Amanda Petrusich – Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records

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Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records
Amanda Petrusich
272 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1451667059
Scribner
2014

The text for Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was based on the Old Testament scripture of Deuteronomy 32:35:

"Their foot shall slide in due time."

But, rather than referring to the Christian unconverted, this admonition applies equally well to those humans innocently taking ownership of a dusty and scratched 78 rpm 10-inch shellac disc from a flea market, antique store, or a bachelor great-uncle's attic and taking it home to play on that ancient (vintage 1962) all-in-one turn table that could accommodate the faster speed. Once that needle hits the groove and the high lonesome hiss of 80 years gives up its faded flower, ""Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" (Inferno 3:9).

One of the most anticipated biographies of any musician is that of the blues singer Robert Johnson. Johnson recorded 42 sides of 29 songs in two recording sessions in 1936 and '37 and effectively disappeared, leaving only this sonic legacy. These recordings were issued on heavy and friable 10- inch shellac discs to be played at 78 revolutions-per-minute on a device derived from Thomas Edison's cylinder technology, the grammophone or phonograph. Johnson's written biography (biographies, actually) and hypothetical publication is a story unto itself, one where the story surrounding the biographies is more interesting and informative that the biography itself. It is a 60- year story of myth, superstition, greed, theft, exploitation and general avarice that would not exist had a group of guys with bad haircuts not taken an interest in these strange shellac plates some 30 years after their initial recording and release.

The middle to late 1950s saw the emergence of a class of collector that defies the typical categorization of "fan" (justifiably short for "fanatic"). These collectors were interested in acquiring first jazz and then blues recordings of the 1920s and '30s. It was out of the tenacious efforts to find and and give a nomenclature to these recordings that led to the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, when many of those musicians who made these initial recordings were sought out after 30 years to record and perform again, many of whom (James "Son" House, for instance) had not played in all that time. These collectors became the ur-spark of an entire industry that segued directly into what would be considered the "record business" from 1940 on.

Music critic and writer Amanda Petrusich has written a short history through the lives of several 78s collectors, living and dead, in Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records. She devotes the majority of time to collectors who are living and have been instrumental in all, not part of every re- release of 78 rpm recordings on LPs. The blues on 78s, as collectible items were exhausted by Stephen Calt, Gayle Dean Wardlow, John Tefteller, Joe Bussard, Pete Whelan, and the rest of the "Blues Mafia" over the past 60 years. The story of blues 78s collection is well trodden ground in print one of the more notable recent publications being Mary Beth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues (Basic Books, 2008).

Petrusich does provide space to discussing the genesis figures in the blues collecting stories of Harry Smith, creator of the folk collection Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952), and James McKune, a shadowy figure credited with starting the entire blues 78s collection paradigm. Both men were deeply and wonderfully disturbed, if not tragic characters. Petrusich includes a photograph of the famous Smith, the man who single handedly set off the late 1950s folk revival with his anthology. That image that can only be considered the picture of Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America (Picador, 2011). James McKune was something else altogether. Known for his collection of 300 rare 78s that he kept beneath his bed at the YMCA where he lived as an indigent, calling his 78 listenings, "séances." He claims to have never paid more than $10 for a disc (this was in the 1940s). The most notable things about his life were a trove of letters to other collectors he left and his dead body being found, naked, bound and gagged in a Bowery flophouse, the victim of some sexual congress gone wrong. His collection was never found.

Petrusich's best work is done with the new generation of collectors who have gone beyond the blues, without really leaving them. Among these are Christopher King who produced Tompkins Square's Amede Ardoin— Mama, I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin 1929- 1934, Aimer et Perdre : To Love & To Lose Songs, 1917- 1934 and Let Me Play This for You: Rare Cajun Recordings largely from his own collection of rare Cajun music. Don Wahle by way of Nathan Salsburg is memorialized in Tompkins Square's Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard : Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music : 1923- 1936. This music was rescued from a dumpster after Wahle's death in sordid circumstances by Salsburg who assembled this collection with essays provided by Petrusich and writer John Jeremiah Sullivan.

A brief digression.

Petrusich and Sullivan intersect in the discussion of one particularly rare Paramount 78s: Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas' "Last Kind Words" / "Skinny Leg Blues" (12951) and "Motherless Child" / "Over to My House" (12977). For a long time all that existed of these two performers were these releases. A great deal of scholarship was expended on their behalf, most notably by blues researcher Robert Mack McCormick. McCormick spent 50 years researching Texas and Mississippi Delta blues resulting in two incomplete monuments, his expansive Texas Blues and his biography of Robert Johnson, Biography of a Phantom.

If one wants to know how serious this scholarship is, he or she need only turn to John Jeremiah Sullivan's recent New York Times article "The Ballad of Geehsie and Elvie" and Mack McCormick's daughter Susannah's blistering response to see what is at stake. Sullivan for his part, responded to Susannah McCormick in an open letter in New York Observer. Among the devoted this is serious business.

Petrusich completes her fine survey by detailing the modern collectors in the present day. While not a 78s collector per se, Mike McGonigal makes an important appearance. McGonigal is a writer and collector of gospel 45 rpm records, who has assembled three outstanding collections for Tompkins Square: Fire In My Bones, This May Be My Last Time Singing : Raw African- American Gospel on 45RPM 1957-1982 and I HEARD THE ANGELS SINGING: Electrifying Black Gospel from the Nashboro Label, 1951-1983 . the majority of McGonigal's treasures were released at the church level as singles and cassettes. This accounts for both their appeal and rarity. Like all of the music here. McGonigal is the future.

Where does this writer fall on this relative pathology known as "78 rpm record collecting?" I am a Libra, and feel strongly both ways. Post-romantic realists chided romantics by accusing their scion William Wordsworth of "worshiping a pile of rocks" in his poem "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." The fact is that all of the collectors and writers mention in Petrusich's book were the genesis of the myth that has risen and solidified around records that only one or two people even purchased, a theory supported by Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta. Collectors have created and intensified this romance.

These collectors claim to hear something from deep in the soul whispering out of 80 years silence. No matter the hyperbole, the number devoted remains small when compared to a population that could care less. But to read this book, one would believe that our very existence counts on this music and its cultural importance. These people are opium dreamers seeking a "grand unification" paradigm for not only music but mankind, something that most likely does not exist, but they wish would. Petrusich herself, and her subjects, are like a modern-day Noah, floating on a sea of nothingness with their precious collection, in search of the Promised Land...only there is none. There are only islands on the way there. Their collection is like the Augustinian concept of perfection, they may get close, but they will never make it, because what is perfect is ever changing.

One collector opined to Petrusich that he did not want to fetishize these recordings for simply being old and hard to find. And I thought, "a fetish. That's it! Like nuns in latex..." something rare and weird and somehow voyeuristic and creepy that is what this is like. Whatever it is, we owe our last 60 years of listen to music to such veracity. The world would be a lesser place were it not for these intrepid, slightly off, collection obsessives. Petrusich, for her passive part as chronicler and her active part as a fellow collector, has provided some of the best music- related writing of the last decade. She details the mental evolution of record collecting in a fresh and vibrant way using humor and research.

That said, I do own a few 78s, nothing special and nothing rare. I have a Glenn Miller set (on Bluebird and a single Victor ("In the Mood" 20-1565-B, black label) from the '40s, something my parents would have listened to when first married before World War II. They saw him live in Houston, where they were living at the time. My dad love Glenn Miller. He represented what popular music was to my dad in that tumultuous period. I also have a copy of Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys' "San Antonio Rose" on Okeh (04755 (DAL615), purple label), but I am, in no way obsessed as Petrusich and her subjects are. Bob Wills was taking jazz West in 1930, when this was recorded (with a B- side of "The Convict and The Rose." I failed to mention my MGM copy of Hank Williams with his Drifting Cowboys' "Jambalaya (On the Bayou) (11283-A, metrolite yellow label). But there is nothing special about it. Williams recorded this June 13, 1952 at the Castle Studio, Tulane Hotel, Nashville Tennessee. "Jambalaya" was also released in the relatively new format of the 7-inch 45 rpm record. And I did not spend all of my child's college tuition on the ones I have, nor am I as detail crazy as this bunch of lunatics.

Nor would I do something truly crazy like scuba dive the Milwaukee River where someone 80 years ago might have tossed old masters and discs for sport, as the author claims to. I was told of a farmer in Northwest Arkansas who had a barn full of 78 records still in the original boxes fill a 25' x 25' x 25' room. Said it was from overflow at the pressing plants up North. Said he would sell the whole lot for $450.00. I only had $100.00. I did forget to mention one of my favorite 78s, Brinkley Arkansas' own Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five's "Saturday Night Fish Fry" on Decca (75123, black label). And, for that matter I will do these know-it-alls in Petrusich's book, I own not only a 1930s vintage Victrola, but an Edison Amberola also. These guys believe that this music sounds best played from these deteriorating shellacs on modern equipment. I say listen on the equipment for which the discs were intended...that is truly "period practice." But who cares anyway. It's just a bunch of old- timey music on inferior media.

As a closing note, backing out of this Ms Petrusich's case study on this unique brand of madness, if there is any reader with an original copy of Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" on Okeh (8597, red label... not the blue or black labels (I have them), the red label, damnit!), I would appreciate you contacting me via email. I must have the original recording of the ground zero of jazz. I am not obsessed. Also, I am looking for a copy of Jimmie Rodger's "T.B. Blues" on Victor (23535- A, blac...

Collecting old 78s is a mental illness in search of its DSM designation. Oh, such sweet madness.

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