Midway through her thoughtful, entertaining history of obsessed music collectors and their quest for rare early 78 rpm records, writer Amanda Petrusich has a revelation. Focusing on one particular seeker and his knack for finding obscure titles others have missed, she describes him strategizing his search by “pursuing his prey with the kind of vehemence typically employed by a PI stalking a client’s ex-wife, or a cop chasing a kingpin. It felt calculated and thorough.”
The difference? Unlike those delicate 78 rpm records, a kingpin doesn’t shatter when you accidentally brush against him, can’t live invisibly in cobwebbed basements for decades and upon discovery doesn’t hold the mysterious, beguiling sound of a lost past time-traveling into the present.
It is true, though, that both the record hunter and the detective may end up scouring riverbeds for remains, as Petrusich herself did while researching “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records”
Tracing the rise of the record collectors’ market from its infancy to the present, Petrusich follows the souls, mostly men, whose restless drive to unearth obscure recorded sounds has helped shape America’s musical memory. In the process of collectors salvaging a vanishing history, their tastes and influence — and, for some, egomania and possessiveness — helped bring to a mainstream audience artists such as Robert Johnson, Skip James and Ma Rainey.
A music journalist whose work has appeared in Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and who wrote “It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music,” Petrusich burns with a curiosity similar to that of her subjects. She examines the impulse to possess artifacts, illuminates that rush of discovery and the often sanity-testing ways in which chasing elusive, unknown platters can lead men toward pettiness, hoarding and, in some cases, an isolation akin to that of an addict.
While documenting the culture and the characters who occupy it, Petrusich also looks at her own role as one of an even rarer breed of record collector: a female in a mostly male realm. This means hunting for treasures at flea markets, yard sales, “in Victrola cabinets, under piles of John Denver LPs, wrapped in sheets of yellowed newspaper, in the backseats of vendors’ cars, shoved under tables, in blue Tupperware bins labeled ‘Old Records,’ stacked indiscriminately in the high, bleating sun.”
The prize for the scrounge? Probably a scratched-up 10-inch record, unplayable on your average turntable, holding hiss-filled music that might be far more easily found online, if it hasn’t been totally bypassed by posterity.
To the chosen few, however, a pristine 78 on the right label is a nugget of history, a mini “Mona Lisa” that just might contain creations as transcendent as titles made famous by such record crate diggers as the late New York artist Harry Smith. His 1952 six-album collection, “Anthology of American Folk Music,” is considered by many to be the first great curatorial gathering of the nation’s early American folk and blues music.
Smith, writes Petrusich, ordered the selections not based on region or academic utility but “as a poet orders words on a page, channeling, building meaning from nothing, becoming a physical conduit for spiritual truth.”
Along with a handful of regulars at the storied New York shop the Jazz Record Center, Smith made connections between white and black music when the public’s tastes were still mostly segregated. For reasons both noble and selfish (history and her budding 78 collection, respectively), Petrusich works to discover what happened to Smith’s 13,000-piece collection after his passing. The answer is predictably depressing.
Her collecting fever carries her on a pilgrimage to Grafton, Wis., to better understand Paramount Records, a furniture company turned record label that almost by happenstance became one of the great chroniclers of raw “race records” starting in 1917. The company’s roster included, among others, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Geeshie and Elvie. The label released thousands of 78s until it shuttered in the early 1930s, and only a handful of most have surfaced. Some are still missing, which drives many searchers in “Do Not Sell at Any Price.”
This scarcity also propels Petrusich to undertake the book’s most action-packed and indulgent diversion, in which she learns to scuba dive to chase a myth. For decades, rumors told of a bounty of Paramount titles at the bottom of the Milwaukee River near the label’s former pressing plant. Upon the company’s demise, it is said, former employees chucked hundreds, if not thousands, of remainders into the river. (I won’t give away the results of her quest.).
Diving for buried records might be the final frontier, considering the bounty of music available online. The Internet has unlocked the attic to a new generation searching for 78s not in dumpsters but in avenues such as eBay.
Petrusich follows this evolution and provides a fascinating counterpoint by profiling collectors searching other continents for equally exciting and otherwise lost recordings. Among them are next-generation curators equally interested in recontextualization and adding to the historical record. And with the rarest blues and country records fetching thousands of dollars, skeptics criticize the “blues mafia” canon as being willfully skewed toward rarity as barometer of quality.
Quoting Jonathan Ward, whose library of African records is featured on his website Excavated Shellac and his Grammy-nominated compilation “Opika Pende,” Petrusich conveys the 78 hunter’s view that “certain visions may have dictated certain narratives about American music, especially when it comes to blues.”
“There’s music all over the world that’s equally rare,” says Ward, while acknowledging that blues records nonetheless represent “a very interesting piece of Americana.” However, he adds, “That same thing exists in many other places. It’s just, does it captivate white dudes?”
It’s a question to ask not only of the “blues mafia” but also, by extension, the accepted American narrative that places a handful of black men at the center of the story to the diminishment of women, immigrants and the diaspora of disappeared musicians whose work hides in storage sheds and riverbeds awaiting resurrection.
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Do Not Sell at Any Price
The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records
Scribner: 260 pp., $25