For music archivists, a contemporary dilemma: Should racist songs from our past be heard today?
In mid-June, the Grammy-winning husband and wife producers Lance and April Ledbetter already had pallets stacked with finished copies of their new box set, “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” when they visited a farmers market stall near their home outside of Atlanta. They’d been in quarantine mode, but it was June in Georgia, so … peaches.
By coincidence, their farmer-friend John was playing the 1952 collection “Anthology of American Folk Music,” compiled by the late New York experimental filmmaker, artist and collector Harry Smith. The Ledbetters’ four-CD, 84-track project was a kind of follow-up to that set.
Smith’s achievement sounds basic in the playlist age, but it was unprecedented at the time. He mixed raw pre-war Delta blues by Black artists with white Appalachian fiddle tunes that sounded more alike than different. Louisiana Cajun songs butted against the Carter Family’s harmonious country. Smith didn’t identify the race of the artists he included.
Harry Smith: The B-Sides
A kind of mirror image of the anthology, “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” on the Ledbetters’ Dust-to-Digital label, came out Friday. If Smith deemed the A-sides worthy of inclusion on his original set, surely the B-sides would further illuminate America’s musical, cultural and social history. As owners of an acclaimed historical imprint, though, the Ledbetters had been wrestling for years with how to present three songs containing racist language, and it was in the back of Lance’s mind when they hit the market.
Case in point: Hillbilly singers Bill and Belle Reed’s 1929 song “You Shall Be Free” trades in racist stereotypes and language and features a lyric about three Black men running through a field, one of whom has a noose around his neck.
Before their visit to the market, the Ledbetters had been involved in a series of conversations during production about the importance of historical documentation and reckoning with America’s harsh past. Along with co-producer Eli Smith, they had committed to including the three songs, along with a note that acknowledged the racist language and identified the offending tracks.
“At the time, we felt that by including them we were making a statement like, ‘Here are the tracks that have racist, terrible language.’” Liner notes would fill in the rest, Lance, 44, recalls on the phone from Atlanta.
But at the market stand, when he heard farmer John broadcasting the “Anthology,” Ledbetter had a realization.
“I looked around in that tent, and it was white people, Black people, Hispanic people, young people and old people — a snapshot of people you see in Atlanta,” he says. “And my mind immediately went to that Bill and Belle Reed song.
“At that moment I realized a note wasn’t sufficient,” he said. “Those tracks have to come off.”
So after excising and replacing each of the three tracks with five seconds of silence, the producers remanufactured thousands of compact discs and repackaged the sets. It made sense from a business perspective: A single out-of-context tweet expressing outrage at the offending songs might light a fire they couldn’t control.
But from a historical perspective, what is Dust-to-Digital saying with their exclusion? After all, if the set’s intention is to reveal the so-called “mirror image” of Smith’s landmark work, is it fair to smudge out the ugly parts? As America continues to reckon with the consequences of slavery, does deletion constitute erasure?
The history of Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” has been often told. A collector of occult artifacts and music in post-World War II New York City, Smith, who died in 1991, built a breathtakingly well-curated body of 78 rpm records featuring a genre-spanning accumulation of foundational rural blues, folk and rural country music. Smith’s ears were attuned not to pitch-perfect harmony, Tin Pan Alley-inspired optimism or operatic works, but to the so-called race and hillbilly records issued starting in the late 1920s.
After Smith decided in the early 1950s to donate his record collection to his friend Moses Asch of Folkways Records, Asch pitched him the idea of gathering his favorite sides to create a series that would become the “Anthology.” It was issued as three double-LP sets and featured liner notes, found art, random quotes, philosophical allusions and brief, cheeky synopses of the recordings within. A planned fourth volume wasn’t released until 2000, a few years after Smithsonian-Folkways reissued Smith’s original set on compact disc.
Among those who appeared on the set were the Carter Family, Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers, Dock Boggs, Hoyt Ming and His Pep-Steppers, Henry Thomas, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Clarence Ashley, Blind Willie Johnson, the Carolina Tar-Heels, Frank Hutchison, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Rev. J.M. Gates.
The original LPs didn’t sell much but thousands of libraries across the country made copies available for loan, and over the next decade it became a secret handshake among folk artists including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the Holy Modal Rounders.
“It’s the Encyclopedia Britannica of early American folk styles,” says banjo player and music scholar Dom Flemons, best known for co-founding the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Describing Smith as “this interesting beatnik film eccentric experimental psychedelic guru guy,” Flemons explained that unlike the labels that originally put out the records, Smith didn’t care about genre or the artist’s race. He was searching for unification.
The result, says Flemons, is “a collection of music that took all of these original records out of their marketing context” during a time when record labels “strictly marketed toward Southern white and black audiences.” Flemons, who contributed a few written entries in the new set, says the result presented “a completely multifaceted and multiracial and multi-representational context that I don’t think had been done much previously, let alone in the LP era.”
Nearly 70 years later its magnetism remains, and Flemons cites the reactions of students as evidence. “At first they’re put off by it because it’s so esoteric. But it’s almost like the cave paintings in France. Yeah, you might be turned off by it, but at some point you may come back to it. And then all of a sudden you find that you’re intrigued and then obsessed with every single performer that’s on the collection.”
Those who do will discover a portal that leads to an undeniable truth, says Rhae Lynn Barnes, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and an expert on blackface minstrelsy, via email: “American music and cultural history is rife with heartbreaking paradox.”
She calls the themes of the songs on Smith’s collection “the soundtrack to white settler colonialism. They bear witness to dispossession, labor strikes, mass enslavement, imprisonment, and sexual violence. They also capture the depths of love, faith, and longing.”
That historians, musicians and listeners were still drawn to this folk talisman drove the Ledbetters to team up with producers Smith and the late John Cohen to produce “The Harry Smith B-Sides.” Long a kind of parlor game within the insular community of hard-core folk and blues enthusiasts, the idea of exploring the literal flip side of Harry Smith’s series was born in the CD-trading era when 78 collectors such as Joe Bussard and Robert Nobley tapped their stacks to sequence a series of unofficial compilations.
Dust-to-Digital producers had long appreciated the endeavor, and by about five years ago had mostly finalized the long and arduous process of licensing the dozens of songs and compiling the notes. Known for their exquisitely packaged sets, Dust-to-Digital went all out. About the size of a cigar box, the CD version is packed with documentation. Smith’s original series came with fanzine-style liner notes dotted with celestial allusions. The new set replicates this approach in book form, with each track receiving brief thematic synopses and release notes. Essays offer a fount of context.
Taken together, the set is a profoundly satisfying, often revelatory experience. Then there are the missing B-sides: “You Should Be Free”; the Bentley Boys’ “Henhouse Blues,” a singsong ditty with tossed-off slurs and an upbeat chorus of “I don’t care if you never wake up”; and “I’m the Child to Fight” by Uncle Dave Macon, which involves chasing a black man and threatening to take him to a hanging tree.
Across 50-plus releases over 17 years, Dust-to-Digital has never issued a collection containing racist language, Ledbetter says. In the case of “The B-Sides,” though, American culture shifted as they were deliberating. Five years ago, “you’re making a statement of, ‘Look at what Harry left off.’ In 2020, I felt like we were making a different statement, like we’re spotlighting something that’s disgusting and offensive to so many people. So it started us down this path.”
It’s a journey that American pop culture creators and curators have repeatedly taken as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought renewed attention to white privilege and called out once-common racists tropes. Much of the focus has been on TV episodes featuring blackface. Creators of “30 Rock,” “The Golden Girls,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Office” have all removed from circulation offensive episodes. This year thousands of ice cream trucks that for decades churned out “Turkey in the Straw” have been reprogrammed to delete a work whose roots stretch to an 1830s-era song called “Zip Coon.”
Princeton’s Barnes says that the question of deleting the records from the Dust-to-Digital collection is complicated. She understands the company’s decision, but there’s a danger in jumping past difficult conversations.
“Part of what it means to take social movements like Black Lives Matter seriously is to sit with the uncomfortable reality that some of the most soothing, beautiful and catchy sounds of the American songbook, from Stephen Foster to folk to country, were born of this struggle,” she says.
“We cannot skip the needle over the violent and racist pressure cooker of Jim Crow America — a historical era named for the most famous blackface minstrel character — and ignore the harrowing context in which these songs and records were pressed,” Barnes adds.
Artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson, both of whom are featured on the collection, endured government-sanctioned hate from white society on a daily basis, Barnes continues. “Jim Crow’s ever-watchful and menacing eye shaped the contours and material conditions of their music. The casualness of the racial slurs on the three tracks represents the painful everyday reality millions of Black Americans lived. There is a danger to sanitizing cultural history if we lose sight of that.”
Barnes doesn’t blame the label, though, saying that "[t]he impulse to remove offensive language, caricatured imagery and derogatory slurs is likely coming from a place of wanting to make Black music lovers, makers, and listeners feel welcomed and safe with a record label indebted to Black musical genius.”
Still, she predicts that the company’s dilemma won’t disappear. “We will undoubtedly see more of these editorial choices from private, white-owned record labels as they grapple with how to respond to Black Lives Matter responsibly and with compassion.”
Flemons, who is Black, has taken a different tact when he plays these songs. He leans into the music’s complicated lyrics and language. “I’m a definite believer of presenting the raw parts of American culture through its original form. With 78 recordings, you can’t undo what was done.”
Citing one of the offending songs, Flemons stresses that scholarship and commerce have different aims, though. “Bill and Belle Reed’s version of ‘You Shall Be Free’ has the N-bomb. As a historical document, I can accept it for what it is at face value. But I don’t necessarily feel that Lance has to present this particular song when he’s trying to reach a much broader audience.”
The key, adds Barnes, is education. She suggests the label consider accompanying social media threads that provide more historical context, or create a landing page that offers educators tools to responsibly teach the content in the classroom.
It’s important to pull back the conversation further, as well, Flemons adds, to absorb contemporary music on platforms such as Spotify: “Most hip-hop has so much more of the N-word. I think that we really need to have a bigger conversation about all use of the N-bomb all over the place.”
Ledbetter has no regrets about their move, even if it cut into their profits to redo parts of the set and meant that they paid to fully restore a trio of racist recordings that ended up being removed. “Those tracks sound the best they possibly can. Why would we want to spotlight them?”
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