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Label turns forgotten music into gold

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dust-to-Digital is Atlanta-based label that gives new life to old gospel music
  • Label is up for Grammy for its work; aficionados are devoted to its releases
  • Among its most recent projects: Rev. Hurricane, a once-huge gospel singer
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Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- There are burglar bars on the windows of Second Mount Olive Baptist Church. It takes a good shove to open its rusty metal door, identical to all the other offices in this rundown strip mall just off the highway in south Atlanta.

A fan whips up pages of a mildewed Old Testament lying open on one of the pews. An overturned Culligan water tank, Mount Olive's donation jar, is empty except for some change and a wadded buck.

The Rev. Johnny L. Jones, 73, looks out at his congregation of about 15. He slips in his dentures. And then the old man disappears.

In his place is the Rev. Hurricane, pounding a Hammond organ, ignoring the sweat that's pooling at his temples, letting whoever wants to get up and take the mic for a solo. Holding their elaborate hats in place, two elderly ladies defy their hips. They are singing hard: "This old building keep a-leakin'/I gotta move to a betta home/these old bones of mine keep on achin'/I gotta move to a betta home!"

And then the Rev. Hurricane does his Thing. He is on his tippy toes, spinning. He's spinning and singing, arms up, voice higher, spinning, spinning.

Lance Ledbetter is on his feet, too. Small, pale, hair impeccably combed, seeming transported from some black-and-white movie, he low-humming it and grinning. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he turns to his wife, April: "Are you getting this?"

A human Google of folk, gospel and blues music, Ledbetter, a Grammy-winning ethnographer, recorded the Rev. Hurricane for the better part of 2009.

Ledbetter's record label, Dust-to-Digital, released an LP of the Hurricane's most stirring sermons, "Jesus Christ From A to Z," featuring a sermon called "The Devil Made Me Do It." Old-school Atlantans, 20-something hipsters and music lovers of every genre were at the release party.

The LP, released shortly before Christmas and available online and nationwide in stores, is a personal revival for the Hurricane, who was once a national gospel superstar signed with Jewel Records, which produced John Lee Hooker.

The record also suggests once again that Ledbetter and Dust-to-Digital can do what no one else can: Make old (like, really old) time music cool again.

On Sunday, Ledbetter will find out whether he's won a second Grammy, this time for "Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism In Vintage Music And Photography 1890-1950," a CD (compiled from old 78-rpm records) and 96-page hardcover book with 75 spooky sepia photograph reproductions.

Works of art

Dust-to-Digital's critical success, and its praise among varied music lovers, has much to do with another long-lost art: packaging. His first project, 2003's "Goodbye, Babylon" -- "the greatest anthology of antique Southern sacred song and oratory ever assembled," raved Rolling Stone magazine -- is a six-CD set of hymns, sacred harp, choirs, jug bands, a cappella and blues, some more than 100 years old, which comes in a hand-made pine box with a silk-screen of the Tower of Babel painting on the cover.

The box slides open to reveal inlaid raw Georgia cotton and a thick book "by authors of wide reputation" containing rare photos, lyrics and anecdotes about the singers. For $100, it can be found online -- and in art galleries.

The project took Ledbetter four years as he sought rare private collections around the world. He compiled the work at considerable expense while holding down a full-time IT job.

Ledbetter was absorbed in a small network of musicologists whose private collections he wanted to mine. Among them was the charismatic Joe Bussard, who has more than 25,000 American folk, gospel and blues records, most one-of-a-kind.

"I spent a year just listening to songs Joe sent me," he said. "It was my life. I wouldn't leave my apartment. My friends and my family didn't understand what I was doing, but I knew I was going to make something important."

'It just came over me'

Raised in LaFayette, Georgia, Ledbetter began buying rock records from indie labels.

"I figured out that if you followed a label, you could trust that they had a curatorial approach, and you just bought whatever they put out," he said.

He later spent time at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the mountains of North Carolina, a place where he enjoyed old-time school dances on the weekends with friends, and then worked at an Atlanta college radio station. It was there he first heard the Smithsonian's reissue of its Anthology of American Folk Music.

"I put it on the stereo in my apartment, and it just came over me," he said. "It's like it connected every moment of my life in music that meant anything, like when I was kid going to cattle auctions and in college going to square dances. It was a mystery unveiled to me about my history and American history."

Ledbetter took over a gospel show on the station, quickly realizing that gospel music before 1940 was very hard to find. Frustrated after searching so long, he decided that the only way to get it was to found his own label.

He also began the steep learning curve of digitizing old recordings, playing with needles and different grooves in a record to get just the right sound, running each millisecond through a computer and then recording.

A prime example: Dust-to-Digital's conversion of the first known recording of the human voice. The voice was recorded in France in 1860 -- nearly two decades before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph -- on paper, for a device unable to play back its work. The recording, of a French folk song, would ultimately be reproduced by Dust-to-Digital relying on a complex algorithm.

"It's a technological miracle that they got the sound," Ledbetter said. "That's what's exciting for me. Music is something of what came before what came before, with hopefully a fresh interpretation."

The Rev. Hurricane could use something like a miracle. On the up in the 1960s and early 1970s, his LPs were flying, music critics were paying attention, and his church had grown to 5,000 members. He had some nice suits, and his hurricane spin was the holiest in the South. The voice of his mother was always front-of-mind.

"When I told her I wanted to spread the Gospel, and I was a boy, she said, 'I don't want no jack-legged preacher in this family,' " he said. She didn't raise her son to be a Swaggart or a Bakker.

A promise was never better kept. But when his church burned in 1973, Jones lost his mojo big time. His mid-'90s release, "Jesus Is in Town," generated not a whisper.

But since Dust-to-Digital took an interest, with its connections to contemporary artists, Jones has packed several reputable venues, singing and sweating in a three-piece suit for hours.

"Maybe this will bring people back," he said, wiping his forehead with a gold handkerchief after a Sunday morning at Mount Olive. "Let's pray for it."