I like to believe that I’m not loony, that, unlike certain 78 collectors profiled by Amanda Petrusich, I have a perspective on all this.
Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich. Scribner, 260 pages, $25.
By Gerald Peary
Have I shown you my corny vintage postcards? My Occupied Japan figurines? My drawer of old comic books and early sheet music? My movie posters? My first editions, many of them signed? My Beat poetry? My huge array of film books? Come into my basement, to check out pulp novels with fabulous tabloid covers and, most special, 3,000 paperbacks on which movies have been based.
I am a collector. And although I don’t own a single 78 record, I certainly fit much of the profile of those guys (almost always guys) chased down by music critic Amanda Petrusich (a woman!) in her delightful, essential Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records. Like just about every serious 78 record collector, I am an old white guy. My collections are methodically organized, everything in its place. By personality, I am unashamedly eccentric and opinionated, and confidently know (unlike the undiscriminating, dirtball public) that I have impeccable taste. And typical of collectors, I can get nostalgic for a less mediated, more authentic cultural past.
But I like to believe that I’m not loony, that, unlike certain 78 collectors profiled by Petrusich, I have a perspective on all this. If I must choose between my beloved collections and human beings, I would pick my friends, my relatives, my wife. Wouldn’t I?
Do Not Sell At Any Price is filled with examples of those who place their 78 records above all else. For instance, there’s Harry Smith, who gave the world the seminal 1952 six-album Folkways release, An Anthology of American Folk Music, taken from his private stock of 78s. Petrusich dedicates a chapter to Smith, who was cantankerous and weird, a shaggy-bearded mystic and shaman and a downtrodden alcoholic, who lived alone and, in 1991, died alone, at the Chelsea Hotel.
At least, Smith achieved some fame, as an experimental filmmaker and friend of Allen Ginsberg, and for all the musicians (Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, etc.) who swore by his folk anthology. Hardly anyone knows about poor James McKune, and credit Petrusich for uncovering as much as she could of his tattered life. Another loner, he kept his precious 78s, 300 of them, in a cardboard box under his single bed in a Brooklyn YMCA. He died in 1971, tied up and stabbed, a hideous gay murder.
But what McKune did, singlehandedly and single-mindedly, was set the agenda for what a generation of 78 collectors would covet. Before McKune, through World War 2, the most dedicated 78 collectors looked to find traditional jazz. McKune’s acolytes — nerdy, middle-aged Caucasians — sought only this: rural blues records from the segregated South, the 1920s and 1930s, the rough and raw acoustic songs of hardship, violence, thwarted love, performed by tough-living African-American musicians.
t all started in 1944, when a copy of Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” (Paramount, 13110) landed in McKune’s eager hands. This sublime song by the vocalist-guitarist credited with inventing country blues provided McKune with a purpose. He would grab up the best country blues 78s records ever produced. Others he met were inspired by his passion and knowledge, and started acquiring themselves.
For a handful of deep-pocketed collectors, McKune’s 300 records ballooned into 5,000, and locating them and purchasing them became a lifetime vocation. The Blues Mafia, as they are called today, are all on the lookout for impossible-to-find blues recordings. Among the famous acoustic artists whose works on 78 are treasured: “Son” House, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson. Among the sought-out record labels: Okeh, Paramount, Black Patti.
How did Petrusich come to write a book dedicated to following after these collector fanatics?
As she explains her journey, she’d gotten sick of the decadent perk offered a publishing music critic, those daily packages of CDs stuffed into her mailbox. Where was the fun of the hunt? “Like many people, I missed browsing in record stores. Moreover, I missed pining for things. I missed the ecstasy of acquisition.” She would bypass the trendy collectors of retro 33s and go for the real stuff, hanging out with those rabid individuals who salivated night and day for “the thick, ten-inch, two-song shellac discs…[T]he amount of time and effort required to find the coveted ones is astonishing.”
For a 78 record outsider, Petrusich did OK. She started her project knowing already a bit about country blues. A quick-study journalist, she absorbed more and more information, enough that she could talk shop with the experts who collected the 78s. She was also able to supply readers of Do Not Sell At Any Price with a valuable shorthand history of the key blues musicians and their discographies. I, for one, learned a lot. It’s been many years since I read Samuel Charters’ brilliant tome, The Country Blues.
Just as important as her knowledge was Petrusich’s enthusiasm for the most esoteric blues music. Collectors would play for her their favorite scratchy 78 tracks, and she responded with glee. She was bowled over. Here’s how she described it — physically, sexually — when someone put on the turntable a 78 of Mississippi John Hurt’s Big Leg Blues: “I felt every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bobbling up into my esophagus…I wanted to curl up inside the record; I wanted to inhabit it. Then I wanted it to inhabit me…” As for Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Word Blues: “I was half-breathing and glassy-eyed.” Petrusich agrees with those purists who spin only 78s that they have something intangible and haunting and authentic that CDs could never begin to approximate. Robert Johnson’s masterly Hell Hound On My Trail on 78? “A song I’d heard hundreds of times before, only it sounded different, clearer, more vigorous.”
Petrusich came to understand that a quest for lost 78s was more than a fetishist activity. The metal masters used for the original recording sessions of blues artists have rarely survived. That means that the only extant versions of many blues songs are the discovered 78s. Harry Smith was the first of a line of 78 collectors, including many of the Blues Mafia, who have allowed the rerecording of their 78s on 33 RPM and CDs. In fact, some of the hardest-to-find blues songs can be purchased now for 99 cents on iTunes. Petrusich: “Collectors of 78s…are doing essential preservation work, chasing after tiny bits of art that would otherwise be lost.” As someone vividly described what they find, “Shit that God doesn’t even know about.”
Finally, in the process of researching her book, Petrusich became a minor collector of 78s herself. At a VFW fair deep in East Virginia, she bought a cool stack of them, including Washboard Sam, Blind Boy Fuller, and the Carter Family, all for $40. A steal. She learned afterward why more regular people don’t collect 78s. They are very heavy to carry, fragile, and perishable, prone to break in a suitcase.
Step by step, Petrusich had penetrated into the inner enclaves of the 78 collector universe. Ultimately, she concocted a blues venture which surpassed in boldness — and ridiculousness? — anything tried by the Blues Mafia. Paramount Records, the legendary company which produced some of the most glorious of blues recordings, had crumbled to the ground at its 1930s headquarters in Grafton, Wisconsin. The rumor was that, once upon a time, the Paramount employees had dumped the masters and many of the recordings into the Milwaukee River. Petrusich’s response: for several months she took scuba diving lessons to allow her, one fatal day, to jump into the river and search the bottom for invaluable 78s.
In all the months that Petrusich wandered among 78s, she met only one woman collector, Sara Bryan, in Durham, North Carolina. Some of the most provocative passages of Do Not Sell At Any Price explore why men are collectors. She calls on the theories of psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, which deal with “how prenatal testosterone affects postnatal development and behavior.” Prenatal testosterone is a cause, he believes, of autism. Autism, Baron-Cohen asserts, is “just extreme maleness.” Petrusich insinuates that collectors might be on the Asperger’s scale, also a manifestation of “extreme maleness.” “Maleness” means, as opposed to “womanness,” being more object oriented, less able to read social cues, less able to hold eye contact. Definitely able to obsess about 78s.
How did Petrusich explain her own place among these male collectors? The major difference, she decided, was that she had no desire to catalogue the records and little desire to always contextualize them. “I wondered if I just listened differently — whether my experience of music was somehow more emotional, more divorced from its technical circumstances…I could love a record more than anything in the world and still not make myself recall its serial number.”
Do Not Sell At Any Price will certainly excite readers about 78s. Male or female, you may wish to go out in the world and collect the most obscure blues records. Sorry, you won’t be capable of doing it, even if you have several million dollars to spend — and the rarest blues cuts have sold in the past for only around $30,000. That’s because the Blues Mafia hold on tightly to their records. Some have taken them to the grave. They have the greatest disdain for those who buy 78s frivolously, or regard them as investments.
I, a book collector, am looking once again into the mirror. Nothing makes me giddier than having bought a prized second-hand book for pocket change. I come home bragging about how little I paid, and how much the book is actually worth. My wife, with the unimpressed look that The Honeymooner’s Alice gave to the schemes of hubby Ralph, invariably retorts, “Oh? Then why don’t you sell it?” I jump back, revolted. True blue (male) collector that I am, that wonderful book is filed on an intricate computer list, gently covered with protective Mylar, and placed on a shelf in careful alphabetical order.
No, there’s no prenatal testosterone evidenced in my collecting!
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.