It Wasn’t Palimpsestuous
By Amanda Petrusich
Who, one might wonder, would utter such words, so rich with the scope of experience, so wearily resigned to humanity’s foibles, of such esoteric inference, and with such great solemnity? Simon Wiesenthal? Vasco da Gama? A heroin addict?
No, Joe Bussard, and his cryptic allusion is to a lifetime spent in pursuit, preservation, and dissemination of rare 78 rpm records, made mostly in the 1920s and the 1930s by largely forgotten musicians for largely forgotten labels, and containing some of the most powerful jazz, blues, and folk music that America has ever produced. A pioneer in the field, he began in the 1950s, making thousands of backwoods explorations through poor black neighborhoods in the South, going door to door and simply asking people if they had any old records to sell. Most were bought for piddling amounts, and Bussard’s basement in Frederick, Maryland, where he stores a collection that stands at about 25,000 records—many the only copies of otherwise extinct music—has become one of the greatest, and most unlikely, repositories of lost American culture.
Bussard, subject of the 2003 documentary Desperate Man Blues, is an affable eccentric, prone to statements by turns ominous, dramatic, ornery, and exultant. In other words, he’s the 78 collector prototype, and kindred spirits are on abundant display in Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price. A portrait of the hermetic subculture Bussard helped to create, it’s a history of blues recordings and the ferociously competitive field of collectors who seek them. A fascinating case study of the complications of bliss, it’s also a confused, sometimes mean-spirited first person account of Petrusich’s identity crises as a writer, music fan, and gourmand.
For Petrusich, a widely published music journalist and critic, the advent of digital technology “[annihilated] the ritual of consumption,” made her overly self-conscious while browsing record stores and “[hobnob] with bespectacled clerks in Joy Division T-shirts,” and left her with feeling that “writing and publishing felt futile, like tossing a meticulously prepared pork chop to a bulldog, then watching him devour it, throw it up, and start eating something else.” It’s unclear how she thought writing about 78 collectors would ease her insecurities, but one sees how she might sympathize with collector Sherwin Dunner’s assessment of collecting as
a way you cope with feeling like an outsider, feeling alienated from pop or mainstream culture, which has gotten more and more controlled and oppressive and dehumanized. So you create your own world, using whatever you think has meaning or aesthetic value. It’s a world that can save you from the modern world.
Thomas Edison patented his phonograph in 1878, and his first recordings – a cornet solo, a man reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and a flubbed “Old Mother Hubbard,” followed by the speaker’s subsequent laughter – were recorded on cylinders coated with tin foil. They played at 160 rpms, and lasted about a dozen plays before they became worn out and unlistenable. Emile Berliner’s invention of the gramophone in 1887 would eventually make the Edison disc obsolete; as Petrusich explains, Berliner’s invention played “flat, grooved discs…five to seven inches across…whirled, on hand-cranked players, at around seventy to seventy-eight revolutions per minute,” which were easier to produce and store than cylinders.
In the 1910s, the Wisconsin Chair Company began to manufacture phonograph cabinets, promoting them as decorative furniture, and late in the decade, a subsidiary began making records. They called the label Paramount, and records, pressed on variable degrees of quality shellac, and of equally variable recording quality, were complimentary bonuses meant to accessorize the furniture. They weren’t mass-produced by any contemporary standard, metal masters were usually not saved, and, as in the early days of film, there didn’t seem to be any reason to preserve the things – they weren’t art, they were part of a marketing strategy, like baseball cards stuck in packs of cigarettes. Because the records were disposable sales items, people disposed of them, or repurposed them as furniture props, or burned them for heat, or, for some reason, threw them under porches (collector Christopher King: “I can’t tell you the stacks of 78s people would put under their porches back then”).
But the music was still heard, on the radio, or on home phonographs, and collectors started seeking out records in thrift stores, or by knocking on doors. Successful finds were left to chance; most recordings certainly weren’t masterpieces, and collectors were often looking for nuggets in the mud. But every once in a while, nirvana:
‘[The box] had so much dust on it-like snow, like a blizzard.’ Bussard leaned in and mimed blowing the dust off the surface. His cheeks puffed up and deflated, like a cartoon’s…. ‘First record I hit was an Uncle Dave Macon. Average. Carter Family. Charlie Poole. And then the first Black Patti. I went down a little further. Three more! Phew! Finally I got to the bottom of the box, and there were fifteen of ’em. I said, ‘Where’d you get these records from?’ He said, ‘Oh, some guy gave them to my sister in 1927, we didn’t like ’em so we put ’em in a box under the bed.’ I said, ‘What do you want for them?’ and he said, ‘Ten dollars.’ And I said, ‘Ten dollars.’
In the current market, a record’s worth can vary from pennies to $37,100, the price paid by dealer John Tefteller in 2013 for a 78 of Tommy Johnson’s “Alcohol and Jake Blues.” Since the age of door to door hunting has mostly passed, trolling is now done primarily at record fairs, estate sales, flea markets, and online. While, as Petrusich notes, “all major sales and trades are conducted privately,” some collectors, like Tefteller, still go to investigative extremes,
chasing the nominal paper trail as far as it would go. ‘You find, say, whoever had the Paramount distributor shift in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1930,’ he explained. ‘You find that person’s name, and you find out where they died, who their relatives and survivors might be. And do those relatives and survivors have any of that material, or was it all discarded or given away when the person stopped being a Paramount Records distributor?’
Means of acquisition, like many topics in this community, can be a touchy subject. When Petrusich asks John Heneghan “where he scored the bulk of his collection,”
he looked at me as if I’d commanded him to disrobe. ‘You don’t expect me to answer that question, do you? I’m not sure I should answer any of these questions,’ he guffawed, his voice incredulous. ‘Do you realize how limited…. These aren’t LPs! All it takes is a dozen more people interested and…’
An apocalyptic ellipsis, and an understandable aversion, but what probably upset him more was that the question is like asking a magician how he does his tricks; so too in record collecting: only after years of diligent inquiry, practice, and commitment is expertise acquired and secrets attained. And while, theoretically, it wouldn’t take a lot of new collectors to destabilize such a limited market, Tefteller, one of the few collectors who make their living buying and selling 78s, thinks it’s too late for most newcomers to build a substantial collection, “even if you had millions of dollars to spend. There’s only a finite amount of these thing available and most of the people who have them have no interest in selling them. So you have to be extremely patient—it’s a long process, and a lot of people who start the process get discouraged real quick.”
Why this music, found on labels like Paramount, Vocalion, Okeh, or the holiest of holies, Black Patti (Joe Bussard, on his Black Patti excavation: “I was pissing and shitting little apples”), has the effect it does, is one of the more tantalizing mysteries for new converts. Obviously, it’s best contemplated during the listening experience, or with a viewing of the hilariously literal online video, “Christopher King plays Geeshie Wiley ‘Last Kind Word Blues,’” in which Christopher King plays a record of Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues.” Absent that, it’s left to Petrusich. Describing music for those who’ve never heard it is a necessary evil for music critics, even if writing about how songs sound is like writing about what sex feels like; there’s no other genre of criticism with so many practitioners straining for effect, or whose work is so repeatedly self-sabotaged by their desire to articulate rapture. So for someone who’s never heard Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere Part 1”, a restrained, evocative description like this one might be helpful:
‘The whole round country, Lord, river has overflowed,’ Patton moans in ‘Part 1,’ his voice loose and rich over a three-note, open-G guitar melody. There’s a vague bit of percussion—Patton smacking his guitar or thwapping his foot on the ground-in the background; his delivery is knotty and almost unintelligible. Patton may have been recording in the world’s shittiest studio, seven hundred miles from his hot Delta home, but the performance is tough, aggressive, certain. ‘The whole round country, man, is overflowed,’ he snarls. Patton sounds angry and indignant, the way we sing when we are singing about things that are out of our control, things that feel too large and too devastating to also be true.
by fifty seconds into ‘Big Leg Blues’-right around the time John Hurt coos, ‘I asked you, baby, to come and hold my head’ in his soft, honeyed voice—I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up in to my esophagus.
It should tell you something that later in the book, Tefteller describes to her what an extremely rare Blind Blake record sounds like, and she stops listening. Petrusich acknowledges that, “I’m not sure there’s a way to accurately recount the experience without sounding dumb and hammy,” but the need to anyway is indicative of how disruptive the music can be to one’s psyche. Any of the better anthologies of 78s – Revenant’s “American Primitive” volumes, Old Hat Records’ “Down in the Basement,” anything produced, compiled, or contributed to by Christopher King – serve as a stunning refutation of homogenized mass culture. “Authenticity” is the word that usually gets tossed around by everyone from casual fan to connoisseur, but in this case it’s true, and it is rare to find anyone not shaken by hearing recorded music free of technological manipulations and mass-market compromises. These are transmissions from a lost world, and the boundless range of idiosyncratic regional voices, heard through decades of accumulated crackle and hiss, often sounds like messages from American’s collective unconscious. Add to that the pathos of the records having barely survived a largely indifferent populace, poor storage and the savagery of worn Victrola needles, and it’s no wonder that for collectors like John Heneghan, 78s have infiltrated the dream state:
I have a recurring dream about finding Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman’… It’s so vivid, so clear-the first time it happened I woke up in the middle of the night certain that I had the record. I was like, This is amazing. So I got up to check, and it wasn’t there, and I was like, Fuck. So then I have the dream again, and it’s so vivid the second time, and I think maybe the part about not having it was the dream. So I get up to check. Then I have the dream the third time, and the fourth time…
All collectors seem to suffer at times from forms of disorientation; they often sound like men embarrassed to admit they’ve fallen in love. It’s a trait shared by anyone who holds some thing in their hands that inflames the imagination and provokes a sense of exhilaration like nothing else in their lives; anyone who’s ever been to a baseball card or comic book convention can attest to the state grown men are often reduced to when holding a cherished item: looks of utter vulnerability, or of infinite hope, or impending orgasm. It is embarrassing to watch, not least because it feels so intrusive, and there is a temptation to mockery. But I would guess that most who condescend (and the cynic in me guesses that’s a good chunk of this book’s targeted demographic) are jealous, too self-conscious to allow themselves bliss or the behavioral quirks that accompany it. When Petrusich asks Heneghan “if he ever sat in his living room and gazed at his record collection, mesmerized by each flawless row,” and he answers, “All the time,” the mystery remains as to what he sees. An ordered life? Himself as Alexander, gazing upon worlds conquered, foes vanquished? Or an altar devoted to boundless joy? Whatever it might be, the gaze is shameless.
Of course, what’s specific to each subculture is the object itself, on which collectors projects their hopes, desires, and existential crises, and for the collector of 78s, it’s the black disc as tabula rasa. One of the book’s more provocative inferences is that what’s sacred is not the music, or the object, but the inextricable connection between the two. When Petrusich accompanies Christopher King to a record fair, the excursion leads to some of the book’s more resonant contemplations:
What [King] was compelled by was listening, and the myriad ways people required and employed sound: ‘The question that never gets answered, or maybe that doesn’t even get asked, is what it is about being human that makes us desire this thing that is so ephemeral?’
Music, he pointed out, was a universally recognized salve, and it was worth considering the mechanics of that exchange, because understanding it was the only way anyone could ever begin to explain why he collected 78s. ‘There’s some sound or some group of sounds or some line of sounds that evokes something cathartic. I think every single human being has that, from one end of the spectrum to the other,’ he said.
He insisted that listening to a 78 (rather than an LP or a digital reissue) proffered him a more thorough and transformative experience. He didn’t try to define it any further. ‘It’s a fidelity thing and it’s also an aura, an intangible. I’m one of those people who don’t think there’s much that is inexplicable, but this is one of the things that I would say is inexplicable,’ he said.
At its best, Do Not Sell at Any Price is a story about reclaiming the importance of myth and ritual in the classic sense, the reverence for something greater than ourselves, and the processes that enable the participation in something transcendent. As Nathan Salsburg says about the first time he played a 78,
There was an intimacy about it that was different from other intimate musical moments that I’ve had with stuff of this era…. Because first of all, it wasn’t a palimpsestuous experience. It wasn’t listening to a 78 put on an LP or on a CD, or a 78 put on an LP put on a CD. It was the 78 itself. As I was listening, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and then it ended and I had to flip the record over. That’s the experience of 78s that people talk about.
To a collector, the steps taken in playing a 78 – simple, and performed with great attentiveness – have meaning. To establish a musical pantheon of common people about whom we often know little but their names, is, essentially, to create a new American myth in which we are a country where the voices of repressed, lower-class people are not ignored, but saved, heard, and savored. Even the most halting testimony from collectors shows the yearning to believe in something beyond the material world, or just beyond a culture that would discard such national treasures as Blind Willie Johnson records. Their submission to the care of delicate icons, the sense of preciousness and awe, solitary ceremony and meditation as conduits to spiritual dimensions – all are characteristics traditionally associated with acts of worship, and the collectors’ tales are most engaging when the tellers appear as practitioners trying to understand their place in the infinite.
Or at least to confront their ambivalence. As Heneghan tells Petrusich,
On a good day, you look at yourself like, I’m preserving American history: I’m an archeologist. But the bottom line is that there’s seriously something wrong… I think it’s funny that you even call it art… I think it’s more of a disease. There has to be something really wrong with you to want to possess these objects in the first place. You have to have them, and it’s never enough, and you get that strange, tingly feeling when you get one. Anyone who collects anything is obsessive-compulsive and neurotic. The need to put things in order, to file by number, to alphabetize and label, to be constantly reassessing how you’ve ordered things-that’s neurotic behavior… I’ve never met [another 78 collector] who wasn’t like, ‘This is sick, we’re all sick’… When I finally gave in and started buying 78s, it was a conscious decision to embrace my sickness… there has to be something in your mind that says, ‘I give up.’
Is this sick? If the only sensible response to rapture is surrender, then aren’t the rest of us ill? Compared to collectors, most of us are dilettantes of desire. If there’s anything “wild” about collectors of 78s it’s their deep, even profound, level of involvement and the ways that solicitude leads to new levels of self-awareness and confusion. Petrusich notes, “In some ways, the parameters of the collector’s search-looking for one specific, tangible thing-made for an infinitely easier passage, a more satisfying arc, than blindly stumbling through life, trying to figure out what else would make you happy. These guys knew what would make them happy.” Well, yes and no. What might have been interesting to consider is what it is about the American character, specifically in our relationship to possessions, that leaves us so conflicted about pleasure.
Another thing to consider is, why are all these guys white? And, for that matter, guys? Passing reference is made to only one female collector, Sarah Bryan, and another woman, Sherry Mayrent, who amassed and donated a sizable collection of Yiddish and Hebrew 78s, but if either had anything to say about collecting, or music in general, it goes unreported. The gender divide is discussed in a few quick paragraphs, but Petrusich finds that “[t]rying to figure out how and why collectors collect—and how that relates, if at all, to their maleness, is a largely thankless pursuit”—mainly because they won’t just tell her.
Often, there’s something weirdly hostile about her relationship with her subjects, whose proclamations often “[feel] like bullshit”, and whom she evidently sees as cartoonish infants; at one point she characterizes Telfteller’s discovery of an exceedingly rare picture of Charley Patton as “the kind of thing collectors dream about at night, their blankets pulled up to their stubbly chins, their hands curled into little fists.” The only sense of genuine kinship she musters comes from eating, and the reader is deluged with a plethora of incidental foodstuffs: crackers and hummus, green grapes, a tall glass of Turkish iced tea, a hearty Waffle House breakfast or two, Raisin Bran, a McDonald’s orange drink, a cherry milkshake, “several dozen free cups of Heineken,” deep-dish pizza, pho, a half-eaten granola bar, braised pork shoulder in a veal sauce. And what inspired her needless mockery of “commercial” blues fans and their benign delights, like “[the] young woman at an open mic night oversinging ‘Chain of Fools’ with her hands in the air” or the “guy with a T-shirt tucked into his shorts, nodding appreciatively at a bar band with three shrieking electric guitars”?
Absent these unpleasantries, Petrusich has elicited rich comments from elusive sources and offers vivid capsule biographies of people like Harry Smith, who compiled the massively influential Anthology of American Folk Music and who, she astutely notes, “reposition[ed] the collector, rather than the critic or scholar, as an architect of canons, an arbiter, a storyteller.” Her section on Paramount Records provides a rich introduction to the history of recording and exploiting black musicians, even if one wishes she had abandoned the idea of scuba-diving the Milwaukee River, a rumored dump for Paramount, which must have sounded great in her book pitch, but reads like the kind of gimmick common to the memoir market.
It’s a pity Petrusich’s gimmickry and condescension have clouded an otherwise engaging exploration of an enigmatic subculture, and kept her from assimilating so much of what this group has to offer: Christopher King’s devotion to scholarship (“The people who impress me…find out everything they possibly can about some really obscure, arcane musician or type of music. Then they provide it”), or Jonathan Ward’s humility and sense of service (“The attention should be about the research and the music and not on the collector and his personality”), or Ian Nagoski’s benevolence (“I see that in 78 collectors over and over again – they’re dying to express, to someone who wants to know, how beautiful it is”). Perhaps she just couldn’t get over how such “maniacal” men could offer so much generosity and grace. Or maybe from the beginning, she was just hungry for all the wrong things.
Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters. His plays Moons of Jupiter and Tales from the Schminke Tub will be published in the fall by The Operating System.