Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory

August 8th, 2014

In the 2001 movie “Ghost World,” 18-year-old Enid picks up the arm on her turntable, drops the needle in the groove, and plays a song yet another time. She can’t get over the emotional power of bluesman Skip James’ 1931 recording of “Devil Got My Woman.” If you know anything about 78 records, it only makes sense that a nerdy 40-something 78 collector named Seymour would have introduced her to this tune. As played by Steve Buscemi, Seymour is an awkward, introverted sadsack based on the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff, who—along with his comic-artist pal, Robert Crumb—is an avid collector of 78s, a medium whose most haunting and rarest tracks are the blues songs recorded in the 1920s and ’30s.

“These guys were collecting the music that resonated with them, and then it became the document of that time, the music that endured.”

Nearly a decade later, music critic and reporter Amanda Petrusich had the same intoxicating experience Enid (Thora Birch) did, listening to very same song, although she got to hear “Devil Got My Woman” played on its original 78, courtesy of a real-­life collector, who owns this prohibitively expensive shellac record pressed by Paramount. Only three or four copies are known to exist.

The gramophone, a type of phonograph that played 10-inch shellac discs at 78 rpm, was developed in the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1910s and ’20s that the technology became more affordable and less cumbersome so that an average family could have one at home. The records, which could only play 2 to 3 minutes of sound per side, had their heyday in the ’20s and ’30s. They lost their cachet in the ’40s, when radio became the most popular format for music lovers. Then in the ’50s and ’60s, 78 records were phased out in favor of long-playing vinyl records.

Top: Underground comic artist Robert Crumb  is a regular guest on the show. (Via <a href="http://www.eastriverstringband.com/radioshow/?p=1023">John's Old Time Radio Show</a>) Above: A Paramount 78 recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Dry Southern Blues."

Top: Underground comic artist Robert Crumb is a regular guest on the show. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show) Above: A Paramount 78 recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Dry Southern Blues.”

Paramount blues records, in particular, seem to get under the skin of modern 78 collectors. From 1922 to 1932, the label, founded by a furniture company in suburban Wisconsin, discovered some of the most legendary blues icons of the 20th century—Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Blake, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson—thanks to African American producer J. Mayo Williams, who recruited talent scouts to find these impoverished artists in the South, and then paid the artists a pittance to record for Paramount. These “race records,” meant exclusively for black audiences, were made in limited runs from a cheap, low-quality mixture of shellac that gives them a ghostly, crackling sound. Their rarity, the strange sounds they make, and the brilliance of these artists (who mostly remained obscure at the time) has led to a full-blown fervor in the 78 world. Even rock star Jack White, who founded Third Man Records, is obsessed with Paramount. Last year, White teamed up with Revenant Records’ Dean Blackwood to release a box set of vinyl albums featuring 800 known Paramount tracks. (Yours for a paltry $400.)

Petrusich, who spent years immersing herself in the world of 78 collectors as a reporter, got so obsessed with Paramount Records, she went diving into the murky waters of the Milwaukee River to look for discarded shellac. Now, she’s released a book on her experience about getting swept up in this mania, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records. We talked to Petrusich about the characters she met, the important preservationist work they’re doing, and how white men ended up writing the narrative of a music genre created by impoverished African Americans.

Collectors Weekly: How did you get interested in 78s?

Petrusich: Before I started researching this book, I knew that 78s were the original format for music that I loved, like prewar country and blues. But I hadn’t held one in my hand, and I hadn’t spent a lot of time around them. Then I started working on a story for “Spin” magazine about the commercial resurgence of records around 2007, because at the time, bands like Metallica and Nine Inch Nails were reissuing their whole back catalogs on vinyl.

“I was terrified that I was going to break one of these records because I’m such a doofus—and then these guys are literally going to disembowel me.”

In the course of reporting that story, I met Mike Lupica, who at the time was the director of the WMFU Record Fair, held twice a year in New York. He offered to put me in touch with some vinyl collectors who could give me some fun and colorful quotes for the story. He said, “I’m happy to introduce you to some our LP vendors, but if you really want to talk to someone who’s totally bananas you should talk to a 78 collector.”

I filed that away, because I couldn’t use it for my current story. But like any reporter would be, I was intrigued. I hadn’t realized what a small, intense, insular, competitive, and complicated subculture had sprung up around that particular format. Lupica eventually introduced me to John Heneghan, who was my gateway into this world. It wasn’t until I met John that I got to hear 78s played on a proper turntable. It was also the first time I got a sense of who makes up this oddball network of men and how crucial their work is.

A detail of the only known photo of Charley Patton, circa 1929. The photo is now in the collection of John Tefteller and can be purchased in calendars and as a poster at his Blues Images website. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

A detail of the only known photo of Charley Patton, circa 1929. The photo is now in the collection of John Tefteller and can be purchased in calendars and as a poster at his Blues Images website. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

Collectors Weekly: For these collectors, the prewar blues are the most valuable 78 records?

Petrusich: The blues command the highest prices by a decent margin, we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars. But the economics of 78 collecting can be obscured because a lot of these trades happen privately. Just last year, a rare record by prewar blues singer Tommy Johnson sold on eBay for $37,000 to a guy named John Tefteller. That was, in my experience in reporting the book, the biggest public exchange of cash for a 78 record that anybody had heard of.

Collectors Weekly: I know far fewer blues records were made than other genres, but it is also a matter of taste?

Petrusich: It’s probably half and half. It seems obvious to me, having spent some time around these collectors, that they’re drawn to things that are rare. But in the community, I get a sense that it’s seen as tawdry to want something because it’s rare. But I think, especially in our particular cultural moment, where we have access to everything on the Internet all the time, I can understand prizing rarity as a quality in and of itself.

With country blues, the music is the product of these marginalized, somewhat anguished figures. And something about the 78 collector “Seymour” archetype lines up with that. For these guys who often feel marginalized, maybe anguished in their own way, or alienated from the rest of society, it makes sense that they would be drawn to this music that is telling the same story. The blues records also captured just tremendously good performances.

oe Bussard, who is 78 years old, is the foremost living collector of 78 rpm records and the subject of the 2003 film, "Desperate Man Blues." The founder of the last 78 record label, Fonotone, he has more than 15,000 records in the basement of his Frederick, Maryland, home. (Photo by Eilon Paz, via Dust and Grooves)

Joe Bussard, who is 78 years old, is the foremost living collector of 78 rpm records and the subject of the 2003 film, “Desperate Man Blues.” The founder of the last 78 record label, Fonotone, he has more than 15,000 records in the basement of his Frederick, Maryland, home. (Photo by Eilon Paz, via Dust and Grooves)

Collectors Weekly: What other genres do people collect?

Petrusich: People are collecting all sorts of genres of music on 78. The book hardly looks at all at classical music. I wish I had time to get into all that. Based on my taste and the relative worth of these records, I ended up focusing mostly on country blues, as well as some Cajun and ethnic records. But yeah, there’s also classical, opera, jazz, gospel, Hawaiian, pop, and dance band music on 78s. There’s a strong contingent of collectors who focus on Cajun records, because that music is also breathtakingly beautiful. And now, collectors are expanding their scope, too, to look at 78s that were being recorded around the world.

One of the collectors in the book, Chris King, is singularly focused these days on operatic and Albanian laments, which are incredibly sad Albanian fiddle songs. There’s also a collector in the book, Jonathan Ward, who runs a great website called Excavated Shellac, and he focuses on what we would call “world music” or “ethnic records,” for lack of a better term. He curated and compiled a really wonderful set for the Dust-to-Digital label called “Opika Pende,” and it’s all African 78s.

This portable phonograph was used by the U.S. Army during World War II.

This portable phonograph was used by the U.S. Army during World War II.

Collectors Weekly: Can you describe the experience of hearing a 78?

Petrusich: With records in general, people are quick to talk about the analog experience of music, saying a lot of cliché things about warmth, texture, and authenticity, and how it “just sounds better.” I think, by and large, that it is true. I’m a sucker for that stuff. But the first time you hear a 78, it doesn’t sound great. It is noisy either because the shellac is damaged or it wasn’t pressed well to begin with. They were often recorded on rudimentary setups, and everything sounds a little shoddy compared to what we’re used to hearing now with digital recording. But there is something about hearing every second of the hundred years that record has been around. There’s a certain mystical quality to it that I found instantaneously intoxicating. I wanted everything to sound like that. And I listen to LPs, I listen to CDs in my car, and I have an iPod. But there’s something about hearing 78s that is such a singular and transformative experience. I was romanced by it very quickly.

Skip James recorded "Devil Got My Woman" and 17 other sides for Paramount  in 1931 before he quit the blues. In the 1960s, blues enthusiasts, including guitarist John Fahey, persuaded him to come out of retirement. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

Skip James recorded “Devil Got My Woman” and 17 other sides for Paramount in 1931 before he quit the blues. In the 1960s, blues enthusiasts, including guitarist John Fahey, persuaded him to come out of retirement. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

For example, I had heard digital reissues of prewar blues singer Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” but there’s something about hearing it played on a 78 that makes it sound closer. You feel like he’s in the room with you. I can’t really explain it in a scientific way. It’s more spiritual thing that you just sense. Especially with prewar recordings, that feeling comes up a lot for me and came up a lot in my conversations with collectors. Nowadays, people are hyper-aware, when they step into a recording studio, of the ways in which it will be the defining record of that performance, but that just didn’t exist back then. People didn’t really think about it; it was all so new. So there’s something really raw and pure about the way they perform—with singing, in particular, and I think you can hear it in the instrumentation a little bit, too.

Collectors Weekly: I love how you describe the way foremost living 78 collector Joe Bussard reacts to his records.

Petrusich: Joe Bussard [who has more than 15,000 records and is the subject of the 2003 documentary “Desperate Man Blues”] would have this incredible physical reaction to records. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I went into this project assuming that a lot of these guys must be in this for reasons other than just pure fandom. But then I’m watching Joe listen to a record and seeing the way he responds to it physically, seeing the intense communion he has with that music. It’s really beautiful.

Collectors Weekly: Are 78 collectors different from people who collect vinyl?

Petrusich: Yeah, it’s a different kind of guy—and they’re almost always guys who collect 78s. It’s hard to say that shellac 78s are more rare because there are remarkably rare vinyl records—as with 78s, sometimes there’s only one known copy of a vinyl record. But because of when 78s were made, for the most part, there are no surviving metal masters of any of those recording sessions. So the only evidence we have of some of those performers are the artifacts themselves, the records that they made. That tends not to be true with vinyl records. Also, 78s are so fragile. They’re made of a very brittle, hard mix of shellac and other ingredients, and they break so easily. They were pressed in way smaller quantities, because the recording industry was somewhat nascent at the time, so there’s just a lot less of them and fewer of them have survived.

I think because of that, they seem to attract a particular kind of fanaticism about the music and about the format in particular, just because they are so hard to find, so expensive, and so hard to care for. I feel like collecting vinyl is a hip, cool thing to do. I live in Brooklyn, and there are obviously tons of people here that are into collecting vinyl records. But 78s are aggressively uncool. You need a special turntable to play them. The music they contain is so obscure and often strange-sounding. It doesn’t have the same cultural currency. So collecting 78s, I would venture, will never be cool.

In the 2001 movie "Ghost World," Enid (Thora Birch) peruses the 78 collection belonging to Seymour (Steve Buscemi). The collection of records, posters, and artifacts actually belong to the film's director, Terry Zwigoff.

In the 2001 movie “Ghost World,” Enid (Thora Birch) peruses the 78 collection belonging to Seymour (Steve Buscemi). The collection of records, posters, and artifacts actually belong to the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff.

Collectors Weekly: You don’t think the hipster obsession with old-timey things is going to come around to this?

Petrusich: There is certainly an interest in 78s, in 78 reissues, and the culture around it including the sound, the look, and the aesthetic. Absolutely that has taken hold here and I’m sure in other parts of the country as well. But the actual act of collecting of 78s requires such devotion, and hipster cultures—and I know that’s an imprecise word—move so quickly. People are into that Americana vibe that’s popular now, but it will be supplanted by something else in a couple years. And 78 collecting requires a lifelong dedication to this thing that’s nerdy and quiet. It’s just too hard. It takes too much money, time, effort, and research. And the good records, the records that people would want, the records that fit into this whole aesthetic and look that’s popular, they’re impossible to find.

Michael Cumella hosts WMFU's Antique Phonograph Music Program and DJs from 78s at parties and weddings using a wind-up phonograph. (Photo by Kelly WIlliams)

Michael Cumella hosts WMFU’s Antique Phonograph Music Program and DJs from 78s at parties and weddings using a wind-up phonograph. (Photo by Kelly Williams)

Collectors Weekly: In the book, you’ve characterized 78 collectors as proud outsiders.

Petrusich: Absolutely. I think a lot of collectors end up turning to 78s because they feel alienated by modern culture or not satisfied by it in some ways. Your collection becomes a way of insulating yourself from the facets of modernity that you find distasteful, unsustainable, or not nourishing. A lot of these guys had no interest in modern or contemporary music at all. For them, it ended with World War II, or with Hank Williams. Everything that came after that, they don’t even want to know about it because they think it’s garbage. It’s frustrating for me as music fan and critic, because I’ll be like, “Wait, there are all these amazing people making amazing records,” and they have no interest in them.

Collectors Weekly: It’s interesting that they feel marginalized because they’re also relatively wealthy, right, if they can afford these?

Petrusich: Yeah, most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was born blind to Texas sharecroppers, became one of Paramount's most successful blues artists. (Via HeroesOfTheBlues.com)

Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was born blind to Texas sharecroppers, became one of Paramount’s most successful blues artists. (Via HeroesOfTheBlues.com)

But at the same time, I feel so grateful to collectors for doing this. Their interest in this music has paid off so much by the fact that we have it and it’s safe, so to speak, and I can go over to my shelf right now and listen to Robert Johnson’s entire recorded catalog on another format. I wouldn’t be able to do that if it weren’t for a 78 collector. So I feel like whatever weirdness that exists in that power dynamic, I can overlook it because I’m so grateful that the work got done. But it’s worth thinking about. It’s something I struggled with in the book.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any 78 collectors of color?

Petrusich: I’m sure that there are. In my book, I just look at a handful of guys, and there’s one collector towards the end, an African American collector, Jerron Paxton, who performs as Blind Boy Paxton. There’s also one woman that I end up spending a little time with. But by and large, it is mostly, in my experience, and from what I was able to observe, predominantly white guys.

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, who is 25 years old, is both a 78 collector and musician reviving old-timey blues and jazz. (Photo by Lonnie Webster, via High Country Press)

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who is 25 years old, is both a 78 collector and musician reviving old-timey blues and jazz. (Photo by Lonnie Webster, via High Country Press)

Collectors Weekly: Why do you think it’s mostly men?

Petrusich: That was a question that plagued me through the whole process of reporting this book. I ended up speaking to a neurobiologist, a guy named David Linden, who’s a professor and physician at Johns Hopkins. He’s written this great book called The Compass of Pleasure about the science of why we want things. That was the question I brought to him. I knew as a woman I was incredibly moved by these performances and I understood the impulse to want to gather these records. And I couldn’t figure out why no women had done it.

I had a few hypotheses. The hobby of 78 collecting got going in the ’50s, which was a time, I think, in which women didn’t necessarily have the social freedom to spend three weeks driving around rural Virginia, knocking on doors and trying to put together collections. A lot of the collectors in the book did that, and that was when they got the great, rare records. But then I wondered, too, if there wasn’t some neurobiological thing happening that made record-collecting, for some reason, more accessible and more appealing to men.

New York City-based collector John Heneghan often shares his 78s on John's Old Time Radio Show, which he hosts with his girlfriend, Eden Brower. Heneghan and Brower also have a country-blues revival band called East River String Band. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

New York City-based collector John Heneghan often shares his 78s on John’s Old Time Radio Show, which he hosts with his girlfriend, Eden Brower. Heneghan and Brower also have a country-blues revival band called East River String Band. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

So I spoke to Linden, and we floated a few theories. Aspects of this particular kind of collecting resemble certain forms of OCD and certain disorders on the autism spectrum, which skew more male biologically. The way collectors talk about 78s is similar to the way men talk about sports, discussing a collection of statistics. With 78s in particular, there’s a lot of talk of serial numbers, dates of recording, and all these facts and figures that are ancillary to the emotional or spiritual experience of listening to a record but seemed to be important for collectors, nonetheless. Collecting 78s is also similar to an addiction: You get the next record, and it’s never enough. You always want the next one. So there were a few different neurobiological traits that might explain it. But it was a question I never could really get a definitive answer to.

“Collecting 78s, I would venture, will never be cool.”

I always get nervous talking about this because these are such big generalities. But socioculturally speaking, just in my experience, I think women are more comfortable listening to music and having an emotional reaction to it. We have the vocabulary for that. We’re socialized that it’s okay for us to do that. With men, it’s a little more complicated. For a man to hear a song and be moved to tears by it, I think it can be a frightening experience or maybe an experience he has not been socialized to find acceptable. So collecting and organizing is a way of trying to de-fang those intense emotions and also figure them out through meticulous research, learning as much as they can about the record, owning the record. There are all these different ways you can mediate a very emotional experience to make it more concrete, more digestible, or less scary.

Phonographs with trumpet bells by Gramophone & Typewriter Company and HMV. (Shared by Saxymojo on Show & Tell)

Phonographs with trumpet bells by Gramophone & Typewriter Company and HMV. (Shared by Saxymojo on Show & Tell)

Collectors Weekly: What sort of equipment do you have to have to play them on? The original Victrolas?

Petrusich: No. I had gone into this assuming, well, these guys are such purists about formats and music that, of course, they’re going to want to listen to these records on the original players. But because of the way old Victrolas were built, the tonearms are often so heavy that they will literally gouge out the grooves in a record. Collectors will listen to them on modern turntables, but you have to find one—and often you have to special-order it or go out of your way to get one—that will spin at 78 rpm. If you were to just go into a store and buy a turntable right now, chances are it would spin it at 33 1/3 and maybe would have an adapter or a way to switch it to 45 rpm. But to find a turntable that plays at 78 rpm is tough. You really have to look for one, and then you need a proper stylus. The stylus that will play a 78 is a little bit thicker than the needle that will play an LP.

So you really have to look to find 78s, and then you have to go out your way to get the equipment. That’s another reason why 78s so often get thrown out, because people just don’t want to bother buying all that stuff to listen to these records that are in their attics because their grandparents owned them. It requires an investment right off the bat before you can even hear anything.

Richard Nevins, who runs the 78 reissue label Yazoo Records, sits in his personal record room. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

Richard Nevins, who runs the 78 reissue label Yazoo Records, sits in his personal record room. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

Collectors Weekly: And the 78 collectors have other sorts of collections, too?

Petrusich: Quite a few of them also collect either old sheet music or old instruments. They almost all without fail have beautiful homes filled with really interesting things. Collectors in general get a bad rap, and everyone thinks visiting their homes is going to be like an episode of “Hoarders,” but it was quite the opposite. Some of these guys, their record rooms are beautifully appointed oases where you can sit and listen to records. When I was reporting the book, my friends would ask, “How many records do these guys have? They must have millions of records.” And it was like, no, they have 500 records or 1,000 records, not so much about the quantity, it’s about the quality. They’re really, really, really picky about what they will allow into their collections.

These are people who are also very particular about the way their 78 records are stored, because they’re really fragile. They can’t just be stacked up willy-nilly. They have to be carefully arranged and handled gingerly and with respect. You have to be really careful in terms of shipping them and moving them around, because it’s so easy to break one. I spent the whole three years I was reporting this book just terrified that one day I was going to accidentally break one of these records because I’m so clumsy and such a doofus—and then these guys are literally going to disembowel me.

Papa Charlie Jackson made one of the first records of sexually suggestive "hokum" blues.

Papa Charlie Jackson made one of the first records of sexually suggestive “hokum” blues.

Collectors Weekly: And they’re heavy?

Petrusich: They’re really heavy, yeah. And they’re not like LPs, where they come in a sleeve that has art and information on it. They were just stored in brown paper sleeves that were branded with their record label, and often collectors will put them in new sleeves because the original sleeves were so tattered or haven’t survived. So when you see a shelf of 78s, unlike LPs or books where you can go over and read the spine, you’ll just see a sea of brown paper and everything looks the same. But collectors will organize them by whatever rubric they settle on.

Most LP collectors I know organize their records alphabetically, and that’s the way I’ve always ordered my records, but a lot of the 78 guys don’t do that. They’ll organize them by genre and then within genre, it will be by label or by year, and then by serial number. It’s a very complicated system—often they wouldn’t tell me the details. But of course, they know where everything is.

In Crumb's record room, a sign on the speaker for his turntable reads: "Minors Are Not Allowed To Play This Machine And Are Requested Not To Loiter In This Vicinity." (Via <a href="http://www.eastriverstringband.com/radioshow/?p=1023">John's Old Time Radio Show</a>)

In Crumb’s record room, a sign on the speaker for his turntable reads: “Minors Are Not Allowed To Play This Machine And Are Requested Not To Loiter In This Vicinity.” (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

Collectors Weekly: It sounds like they’re also very protective of their secrets.

Petrusich: At first, I was like, “Why isn’t anybody telling me everything I want to know?” As a reporter, you’re so curious and you want all the facts. But they are protective of their hobby because 78s are such a limited resource. There’s a finite number of records, and of course, they want to keep the prices down. Collectors would be very particular about what they would tell me in terms of where they found the records, their sources for records, how much they pay for certain records. They don’t want all of that information to be public because I think it can screw up their economy a little bit.

Collectors Weekly: You mentioned that one way to look for 78s at a flea market is to look for gramophones?

Petrusich: I still think that’s probably the best tip I would give anyone who’s interested in starting a 78 collection. It’s hard to find, obviously, the rare and good 78s, but you can find a stack of records in almost every antiques store. People just shoved records in gramophone cabinets all the time. Sometimes an antiques dealer or a vendor in a flea market will have a gramophone and won’t even realize that there are records in there. It’s a great place to look, for sure.

The former Paramount pressing plant in Grafton, Wisconsin, likely in the mid-1930s. (From the collection of Edward Rappold, courtesy of Angela Mack Reilly and Alex van der Tuuk, from "Do Not Sell at Any Price")

The former Paramount pressing plant in Grafton, Wisconsin, likely in the mid-1930s. (From the collection of Edward Rappold, courtesy of Angela Mack Reilly and Alex van der Tuuk, from “Do Not Sell at Any Price”)

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Paramount Records?

Petrusich: Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

“There’s something about hearing the blues played on a 78 that makes it sound closer. You feel like the singer is in the room with you.”

So the Wisconsin Chair Company, based in the Grafton-Port Washington area of Wisconsin, started the Paramount label. And they accidentally ended up recording whom I believe to be some of the most incredible performers in American musical history. Paramount started a “race record” series in the late 1920s after a few other labels had success doing that model, by which African American artists recorded music for African American audiences. Through a complex series of talent scouts, they would bring artists mostly from the Southeast up to Wisconsin to record, which in and of itself was just insane and miraculous. These are Mississippi bluesmen, being brought to this white rural town in Wisconsin, and you can’t imagine how foreign it must have been to them to see that landscape. Sometimes the performers would record for Paramount in Chicago, but later in Paramount’s history, the company built a studio right in Grafton, and it was a notoriously bad studio. It had shoddy, handmade equipment, and then the records that Paramount was pressing were really cheap. It was a very bad mixture of shellac, and Paramount records are infamous for having a lot of surface noise.

But as I said, they captured some of the best performers in American history, folks like Skip James, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Geeshie Wiley—all these really incredible singers. At the time, Paramount didn’t know what it was doing. It hasn’t been until now that people are like, “Oh my God, this label rewrote American history.” I don’t think Paramount was remotely cognizant of the significance of the work that was being recorded in their studio. They were just trying to land on a hit. And they had some success with Blind Lemon Jefferson. They had a little bit of success with Charley Patton, but I think for the most part, it’s obvious these performers didn’t sell super well because not a lot of their 78s have survived.

Collectors Weekly: So they didn’t make that many of them?

Petrusich: No, but it’s hard to get numbers. It was frustrating for me as a journalist because so little information has managed to survive. John Tefteller, the collector I mentioned earlier, has some information that Paramount had, some of their log books and things like that. But a lot of it, we don’t know how many records were made. We don’t know how many sides were recorded. All that we know about are the 78s that have emerged in the decades since.

78s, like this Memphis Minnie record on Vocalion, often came in paper sleeves with record-label branding on them

78s, like this Memphis Minnie record on Vocalion, often came in paper sleeves with record-label branding on them.

Collectors Weekly: Was Paramount the only label recording country blues?

Petrusich: There were other labels that were doing comparable work and making some really beautiful performances and records. Paramount is the one that many people latch on to because it just seems so odd that it was this chair company in Wisconsin. But there were other labels that were recording country blues singers around the same time—Gennett, Vocalion, and a handful of others. Paramount has this unique lure to it, in part because of where it was in the country. Also, I think it has to do with the way those records sound. As I was saying, they were made of a particularly volatile shellac compound. They sound really weird, sort of ghostly and obscured. I think that has contributed to the mystique surrounding that particular label.

Collectors Weekly: In the beginning, 78s collectors didn’t value the country blues?

Petrusich: In the book, I talk quite a bit about a seminal figure for 78 collectors, a man named James McKune. Prior to James McKune, most people who collected 78s in the early ’50s, especially in the late ’40s, were only interested in hot jazz dance music from New Orleans. McKune was the guy who found the Charley Patton record, had strong reaction to it, and thought, “This is the music that I need to be seeking out.” That was a shift within the collecting community when suddenly people got interested in blues records and started finding them. But prior to that, yeah, absolutely, country blues was considered tawdry and not of the quality the early collectors wanted.

Bluesman Tampa Red got his break when he was hired to accompany Ma Rainey and became popular in the 1930s. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

Bluesman Tampa Red got his break when he was hired to accompany Ma Rainey and became popular in the 1930s. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

Collectors Weekly: Do you think that on a certain level, collectors may have misunderstood the culture that created 1920s and ’30s blues?

Petrusich: I’ve thought about that a lot, the ways in which the narratives of American music, or certainly of blues music, were getting written by collectors, purposely or not. These guys were collecting the music that resonated with them, and then it became the document of that time, the music that endured. It’s easy to think of it as the authoritative, omniscient narrative, or the canon of the blues, but in fact, it was this really personal selection made by collectors. These just happened to be the records they liked.

“When we talk about the blues as being raw or authentic, it discounts how hard this stuff was to play and how sophisticated it was.”

If you were to stop a person on the street and ask them to name an old blues artist, most people would say Robert Johnson. But Robert Johnson was, in fact, not a huge star of his time. Other blues singers like Barbecue Bob were commercially way more successful in the African American community. It just happened to be that Robert Johnson’s the guy who got lionized by collectors, in part, because he’s an incredible talent. But also something about what he was doing made sense to these white men who were in charge of gathering, preserving, and digitizing the records. It’s interesting that the narratives we think of as being historical are, in fact, really personal.

When you try to figure out, “Who was actually selling a bunch of records in 1929?” it’s not the folks we now think of as being the pillars of the canon. In fact, women were often making the most commercially successful records. It was Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. But again, they get pushed to the side in favor of this other story of the blues.

Ma Rainey recorded 92 sides for Paramount; she was one of their biggest sellers. (Via Jas Obrecht Music Archive)

Ma Rainey recorded 92 sides for Paramount; she was one of their biggest sellers. (Via Jas Obrecht Music Archive)

Collectors Weekly: How much does the idea of the blues as this wild, devilish, or lawless music have to do with the idea of otherness?

Petrusich: I’m so guilty of this sometimes, too, but there’s this way that we want to talk about blues music as an anguished cry. In many cases, it is that. You hear these songs, and they’re incredibly moving. But when we talk about it as being raw or authentic, it discounts just how hard this stuff was to play and how musically sophisticated and innovative it was. There’s a sense of almost remarginalizing it by talking about it as this primitive music that sprung up in the cotton fields, when in fact, it’s incredibly skilled and impressive music.

Collectors Could you tell me a little bit about Harry Smith?

Petrusich: Harry Smith was a filmmaker, archivist, and collector who is responsible for the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” which was the first 78 reissue compilation. It was released in 1952 by Folkways Records, which is now controlled by the Smithsonian. Harry Smith was maybe 27 years old when he put together the “Anthology of American Folk Music” based exclusively on records from his collection. It became the default document of that time period.

Famous eccentric 78 collector Harry Smith compiled the first 78 reissue on vinyl, 1952's "Anthology of American Folk Music." Here, he pours milk in New York City in 1985. (Photo by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust, from "Do Not Sell at Any Price")

Famous eccentric 78 collector Harry Smith compiled the first 78 reissue on vinyl, 1952′s “Anthology of American Folk Music.” Here, he pours milk in New York City in 1985. (Photo by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust, from “Do Not Sell at Any Price”)

Harry Smith, by all accounts, was a difficult person, particular about his collection and about the ways he wanted people to listen to his records. He was also very adamant when he would encounter certain objects that he thought belonged in this collection: He would just take them. He was always stealing other people’s stuff, and he believed strongly in serialization. He thought that things should be in the proper order so that objects related to other objects, and he was driven by a desire to line everything up in the right way.

The “Anthology” works like that, too. He was so particular about the way in which that thing was sequenced. The sequencing of the ”Anthology” is probably the most remarkable thing about it, the narratives he ended up writing, just by placing certain songs next to other songs. He’s an incredible figure in the history of 78 collecting, and probably its most famous practitioner. He ran with an interesting crew in the ’50s, too; he was very close with Allen Ginsberg and some of the other Beat writers.

Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music"  is now available on CD through the Smithsonian's Folkways Recordings. The art and liner notes reflect Smith's interest in mysticism and metaphysics.

Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” is now available on CD through the Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings. The art and liner notes reflect Smith’s interest in mysticism and metaphysics.

He was also a mystic and alchemist who was interested in Native American culture and ended up working for a spell at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. The “Anthology” has a funny metaphysical bent to it. If you spend enough time reading its liner notes and looking at some of the illustrations, there’s a mystical edge to them, a way in which people still talk about 78s. People are so romanced by 78s and often confounded by them and hypnotized by them that they end up using that vocabulary. I know I do. I feel that way about them as much as I try to caution myself not to.

Even today, the records still seem to invite this sort of myth-making. There’s the mythology of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. There’s so much apocrypha and stuff that’s just not true but these artists become cyphers in a way. There are all sorts of weird stories that go around.

Onetime preacher Son House, who recorded blues for Paramount Records, was a big influence on Robert Johnson. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show)

Onetime preacher Son House, who recorded blues for Paramount Records, was a big influence on Robert Johnson. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

Collectors Weekly: Robert Crumb and guitarist John Fahey also became big 78 collectors?

Petrusich: Yeah. In the course of reporting the book, I kept wishing I could have talked to John Fahey. Unfortunately, he died in 2001. Fahey was a student of this music and certainly a collector of it. Then in the ’60s when he was still rather young, he went out into the field with other collectors and blues researchers and tried to find some of these performers. Fahey was one of the three folklorists who went and found Skip James convalescing in a charity hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. James ended up playing at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded some new material. Fahey was one of the guys who brought him back to recording late in life.

“If somebody were to say, ‘The records are in this part of Lake Michigan,’ I probably would show up in my scuba suit again.”

It’s easy to think of collectors as passive, sitting around, filing records. In fact, in the beginning, 78 collecting was really active with a lot of boots-on-the-ground work and guys going out into the field, both to find the records and later to find the performers. We got so much of blues history from the interviews that were collected then, when folklorists, writers, and collectors were speaking to these bluesmen about their memories of the prewar days.

A lot of collectors today say, “Look, we can’t do this anymore. The records are gone, and you’re not going to go out and find the quality of stuff that we used to find.” And they could be saying that just because they don’t want people to steal the records out from under them. It makes you wonder if those days are behind us of when people could go out and get really good stuff that way.

In the 1960s, members of the "Blues Mafia," including Yazoo Records founder Nick Perls (far left), Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro (far right), went looking for country blues singers like Son House (second from the right). They persuaded House to revive his career. (Photo by Mrs. House, using Dick Waterman's camera, via <a href="http://www.wirz.de/music/bg_npfrm.htm">Wirz.de</a>)

In the 1960s, members of the “Blues Mafia,” including Yazoo Records founder Nick Perls (far left), Dick Waterman, and Phil Spiro (far right), went looking for country blues singers like Son House (second from the right). They persuaded House to revive his career. (Photo by Mrs. House, using Dick Waterman’s camera, via Wirz.de)

Collectors Weekly: When these records were re-released, what was their impact on modern rock music?

Petrusich: If it weren’t for the reissues that started coming out in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, other musicians wouldn’t have had access to this material. It would’ve been languishing in the homes of 78 collectors. First-wave British rock bands, like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, took huge inspiration from these compilations that were being sourced from 78 collectors. If these collectors hadn’t done that, would all this other music have followed? Would it have existed in quite the same way? Once you start entangling that, you start thinking, oh my God, the work of 78 collectors is a big deal.

Collectors Weekly: And you even went scuba diving for 78s?

Petrusich: That was a totally bonkers thing to do. Paramount was forced out of business partly because of the Great Depression, because of declining record sales, and because their product was not great. I had heard from many different sources that the day Paramount closed, the workers were so disgruntled that they had all just lost their jobs that they just hurled all of the deadstock records, all the remaining 78s that hadn’t shipped, into the Milwaukee River, along with the original metal masters from many of those recordings. It’s a rumor that’s persisted for years: That’s where all the Paramount Records were, and that’s why it’s so hard to find them. They’re all rotting at the bottom of the Milwaukee River outside of Grafton, Wisconsin.

The Hokum Boys, featuring Tampa Red and "Georgia Tom" Dorsey, recorded bawdy blues records for Paramount. From John Heneghan's collection. (Via John's Old Time Radio Show

The Hokum Boys, featuring Tampa Red and “Georgia Tom” Dorsey, recorded bawdy blues records for Paramount. From John Heneghan’s collection. (Via John’s Old Time Radio Show)

In 2006, a PBS show called “The History Detectives” sent a scuba team to the bottom of the river, and they didn’t find anything. But they admitted that they were probably looking in the wrong place because of the way in which the dam had been moved and a complicated series of currents. I got it in my head that scuba diving for Paramount 78s was something I should do. In a way, it was a test I set up for myself to prove my dedication to the material and the practice of collecting, almost like an initiation into this oddball fraternity. It was probably the apex—or perhaps nadir—of my obsession with this material, when I was really thinking, “They’re down there, and I can find them!” I learned how to scuba dive, got certified, and got a guide to take me out into the river. Not to give anything away to your readers, but of course, we came up empty-handed. Had we found anything, it would have been unplayable and rotten.

But I just wanted to get my hands on some evidence of this label. When you go to Grafton now, other than Paramount’s crumbling stone foundation and one historical marker, there’s very little evidence that this entire enterprise ever existed there. I was just wanting to get closer to Paramount somehow. I still think if somebody were to say, “Oh, no, they’re not there, but they’re in this part of Lake Michigan,” I probably would show up in my scuba suit again. The mania of collecting takes hold in that way, and you stop thinking rationally about anything.

(For more information, pick up Amanda Petrusich’s book, “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records,” read her New York Times article, “They’ve Got Those Old, Hard-to-Find Blues,” and Dust and Groove’s interview with Joe Bussard. John Tefteller can be reached at his site, World’s Rarest Records. To hear more of this music follow John Heneghan’s Old Time Radio Show and Jonathan Ward’s Excavated Shellac. Reissues of 78s can be found at Smithsonian Folkways, Yazoo Records, Old Hat Records, Revenant Records, and Third Man Records.)

11 comments so far

  1. Derek Says:

    Petrusich: Yeah, most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.

    Wow. Can a white male do nothing without having to feel guilty about it and his “privilege”? Now even record geeks are creating terrible karma, or something, by collecting. By what mechanism this works I will never know.

  2. pgauge Says:

    I agree. This “white priv” BS is getting very, very, very tedious. Especially coming out of the mouths of guys who are just running their preening little “stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said what a good boy am I” schtick. The mechanism works by having a fully colonized mind. This is something Crumb, whom I’ve profiled, knows a lot about. It’s disgusting and it should stop.

  3. Igiveup Says:

    Things are complicated. The appropriation of black culture and experience by white businessmen and white audiences – as represented by these early records – is part of piece. That’s tragedy. The world of collecting these records I think turns these records into a fetish. The collector isn’t a monster to be sure but their ability to see the racism they so ardently and unintentionally document is compromised. There’s a disconnect that in any other domain would constitute denialism.

    God forbid that white males ever feel the need to own the scope, range, and disgusting brutality of white racism. Nah, that evil just rolls off their backs. The shock and disgust displayed by the Dereks and pgauges of the world have all the sincerity and honesty of Captain Renault’s outrage over gambling. ‘Cept these fools aren’t funny. They’re bystanders as well.

    If you want to get beyond this then you have to own it – put the racialized experience into the record. That some or many whites refuse to do this makes ‘em complicit.

    Thanks for kicking the can down the road. Fool.

  4. Anna Wayland Says:

    This article is jammed w tidbits! Thanks a lot! Marc Weinstein, co-founder of Amoeba posted it on his Facebook page, which is how I saw it. All I can say is, I’m so glad to God that my personal record collecting fetish is with classical. I already have a wall of jazz so I can relax a bit with that. Classical is easy to find, in good condition, and not very expensive. But if you like classical, wow, there’s some amazing sounding stuff out there. Even acoustically recorded stuff, played back right, sounds amazing. It would be neat to own a Charlie Patton 78, but it’d probably be beat to hell and have cost a fortune. Not very practical and not worth the stress. 50′s blues 78s can sound amazing. Checker/Chess etc… absolutely bangin. I’ll spend $50 on a mint Little Walter 78… of any songs…. But whipped rare race records are a pain, cool as they are. (Old stuff is cool!). I dig my thoughtful LP collections of Blind Blake and relax well when it spins. Meantime, I realize from reading this that I am a fussy grumpy misanthrope modernity hater not unlike the eccentric old guys who hate anything before the electrical process cuz the idea of “hipsters” going around buying up 78s and playing dress up is irksome to me! They wouldn’t know good audio if it hit them in their dirty t-shirt! xoxo

  5. Kip Says:

    The Robert Johnson Paramount sessions must be really long lost. As far as I know, Johnson recorded for ARC, most of the records were originally issued on the Vocalion label.

  6. Will Hemphill Says:

    I lived in Mississippi and learned first hand from the black masters, the problem is with the Blues foundation and it’s dictator Jay S. only let his white friends make bank and tour and get in movies ect. The only white woman who could sing blues was Jo anne kelley and Robert lucas for the men, John Hammond is a joke and idiots like catfish keith and Roy bookbinder need a beating. 78′s keep the blues real.

  7. theo Says:

    i recommend http://document-records.com
    Document Records and Jack White’s Third Man Records have teamed up to produce an astonishing new series of vinyl albums. Drawing material from the Document vaults, the series concentrates on the best names in vintage blues.

  8. Barry Cuda Says:

    No mention of the eccentric Pete Whelan and his astounding collection of 78s in Key West? Pete published “78 Quarterly” (several covers with art by R. crumb), grows rare palm trees, and says that now that he is getting very old the other 78 collectors are circling like vultures. He loves to play them for his friends. I play several of piano blues pieces I got from him at my gigs down here- on a real piano mind you!

  9. Bicycle Bill Says:

    Back in the 1960s through the 1980s, there used to be throwing games in carnivals where the object was to pitch a baseball at two 78-rpm records whose edges were almost touching.  Throw it just right and break a chunk off of each with just one throw, and you would win a cheezy stuffed animal or other imported knick-knack.  I just wonder how many of these potential collector’s items wound up in pieces in these dusty tents at county fairs and community festivals throughout those years……

  10. RP Says:

    This reminds me of the dynamic around the fantastic psychedelic rock that came out of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Cambodians can really take it or leave it, but the white dudes have done yeoman’s work collecting, preserving, and identifying what little remains–and even resurrecting it in the case of the band Dengue Fever.

  11. Garnerjazz Says:

    During WW II the govt. held shellac drives to recycle 78′s for war materiel–so a lot of records from pre-40′s were destroyed. In the early 40′s Columbia began making 78′s with a laminate of card-board between thin outer layers of shellac into which the grooves were pressed. These records sound best when played with the correct size stylus–I own three different interchangeable styli of differing diameter. When you find the “right” stylus for a particular 78, a lot of the “noise” clears up. It needs to fit the groove; there wasn’t a standard diameter stylus in those days, as there was for LP’s, and even the speeds varied between manufacturers. If you listen to 78′s pressed in the mid to late ’50′s on better materials (Labels like Capitol or Clef) you will hear a clarity and depth of sound to rival any LP, and very little surface noise, if any. There are marvelous 78′s of Billie Holiday and Bird, as well as Nat Cole and Ernie Ford (16 Tons–WOW!) that will blow you away. Now, why does it matter “who” is collecting this endangered stuff?? At least there is someone out there who is motivated by its beauty and has preserved it. So they happen to be white guys–let’s flog them for it. Put down your little prism of race. Remember, Lester Young’s biggest influences were Bix (Beiderbecke), Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey–three lily white jazzmen–and that all spawned Miles Davis and the cool school.


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