If you've ever enjoyed the ghostly weird-old-America wail of Robert Johnson, the deep blues of Charley Patton or Skip James' guitar wizardry, you can thank the 78 collecting community — those dedicated (okay, obsessive) folks who hunt down the rare old shellac records that hold so much of our musical past.
78s — named for the speed at which they revolve — are the distant ancestors of today's digitally downloaded singles. They passed out of use in the late 1940s, but still turn up occasionally at rural flea markets and in dusty cartons under forgotten beds. And for the passionate collector, there's always the thrill of possibility: a grimy old record at the flea market could be the only existing copy of that particular song.
Music writer Amanda Petrusich documents the 78 collecting scene — and how she got drawn into it — in a new book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. In an email interview, she tells me she has a lot in common with the collectors she profiles. "One of the things I've come up against a lot is the broad-strokes archetype of the record collector — and the 78 collector in particular — as this antisocial, unpleasant, aggressively nostalgic figure who makes everyone around him uncomfortable," she says. "But after spending just the smallest amount of time with these guys, I was like 'Oh, I get this. Oh, I totally get this. Oh, no, I'm kinda like this.' My hope is that the book is an honest, forthright account of a complex and vital and quirky subculture, but I ultimately really enjoyed — and, more importantly, empathized with — nearly all of the people I was writing about. On a really base level, there is a part of me that understands the desire to gather and serialize objects."
Petrusich tells me collecting 78s helped change the way she appreciates music. "I talk a little bit in the book about how disillusioned I'd become with my experience of contemporary music — and that was my fault; that had nothing to do with the relative quality of the work now vs. the work then — and seeing that change, watching myself become more invested and more open and more dedicated to the music I was hearing, it was really incredible. I feel so grateful for that."
I love the scene at the flea market in Virginia where you start to experience the joy of finding something good (and of course, that moment turns out to be pivotal later on in that you and your collector friend missed out on a major find by an excruciatingly narrow margin). Tell me about that day and what it felt like, digging up those old records.
It was generous of Chris King to let me tag along on that junking mission to Hillsville, and it was oddly thrilling for me to watch him excavate 78s from mounds of useless stuff. It reminded me, a little, of reporting — you follow leads, you ask a lot of questions, you hunt, you probe, you introduce yourself to strangers, you say yes a lot. We were digging around in the back seats of people's cars; we were unloading dealers' boxes for them. Hillsville was also the first time I'd gotten a chance to properly seed my own 78 collection, and it was where I realized how fun it is, hunting for records. It's terrifically fun. It's stupidly fun. One surprising thing about 78s is that once you start really looking for them, they're nearly ubiquitous — most junk or antique shops have a stack of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra 78s stacked in a corner somewhere, and while some of that stuff is great, it's not what anyone is sweating it out in the field for. So you spend a lot of time flipping through 78s you have no interest in buying, just hoping and praying that the next record you hit will be something incredible. So many collectors gave me the same advice: you see a box with 100 records in it, and 99 of them are garbage, and it's the last one that'll change your life. Never stop 'til you get to the bottom of the box.
I think what also distinguishes this book is how whole-heartedly you gave yourself to the quest for records ... you actually learned to scuba dive in order to hunt for a great lost trove of records, supposedly tossed into a river when a studio went bust.
As far as I can tell, there's no way to collect 78s without also becoming at least somewhat consumed by the quest — as I say in the book, it's not a pastime that invites dabbling. I think that dive, for me, was both a way of symbolically declaring my seriousness with regards to this whole enterprise, and also trying to make some sense of Paramount Records, the Wisconsin-based label that was inadvertently responsible for capturing and preserving some of the most staggering performances in American musical history. When you visit Grafton [Wisc.] now, there's no real evidence that a recording studio and pressing plant ever existed there — save a crumbling foundation and a historical marker — and I think part of me just wanted to get my hands on some piece of it, to make it all feel more real. It also worked for me, narratively, as a way of showing how insane collecting makes people. Because, you know, that whole thing was insane.
One thing you get at that doesn't get covered a lot is the way the sensibilities of the first collectors — usually educated white men with the means to go record-hunting and an inclination to prize rarities — affected what for us has become the prewar blues canon.
So much of what we know about the earliest commercial recordings we know because collectors resurrected and researched those particular 78s. I think it's really tempting to think of that narrative as objective and omniscient, but it's often so personal — collectors collected the records they liked (as they should), and those are the records that made it and endured. And if you consider the collector archetype again, and think of him as this lonesome, marginalized, anguished figure, then it makes sense that he would be drawn to lonesome, marginalized, anguished music. It makes sense that the narrative might be skewed. Of course, that archetype doesn't necessarily hold up on either end, and these records survived at least in part because they're phenomenally good. But it's worth thinking about. Marybeth Hamilton, in her excellent book In Search of the Blues, asks a lot of tough questions about collectors and the canon.
Can you distill the appeal of 78 collecting into just a paragraph? Is that even possible?
If you are a person who sometimes feels overwhelmed by Spotify, or lost and underinvested in your iTunes library, collecting 78s is one way of slowing down the process of acquiring and consuming music. The other thing about 78 collecting that I think people don't always consider is how high-stakes it is — if you're a fan of pre-war American music and you're out in the field trying to dig up rare or previously unheard records, you might get to play a role, however small, in the preservation of a certain song or genre. That's exciting!
Do you still listen to your 78s? Or has the fever passed?
I'm sad to report it has not passed. I suspect this is a disease that is never cured but merely managed.