Early on in Do Not Sell At Any Price, the author Amanda Petrusich, a music journalist for Pitchfork, Spin, the New York Times and a myriad of other publications makes a confession. The abundance of free music she has been gifted, the 50-60 cds crammed into her mailbox weekly, and then the deluge of digital promos emailed to her on a daily basis have skewed her relationship to music. She misses pining for things; she misses the thrill of discovery. It’s all become too easy, too disposable. This admission of musical disenchantment at the outset makes it clear she was especially vulnerable to what follows over the next two hundred and forty four pages, and may partially explain why at one point in this slightly hysterical tale, she find herself in full diving gear scouring the bed of the Mississippi river in search of discarded shellac.
Part detective novel, part sociological study, part historical report; this is a book about obsession. Petrusich entered a world closed to outsiders, of hyper musical nerddom, where obscurity is prized and lusted over almost above all else.
In our current vinyl renaissance, the 78 feels somewhat neglected. Sure we’ve had limited exposure, Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World, or cartoonist Robert Crumb’s famed vinyl collection, but to be fair it’s somewhat of a closed shop and its participants have no desire to encourage potential competitors.
Whilst you can regularly see impossibly rare LP’s fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay, 78’s take it to a whole new level – in particular pre war race music (i.e. black country blues music from the 20’s and 30’s). We’re talking records changing hands at $40,000 or more. The reason? There may only be one surviving copy, no master tapes, and if this copy dies the music is gone forever.
Petrusich goes on the road and meets collectors, and gets caught up in their breathless tales of acquisitions, of near misses, of leads, clues, and dusty impossibly rare records pulled from a long ignored corners of dank basements and purchased for spare change. And we go along with her, particularly when she begins describing the music she’s hearing, and the effect these rare battered 78’s have on her, such as Chubby Parker’s Davey Crockett, or the impossibly sad Sur le Borde de L’Eau from Blind Uncle Gaspard, where it sounds like he’s choking up towards the end of the side. There’s a certain emotional immediacy here, which is why most collectors come out with provocative lines like “the best bluegrass was mid-late forties early fifties. Jazz was over in thirty three.” And they seem to believe it – or perhaps they need to. She hangs out in collector’s basements, hears their stories, and explores their motivations. Many of these guys (yes guys, she only found one woman collector) are behind archival releases on labels like Dust to Digital, Tompkins Square and Bear Family Records.
What’s possibly most fascinating is how this very act of collecting has rewritten history from the perspective of the collectors. On one hand they’ve preserved a historic piece of America at a time when few serious academics or institutions were interested, however with such scant information on hand about the artists, their preoccupations can’t fail but skew our current understanding. Little known artists, who may have only had 100 records pressed on the poor quality Paramount label for example, with one or perhaps none in existence today are held in higher esteem than many on the larger selling labels, again due to scarcity. It all becomes clear when Petrusich visits the youngest collector in the book, the 23-year-old Jerrone Paxton. He plays her a 78 from Blind Joe Taggart who’s recorded a side with his wife a gospel singer, Emma. Despite singing the blues on other sides, because of the presence of gospel it’s pretty much worthless. “How does Blind Willie Johnson go for several thousand dollars and I got this for thirty bucks?” He offers exasperated.
Petrusich’s exploration is both humorous and self depreciating. She offers an amazing history of pre war blues, of the lives of the artists, the most in demand labels and of course the blinding obsession of the collectors. You can feel the bug grow in her, and in yourself. The problem is that these guys have gone through most of the basements across America, and are so ferociously single minded in their pursuit of the prized shellac that its pretty much futile to contemplate entering the fray. Though it’s difficult not to wonder if any Paramount or Black Patti sides ever made their way to Australia. Perhaps there’s a copy of Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman only a garage sale away…