alternating bass-note picking and chord-strumming pattern. Hearing the other side (familiar-yet-unfamiliar) shows off the record’s contrasts: it pairs an ancient ballad of a “knight thrown in well by lady” (per Smith’s liner notes for “Henry Lee”) with a hobo’s lamentation. The disjunction is stark but telling. Smith highlighted Justice’s excursion into what critic Greil Marcus calls “Old, Weird America” rather than, on the flip side, the singer’s use of contemporary content. Ironically, Justice might be better known as a capable white Appalachian bluesman — were it not for the inclusion of the technically simple “Henry Lee” in the Anthology, which has assured him lasting fame. The second track is from Alabama’s Nelstone’s Hawaiians and it is the A-side of that record. Anthology was not meant to be a compendium of commercially prominent tunes. But the doppelganger theme continues here: the sounds of Hubert Nelson’s steel guitar are heard in two reminiscences of schooldays — “Fatal Flower Garden” is the one that made the Anthology. Clarence Ashley’s rendition of an old Scottish ballad, “The House Carpenter,” is replaced with his rendition of the West Virginian ballad “John Hardy,” again in the artist’s signature style.
The pattern persists beyond the opening tracks. The story that the Anthology told is obliterated because there is no curatorial sensibility guiding the revisionist project. From the outset, once we get past the strangeness of the experience, the picture presented by the B-Sides — a mirror image of the Anthology? — is of records as commodities, indifferent to any principle of selection. Smith wanted to combat this damning relativity, but Dust-to-Digital’s venture wallows in it. This is history as uncut encyclopedia, the dusted-off artifact from the antique store bin, an uncontextualized presentation of history. Yet it isn’t really, because the label, which thought it was mining old treasures, contradicted itself by removing material in the name of catering to modern sensibilities. And this raises a number of serious issues. Not only about the ways we are now questioning the past, what with so many monuments falling, but also how we remain trapped in our innocent perception of that past … our earlier revisions. B-Sides contains a challenging, if all-too-familiar, revelation. The folk canon was selected out of two-sided records. Curation is not only an act of memorialization but repression. Expecting the past to speak to the present is natural — but we keep forgetting how that voice has been shaped.
And that brings in the secondary controversy, Ledbetter’s alleged “defamation.” Highly respected old time banjoist Clifton Hicks, a contributor to the B-Sides’ liner notes, called out the producer on social media. In his New York Times interview, Ledbetter stated that the “Appalachian pair Bill and Belle Reed jubilantly harmonized about a lynching.” According to Hicks, the song is undoubtedly racist but “this claim is absolutely false. The verse in question ends with “… one had a roastin’ ear ’round his neck,” and not “… one had a rope around his neck.” The “roastin’ ear” here refers to the red ear, which was highly prized at Appalachian corn shuckings. It would often end up tied around the finder’s neck, traditionally entitling its holder to a dance or a kiss. “The word ‘rope’ appears nowhere in the recording,” argues Hicks, “and the song has absolutely nothing to do with a ‘lynching.’ By sticking to this false assertion, Dust-to-Digital is choosing not only to libel Bill & Belle Reed, but the entire region of Appalachia.” George R. Gibson, who contributed notes for Buell Kazee’s “Darling Cora” on the B-Sides, told me, “I believe that it was a serious mistake for Dust-to-Digital to eliminate some of the B sides because of racist language. This erasure invites attention but protects no one. Erasing history does not change it.” Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to…? Is anyone — musicians, the public — paying attention?
I’ve previously praised Dust-to-Digital for recovering the forgotten or neglected in folk sounds and packaging them with the dignity and respect that they deserve (sometimes in spite of themselves). But now I have to wonder if it’s for the greater good of American history and culture, or if it’s only for the greater good of Dust-to-Digital.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.