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

C. Michael Bailey By

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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.

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