For music archivists, a contemporary dilemma: Should racist songs from our past be heard today?

By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES - 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.

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.

Informing the Ledbetters' perspective were the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which had occurred a few weeks earlier and were propelling worldwide protests.


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.


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