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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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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.

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