Lance Ledbetter’s record label Dust-To-Digital is one of the finest examples of how younger generations are continuing the mission of John Cohen, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. Ledbetter, who was recently named by Utne Magazine as one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” first released the lavish and meticulously-documented Goodbye, Babylon box set in 2004. The set was nominated for a Grammy (as with so many of his subsequent releases) and has continued to gather praise from artists as various as Bob Dylan, Brian Eno and Arcade Fire. The five discs of religious music contained in Goodbye, Babylon have their place alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as one of the finest documents of American music culture–rural or otherwise.
While I hope to feature and discuss many of these releases in greater detail soon, for now I will include below a short two-part piece that was featured on the This is Atlanta PBS Program. It’s an inspiring overview of the record label and is guaranteed to send you to their site to sample this powerful music.

The Madison County Project

I recently discovered the 2005 documentary The Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound on Folkstreams, an excellent and richly-exhaustive site that “streams” new independent documentaries as well as rare out-of-print films about folklife and rural culture. Here’s a word from Folkstreams:

Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner. The film is a joint project between two graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Part of the project is to create a more transparent form of documentary that invites participation from those featured in the film, advisors, and the general public.

While this short film tells a compelling story and captures both the gravity and joy of these ballads, it also discusses the rift Cohen and Gott experienced after these singers they had befriended found themselves on Folkways records and began to distrust the recording process. Though this film covers the history of the Madison County ballad singers, it also reveals how their descendants are discovering the economic (as well as the cultural) value of this tradition. It’s a shining example of the role the arts can play in community sustainability.
The Madison County Project’s official site is also well-worth visiting. Further videos and interviews are contained therein, as is an interactive time-line of the ballad tradition (from 1300 to 2009!) and biographies of the singers.

Appalshop and Mine War on Blackberry Creek

Appalshop is one of the most vital arts organizations in the country. For over 40 years it has served the central Appalachian region in a number of capacities; though its roots are in documentary filmmaking, Appalshop has expanded in subsequent decades to include WMMT Mountain Community Radio (streaming live), the internationally-respected Roadside Theater, the June Appal record label (featuring traditional mountain music and blues) and many other projects that I hope to feature in the future.
Appalshop’s website offers a wealth of music, podcasts and video such as Mine War on Blackberry Creek, which is streaming for a limited time here. This 1986 documentary interviews members of the United Mine Workers of America and members of the community, as well as a young Don Blankenship–now the highly controversial CEO of Massey Coal. The site offers this introduction to the film:

Mine War on Blackberry Creek reports on the long and bitter United Mine Workers of America strike in 1984 against A.T. Massey, America’s fourth largest coal company with corporate ties to apartheid South Africa. While strikebreakers work inside the mines and security men with guard dogs and cameras patrol the compound, miners on the picket lines detail the history of labor struggles in the region and their determination to hold out until victory.

A.T. Massey CEO Don Blankenship, listed on AlterNet in 2006 as one of “the 13 scariest Americans,” addresses capitalism, social Darwinism, and the global economy, while Richard A. Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer and currently running for President of the AFL-CIO, expresses union values.

Mine War on Blackberry Creek is currently being digitally remastered for release in August.