Posts Tagged ‘Dick Justice’

Old Music, Modern Dilemma

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my Christmas present from the Texas Gal: The Harry Smith B-Sides, a collection of vintage music created by flipping over eighty-one of the eighty-four 78s that collector Harry Smith included in his ground-breaking Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.

B Sides

According to the booklet in the B-Sides box, the idea of a Harry Smith B-sides project had been around for a while. Lance Ledbetter of Dust-To-Digital – the label that released the new box set last year – says in a piece in the booklet that he began working on the idea of collecting digital copies of all eighty-four flip sides in 2004 or so but ran into trouble finding several of the old records.

(Because Ledbetter already owned the 1997 CD edition of the original Anthology, he already owned a few of the flips, as in 1952, Smith included both the A- and B- sides of four of the 78s he used to create his collection.)

But Ledbetter shelved the project when he was unable to find all of the old records. And in 2013, Ledbetter heard from record collector John Cohen, who with his partner, Eli Smith, had gathered the Smith B-sides and were wondering if Dust-To-Digital could help with production and release. Connections ensued, and Smith assured Ledbetter and his partner and wife, April, that all eighty-four flipsides were available.

It took some time, but as 2020 dawned, the box set was almost ready to go out the door. But three of the tracks caused some concern because of their racist language and imagery: “You Shall Be Free” by Bill & Belle Reed from 1928, “I’m The Child To Fight” by Uncle Dave Macon with Sam McGee, also from 1928, and “Henhouse Blues” by the Bentley Boys from 1929, would be startling and potentially offensive in today’s culture.

Still, Cohen, Smith and the Ledbetters planned to include the three tracks in the B-Sides collection. As Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Sam Briger in December:

[B]etween the time in 2013, when we first started talking about this, and 2015, when we finalized the liner notes, we felt that leaving the three songs with racist lyrics . . . including them on the CDs was the right decision because we were looking at it more as historical accuracy and looking at it as a sense of preservation, that this is the full version.

Cohen had died in 2019, leaving Smith and the Ledbetters to finish the project. And things changed:

And between 2015, when we made that decision, and 2020, we changed. We changed that decision. And it really came about when we started listening to the test pressings for the vinyl. And we heard the songs differently. And I remember April and I, we felt like we needed to do something to address this – these songs . . . . And we were conversing on how to deal with this in 2020.

The solution was to place a note in the box set warning that the three tracks in question contained racist and offensive content so they could be skipped if the listener so desired. But one day at an open-air market, Ledbetter says, a friend who ran the market was playing Smith’s original 1952 anthology on the market’s sound system. Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Briger, “I looked around and just saw a diverse group of people under the tent – Black people, Hispanic people, white people, old people and young people.” And he wondered about the effect on the crowd at the market if the music had instead been the Harry Smith B-Sides and one of those three racist tracks popped up.

Ledbetter went on:

And I just thought that there was no note that you could include in a box set that would explain why they were hearing that music and those lyrics. And it was at that point that the decision was made. We need to take those tracks off because once they’re on those CDs, they’re broadcast in homes and on the radio. It’s putting music out there that, in 2020, we just didn’t feel like it needed to be in the public sphere.

So with the release date for the box set approaching, three of the four CDs were redone, removing the three offensive tracks and leaving four seconds of dead air in their places. The commentary about the three tracks remains in the booklet, so the tracks’ places in history – as three of the Smith flipsides – is still recognized.

The three tracks are not hard to find. I gathered copies from a couple of sources in minutes one day. And they are offensive. They would have been in the late 1920s for some folks, and they’d be offensive to everyone, I hope, in 2021.

So, is it historically inaccurate to offer the Dust-To-Digital box set as Harry Smith’s B-sides when three of the tracks have been purposefully removed from the set? Would it have been better to leave the offensive recordings in their places? I’ve been pondering the question since late December, and I’m don’t know if the removal of those three songs is a matter of altering history (or of “cancel culture,” as some would likely call it). My thought would have been to add a fifth CD to the box set containing those three tracks with clear warning on the CD sleeve of the offensive content. Whether that would have worked, I have no idea.

Here’s the first of the eighty-one tracks included in the box set: “One Cold December Day” by Dick Justice. Little is known about the man except that he was born Henry Franklin Justice in 1906 in Logan County, West Virginia. “One Cold December Day” is based on a traditional British ballad and was one of ten tracks Justice recorded for the Brunswick label on May 21, 1932.