OCTOBER 15, 2014
IN ANY COLLECTING community, there are objects of desire everyone dreams of acquiring — holy grails, if you will — but the ones that haunt you are more intimate, personal. Call them the white whales, those frustratingly elusive items that become unshakeable obsessions. My first white whale was a test-pressing of De La Soul’s “Say No Go” (1989), which included “The Baby Huey Skit,” a song left off the commercial release because of sample-clearance issues. Anytime I stepped into a record store, I’d rifle through the “D” section of the rap vinyl, searching for it, but always to no avail. The ironic denouement is that after so many years of hunting for it on my own, I caved in and bought a copy off of eBay, only to walk into my local record store a few months later to see a copy up on the wall. In my mind’s eye, I probably shook my fist at the sky and cursed the gods (but that didn’t stop me from buying that copy too).
In Amanda Petrusich’s new Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, she delves into a community afflicted with a similar mesmerism for prewar blues and folk records. The book is partially an ethnography of this clique of mostly middle-aged men who scour rural flea markets and abandoned basements for fragile pieces of shellac which, in some cases, may constitute the world’s only known, extant copy of a recording. However, Petrusichwisely and insightfully goes beyond just documenting these collectors’ peculiarities, as she also traces the history of early American recordings and their legacy in contemporary music. Perhaps most powerfully, the book serves as a treatise on the act of collecting itself, probing the psychological, social, and cultural implications arising from these pursuits of passion.
People like to crow about how analog records sound more “organic” than digital formats, but in the case of the 78, most of them are literally organic in origin. The traditional 78 manufacturing process relies on shellac, a resin secreted by the lac, a scaly insect from South Asia, loosely related to cicadas. The use of shellac and other compounds account for the 78’s unusual heft and unfortunate fragility; drop one on a hard surface and it will likely shatter. Yet despite those limitations, the 78 enjoyed the longest reign of any major recording medium, from the late 1890s through the 1950s. It wouldn’t be until the baby boom was in full effect that lighter, more flexible polyvinyl chloride LPs and seven-inch singles finally took over. Previous to that though, there was no such thing as “78s”; there were just records than played at 78 revolutions-per-minute.
The rise of vinyl didn’t just mark a changeover in record manufacturing, it also created separate communities of record collectors. There may be some format-agnostic record omnivores out there, but by and large, vinyl and shellac fanatics keep to their own. Early in her book, Petrusich paraphrases one collector who compares chasing 78s versus vinyl records to “collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds.”
If 78 enthusiasts see themselves as standing apart from the rest of society, the feeling seems mutual. To date, the most famous (read: only) popular depiction of 78 collectors has been Steve Buscemi’s character from Ghost World (2001), a lonely, disheveled, and awkward man-geek, mortified by the Blueshammers of the world. The anachronism of 78s themselves invariably makes their collectors seem out of time and out of touch, and Do Not Sell manages to somehow affirm that impression while also undermining it.
At one end of the spectrum is the late James McKune, from New York City, whom Petrusich describes as “the field’s most archetypal figure […] flagpole skinny […] prone to wearing the same outfit nearly every day (a white shirt with rolled sleeves, black pants, white socks, black shoes). He had a tough time holding a steady job […] a loner in the most nonromantic sense possible.” Yet McKune, according to Petrusich, was “an underheralded figure in the history of American popular music,” as he was a catalyst for inspiring others to take interest in prewar, rural blues 78s.
Then there’s Frederick, Maryland’s Joe Bussard, who boasts one of the most striking record rooms anywhere. As Petrusich describes him, “he was politically conservative, particular about his meals, prone to fits of cackling, deep into fart jokes.” Bussard regaled Petrusich and a fellow collector by playing them blues records from the late 1920s on the hyper-obscure and desirable Black Patti imprint when not making sweeping pronouncements such as, “jazz was over in ‘thirty-three’” and “bluegrass music died, well, a couple years after . It’s crabgrass now.”
In contrast, there’s Michael Cumella, who eschews a loner lifestyle in favor of hosting a popular 78-oriented radio show on New York’s WFMU when he’s not DJ’ing weddings and Brooklyn parties using a pair of windup Victrolas: “tipsy onlookers seemed shocked that the machines were ‘real.’” Through Cumella, she also met Jerron Paxton, who, as a 23-year-old black guitarist from South Central Los Angeles, was a true outlier in a community of mostly middle-aged, white collectors. Paxton is a bit of a postmodern 78 collector, someone who literally and knowingly wears his anachronisms when he performs old-timey country blues as “Blind Boy Paxton,” wearing bowler hats and periodically fishing out an engraved pocket watch to check the time.
If Petrusich takes pains to paint her subjects with complexity it may be because she counts amongst this motley crew. Her initial fascination with 78s in the course of earlier research is what partially lead her to writing Do Not Sell at Any Price, and some of the book’s best writing involves Petrusich trying to accomplish that most difficult of articulations: relating the ineffable experience of listening to music that moves you. When she describes listening to John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time, I didn’t get a sense of what the song itself sounded like, but I well understood her impulse of wanting “to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it. Then I wanted it to inhabit me […]. I wanted it to keep playing forever, from somewhere deep inside.”
Throughout the book, Petrusich frequently, and usually deftly, switches between objective observations of the 78 scene and introspective self-analysis about what draws her to the records. That balance wobbles a little when she recounts her decision to learn scuba-diving in order to search for lost 78 master plates rumored to be at the bottom of the Milwaukee River. It’s an interesting anecdote, but meanders into a long tangent, and ultimately, feels incongruous from the rest of the book. However, that Petrusich would have gone to such lengths as mucking around a river bottom to treasure hunt for discarded metal masters at least speaks to the intensity of exuberant irrationality that 78 collectors display.
Her scuba-diving is just one of many attempts to engage the question of “why do collectors collect?” but Do Not Sell at Any Price cagily avoids providing a definitive answer. At times, Petrusich highlights the preservationist quality of collecting, where records are rescued from “rotting away in a trunk in Wisconsin.” At other times, she convincingly suggests that 78s, as an outmoded media, work as a kind of talismanic buffer against modernity, “a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world.” However, the most frequent explanation she returns to is the idea of collecting as a quasi-neurological affliction, as if records carry a contagion that infects its hosts and turns them “obsessive-compulsive and neurotic.” Late in the book, she goes as far as to cite medical research suggesting a correlation between collecting — particularly amongst men — with the autism spectrum, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, and prenatal testosterone levels. Whatever theory one accepts, by the end of the book, it’s easy to appreciate collector John Heneghan’s joke in the first chapter: “this is sick, we’re all sick.”
As someone who collects records himself — though not 78s — I could relate to that sense of uncontrollable compulsion, especially as it relates to the thrill of the hunt. In one chapter, Petrusich talks about how 78 collectors go especially rabid for rare, extant 78s released on the Paramount label and in reading about their scarcity (and value), I found myself creating a mental memo to “scan for the Paramount logo” if ever I should come across a box of 78s. The fact that I don’t listen to much prewar blues is irrelevant. Sometimes, all you need to send people on a treasure hunt is just to show them a map with an “X” on it. What lies underneath is besides the point.
As much as I enjoyed Do Not Sell at Any Price as a record addict myself, had the book only focused on my ilk, it might have been too parochial for general audiences. However, Petrusich weaves in in-depth discussions linking 78s to a chain of influences that can be heard today. She spends an entire chapter delving into Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, originally released by Folkways in 1952 and still spoken about with a religious-like reverence by contemporary music fans and critics.
Despite its broad title, the Anthology was more like a proto-mixtape, based around just five years of recordings that Smith curated out of his own 78 collection. Petrusich argues that what Smith accomplished through his careful selection and sequencing was a way to use records to create “a wild and instructive portrait of a young country work itself out via song.” In its wake, the compilation accelerated the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, introducing a generation of musicians to what had previously been a nearly lost history of American popular song. Amongst its many legacies, the Anthology is credited with inspiring listeners to become record collectors of their own (when it wasn’t also prompting them to “run off to join some circus or other”).
That same chapter takes an unexpected shift as Petrusich goes from discussing the impact of the Anthology to an anxious query over what happened to Smith’s 15,000 records after he died in 1990. She tries — mostly in vain — to track its remnants, supposedly donated to the New York Public Library but rumored to have been sold and/or junked. In fact, though the tone of Do Not Sell at Any Price is hardly morbid, the specter of both human and record mortality haunts its pages. Early in the book, Petrusich writes how “maybe […] — what I was actually looking for — were songs that somehow captured the tenuousness of even being alive in the first place,” and one of her first interviewees, Christopher King, admits, “I prepare for death every day. I’m obsessed with it.”
Not only are most of the collectors in the book on the latter end of their life spans, but the book is filled with tales of famed aficionados who all seem to die alone/penniless/embittered/all the above. For 78s — already endangered, fragile objects — the loss of their caretakers only heightens their peril. In one case, Petrusich writes about how Nathan Salsburg, a curator at the Alan Lomax Archive, had to rescue about 3,500 country and blues 78s from a dumpster after the death of their owner.
The fate that awaits collectors and their collections was particularly resonant for me, reading the book in the late summer. Two years ago, a record-collecting friend and mentor of mine from the Bay Area, Matthew Africa, died in a car crash. After patient deliberation, the handlers of his estate began selling off his entire collection (somewhere around 15,000 records) earlier this year. This way, there’d be no hurt feelings by his surviving friends and colleagues over who-should-have-gotten-what. Before the impersonal gaze of an online auction, apparently all are equal.
I’ve bought a few of Matthew’s records and they’ve easily been the most bittersweet purchases I’ve ever made. I think to a Jean Baudrillard quote that Petrusich relays early in the book: “It is invariably oneself that one collects.” If that’s true, then perhaps my desire to own Matthew’s old records is a gesture to preserve some memory of our friendship. Or maybe it’s just the seductive aura of provenance, of knowing where these records “came from,” even if the circumstances were horrible.
Regardless, I can’t speak to how Matthew might have wanted to see his records dispersed, but I do know he was one of the most unselfish collectors I knew. He was a DJ, he wrote liner notes for reissues, he kept a record-oriented blog. I imagine he’d agree with Jonathan Ward, creator of the site Excavated Shellac, who Petrusich quotes as insisting, “the story is in the grooves. It’s not in the basements.” In other words, the thrill may be in the chase: in those basements and attics, at the flea markets and record swaps, in the dark silt of a river bottom. But stockpiling records without taking time to share those stories in the grooves seems pointless. In the end, these records, like the collectors who chase after them, enjoy transient existences and sharing them gives that ephemerality some meaning and purpose. After all, if there’s one sobering truism that applies to collectors universally, it’s that no matter how much you accumulate, you can’t take any of it with you.