A consistently fascinating, if intermittently flawed, book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich shines a spotlight on the insular world of 78rpm collectors and archivists.
BY JASON GROSS
After working for several months at a psychiatric ward, I saw the patients as being more than sad pathetic figures, actually having some sort of odd nobility to them. The staff there was in some way sympathetic but also jaded and sometimes lacking humanist impulses (valuing people above all) because of their long-suffering work. I thought about the same thing reading Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (Scribner), not just about the subjects but also the storyteller.
The spate of door-stopper archive box sets of early 20th century music that appeared in the last several years have been a revelation for music fans but also full of contradiction and lacking some context. Labels like Revenant, Dust to Digital and Tompkins Square have stepped up with historic sets like Goodbye Babylon, American Primitive, Down In the Basement and Victrola Favorites. What’s strange is that these treasures culled from obsolete, long-gone technology get offered up in digital formats for the techie music fans out there, though some vinyl editions exist of them too. A big gap in these hernia-inducing boxes is the sources- not the artists or labels but the collector nuts who have salvaged the old records and that’s where Petrusich’s book is invaluable.
Though she dips into the familiar new journalism technique of detailing all clothing and food items involved, Do Not Sell tells the important story of the record collectors whose mania fuelled these reissues. Not only does she track them down on their home turf, sometimes taking perilous drives to find them, she also patiently gains their trust to not only hear their own story but to also see their prized collections. That’s a big deal since these collectors are protective about letting an ‘outsider’ see their precious goods and divulging where they found their records, especially since the stock of 78 RPM records (before LPs but after cylinders) is a small, finite lot that keeps dwindling as time goes on. Though John Lomax, John Fahey, Joe Clauberg and Harry Smith are gone, Petrusich tells their tales and shows how their archival work shaped our perceptions about American pre-War music.
She also has first-hand encounters with the collectors that are still out there and that forms the most compelling parts of her book – Christopher King (who becomes an important entry into this world), Sarah Bryan, Pete Whelan, Marshall Wyatt, Nathan Salsburg, Jonathan Ward and Joe Bussard sometimes show distrust, wariness and snobbery over their collections and their music but mostly they eventually open up. They provide private listening parties of their favorite music and most precious finds (sometimes which aren’t the same thing), animatedly singing or dancing along to the music while they do. Reading these accounts, you wish you could be there to not only hear these amazing discs being played but also seeing the amazing music collections and soaking in the music with the collectors themselves. She’s able to bring alive cult figures like folkie Chubby Parker, mysterious blues mama Geeshie Wiley, Cajun fiddle singer/guitarist Blind Uncle Gaspard, Mississippi bluesmen Kid Bailey and King Solomon Hill as well as noted historical figures like Skip James, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt, though with the later ones, she wisely notes that a large part of their rep comes from the urging of the white “blues mafia” who puffed up their careers by coaxing some of them out of retirement and compiling reissues of their work.
The collectors in Do Not Sell aren’t just anti-social, paranoid, obsessive weirdoes but also vital links to the music they’ve amassed. Their collections became the source of the box sets mentioned above with the material long lost otherwise and also the source of new and ongoing box sets as they find new material via yard sales, eBay, blind luck, strange leads, estate auctions and such. Even though these music nuts have usually never met any of the musicians involved (all of the musicians died decades ago) and hadn’t even bought any of the records when they originally came out in the 1920s and the 1930s, their archival work has helped to bring the music to life again by just making it available again. As such, despite their manic nature, you also feel gratification and respect for them for the archive-minded nature of their obsession, such that they’re at least willing to share their finds with the outside world, AKA the rest of us music nuts out there who don’t have the cunning and drive or the time to track down this material ourselves.
Petrusich (above) herself gets caught up in the mania. Not only does she haunt flea markets, record sales and go dumpster diving with other collectors but she goes as far as attempting a scuba dive to find some rare records that were supposedly tossed in a lake. Here she spends too much time taking about her prep work for the dive and the venture has predictable results, plus you wish that she’d make the seemingly obvious connection that she’s been bitten by the collector bug enough to do sometime so stupid and futile, mirroring many of the dead ends her collector heroes have chased after to find their own goods. Still, her quest not just for records but also for the record collectors themselves is more than admirable.
There’s even enough inspiration in the book to make a latterday record collector like me rethink my own piles of music. Do Not Sell reminds us of the warm and intimacy of records vs. CD’s and makes me wonder why I’ve wasted my time collecting so many of those stupid little five inch plastic discs instead of sticking with vinyl – even labels are recognizing how lame CDs are, with many new releases coming out as LPs accompanied by MP3 download cards so you can still have that carrying convenience. Also, reading through the stories of collectors mastering their own material for reissues or licensing them out to labels, I remembered that I had a stack of Turkish cassettes from the ‘90s that a friend from Istanbul sold me. Inspired by the book, I’m going to contact some “world music” specialty labels to see if it’s of any use to them. If it is and it’s turned into an archival reissue, I’m going to make sure they thank Petrusich in the credits.
Reading through her vivid, breathless descriptions of the almost transcendental folk/blues/jazz records she comes across, you can’t help but want to hear it for yourself to get the same kind of thrill. No shit – I dusted off my copies of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Revenant’s American Primitive collections, Yazoo’s Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of sets and the Goodbye Babylon box, all of which I hadn’t listened to in a while, and all inspired by the book to dig in again. And no doubt about it, the music is still a treat, transporting you to another time, another age, another world that you feel privileged to witness.
But reading through Do Not Sell, I kept having the nagging feeling that something important was missing in the stories that she was telling, and then I thought back to the psych ward workers. When some of them gave the patients electroshock therapy in large tubs, they’d crack jokes about doing their laundry in there, too, since the patients were jerking around so much. That kind of thing made me squirm but one of the nurses explained that making jokes like that was the only way that the people there could get through such grueling work. Petrusich is nowhere near as insensitive as that – she has genuine empathy and respect for the collectors and seems like the interesting kind of person you’d want to have a beer with and shoot the breeze about music with all day. But reading her book, I couldn’t help but think that the thing that was missing was this kind of humanist thinking that was in short supply at the hospital.
Related to the psych connection, at the end of the book, Petrusich tries out some pop psychology to try to understand the mentality of the collectors she’s chronicled. They’re obsessive, they’re compulsive, they’re anti-social, they’re paranoid, etc. Skimming over some psych articles, she concludes that they’re a little nuts, which you would have known already as you’ve been reading about them. [It takes a collector nut to spot a collector nut, eh Jason?—Fellow Collector Ed.] But any decent intro psychology course would tell you something important about making these kind of easy, snap judgments – as you study through symptoms of paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive behavior and so on, you’ll find that you yourself and any of your friends have some degree of these disorders yourself. That doesn’t mean that you, or these collectors or your friends, necessarily need to get locked up for their own safety but that we all have some degree of these behaviors. Sure, these collectors are more obsessive than your average music fan but they’ve channeled their obsessions into great reissues and until they start arguing with voices in their heads or run into the street naked with a weapon, it’s silly to see their obsessions as anything but harmless and not some kind of psychotic impulse.
There’s another troublesome passage, also near the end of the book, where you wish Petrusich had a better grasp of big-picture issues (even though she’s proved she grasps the particular small details). She’s entranced in a listening session with one of the collectors, her mind drifts, thinking about the musicians and how they had a sense of urgency, where what they had to say could be meaningful to a mass audience and maybe even change the world – “that sense that art could still save us, absolve us of our sins.” But that notion is squashed as quickly as it comes up: “We know better than to expect that now,” she insists. That kind of cynicism isn’t exclusive to Boomers or Social Security recipients anymore as Gen X/Y/Z have been taught the language of pessimism, doubt and sarcasm so much that it’s ingrained in them now, pretty much obliterating part of the generation gap. I get that impulse, too, as a forty-something – I never really understood a complex work like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On until I reached “adulthood” (circa late twenties) and felt the weight of the world crush my spirit.
But decades later, I know for damned sure that any new music I love mostly ignores that kind of impulse and actually does believe that if it can’t change the world, at least it deserves to be heard. Once you start denying that impulse or seeing it as B.S. in young artists, you get as crusty as the hero collectors in the book who insist that music stopped being good some time in the 1930s and thus cut themselves off from the wonders of everything from doo wop to hip hop, which Petrusich notes has a lot more connections to the country blues they cherish than they’d like to admit.
But maybe the biggest nugget missing from Do Not Sell is an even bigger-picture look at what a collector is. Petrusich’s detailing of their lives does make them sound like the historians plus the semi-cuckoos that they are, but wouldn’t it have been great to hear how their life-work relates to all the rest of us? In essence, all of us are collectors – not to the same degree as the people in the book, but we are. Think about it. What’s in your closet? There’s a collection of clothes that you’ve carefully stockpiled over the years. On your bookshelf is the same thing – a bunch of tomes you’ve bought, traded, found, stole, etc. over the years that’s unique and it’s your own. Ditto your own record collection – you don’t have as much music as the guys in the book (I don’t either) but you’ve taken some time to get all that music and put it together. Somewhere around your house or apartment, you have collections of other things that you keep for your own amusement. Maybe it’s stamps or dolls or photos. In my tiny apartment, I somehow still made room to collect bookmarks, flip books, Luchador (Mexican wrestling) masks, key chains, music-related badges/buttons, voodoo/mojo bottles, paddle-type hand fans, miniature wind-up body parts, stress balls, Day of the Dead items and refrigerator magnets. [Am dialing Bellevue right now, Jason, so expect some nice men in white uniforms very soon.—Mental Health Ed.] And yeah, I collect music too, via LP’s, cassettes, CD’s, MP3’s. Even if I can’t explain my obsession or fascination with any of these things, I enjoy having them, seeing them, using them, thinking of them. We all do, even if we don’t wanna admit it.
And as part of my book collection, I’m glad that Do Not Sell is there. If you’re a music nut and have even a slight interest in pre-War tunes and history, you’ll need to read it too. Petrusich tells the tales in such compelling ways that I’ll be ready to read her next book, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with music. I also hope that she can squeeze in a broader mindset that’s sympathetic and compassionate not just for her subjects but for also the rest of us. (Below: not necessarily the BLURT office – but it could be! Note “pre-emptive anal-retentive” squat in the process of being assumed by the collector.)
The author was recently interviewed by NPR. Go HERE to read the feature.