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Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records (English Edition) par [Petrusich, Amanda]
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Do Not Sell At Any Price

/ / One / /

That’s Mine Now, I Got That Before You Could Get It


John Heneghan, “Devil Got My Woman,” Dreams, Analog Playback, “Davey Crockett,” Do Not Sell at Any Price


The living room of John Heneghan’s East Village apartment is crammed with dusty American artifacts: antique wooden furniture, kitschy paperback novels, a Beverly Hills, 90210 pencil case with matching ruler and eraser. All available surfaces are littered with collectibles; all accessible closets are bursting with vintage clothes, discerningly acquired by Heneghan’s striking live-in girlfriend, Eden Brower. I sat on his couch with my hands folded in my lap and sucked in the smell: old. Two skittish housecats, both rescues, nipped in and out of cardboard boxes, eyes wary and wide.

Alongside the far wall, sixteen squat wooden cubes—each filled with about a hundred 78 rpm records, most recorded before 1935—loomed, parsed into genres like Hillbilly, Blues, Hawaiian, and Comedy and organized alphabetically by artist. Each section was blocked out with a neatly labeled cardboard divider. Individual 78s were housed in unmarked brown paper sleeves. It was an impeccable display. I asked Heneghan if he ever sat in his living room and gazed at his record collection, mesmerized by each flawless row. “All the time,” he answered.

Every last person alive right now came of age in the era of recorded sound, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for any of us to properly conceive of a time in which music was not a thing we could hear whenever we felt like it. The 78 rpm record was introduced in the 1890s, about ten years after Thomas Edison developed his phonograph machine and revolutionized the ways human beings thought about sound. Initially, Edison’s phonograph played cylinders—little tubes, smaller than a can of soup, that were crafted from metal (later wax, and then hard shellac), stored in cardboard canisters, and coated with a strip of tin foil. Sound transcriptions were pressed into the foil with a cutting stylus, and the phonograph translated the textures back into sound. After a dozen or so plays at 160 revolutions per minute, the cylinders wore down and became unlistenable.

In 1887, the German-born inventor Emile Berliner patented the gramophone, which worked similarly to Edison’s phonograph but played flat, grooved discs instead of stumpy cylinders. Berliner’s disc records—which were five to seven inches across, made of various materials (often rubber), and whirled, on hand-cranked players, at around seventy to seventy-eight revolutions per minute—were easier to produce and store than cylinders, and Edison’s tubes were nearly obsolete by 1929. Around the same time, the production of disc records became somewhat standardized, although there were still hundreds of rogue labels recording and manufacturing dozens of different kinds of records. Most were ten inches wide (which yielded about three minutes of sound per side) and crafted from a precarious jumble of shellac, a cotton compound, powdered slate, and wax lubricant. 78s would remain in relatively wide use until the 1960s, when they would be gradually replaced by seven-inch, two-song 45s and twelve-inch, long-playing 331/3 records—themselves ousted by cassettes, to be eventually supplanted by compact discs, which have now been succeeded almost entirely by digital audio files.

The first day we met, John Heneghan was careful to establish a disconnect between 78 collectors and the folks who stockpile LPs or 45s—for Heneghan, the distinction is acute, comparable to collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds. But his own collection began with an LP—a reissue of a Charley Patton record, which he acquired when he was sixteen years old. Heneghan can still describe, in remarkable detail, the subsequent epiphany: picking up the record, feeling its heft in his hands, squinting at the photograph on the cover, flipping it over to read the date printed on the back, placing it on his turntable and releasing the needle into the groove, feeling transported, feeling changed.

“I’m not even sure that I liked it at first,” he admitted. “I liked the idea of it. It was really hard to listen to. But I was a guitar player—I had played the guitar since I was a kid—and I thought, ‘What is this? What is he doing?’ It was only a matter of time before I started seeking out the original records, the 78s. I resisted it for a long time because I knew it would be nearly impossible, and I knew it would be a financial burden beyond what any rational mind would consider a wise decision.”

The price of a 78 ranges from a few cents to a fair amount of cents—in some cases, up to $40,000—depending on the cachet of the artist, the condition of the record, the rarity of the pressing, and the fervency of a collector’s desire. Because 78s are objectively worthless and because collectors are so particular about what they want, a record’s archival value often trumps its monetary value. But that archival value can still be astonishing. Because they weren’t produced in huge quantities (although a CD or MP3 player is a fairly common accessory in most American homes now, gramophones were hardly standard in the early 1920s) and because for so long, so few people were interested in salvaging them, a good portion of the world’s remaining 78s—and it’s impossible to say how many are even left—were also singular representations. Often, no metal masters of these recording sessions survived, meaning that if the records themselves were to break, or be crammed into a flood-prone basement, or tossed into a Dumpster, then that particular song is gone, forever.

Most of Heneghan’s collecting peers, including the famed illustrator Robert Crumb, are the types who went door-to-door in the 1960s, asking people if they had records in their attics and snatching up 78s for a quarter apiece. When I asked 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 . . .” He trailed off again. “It amazes me. It’s American musical history and it’s forgotten about, and there are only a handful of people out there preserving it.”

Heneghan wasn’t being particularly hyperbolic. He and his pals are often uncovering and heralding artists who were previously unknown, and who would have remained that way had a collector not bothered to listen and share his finds. “The amazing thing about 78s is that so much of the music is one hundred percent undiscovered,” he said. “There are still so many records out there that are so rare there are only one or two copies, or no copies—you’ve never heard it. I’m still often discovering things. You find some weird band name, you don’t know what it is, and you take a chance on it, put it on, and it’s some incredible masterpiece.”

John Heneghan was glib and, at times, aggressively self-deprecating about his fanaticism, but his collection was, independent of its personal worth, an extraordinary cultural document. Collectors of 78s, maybe more than any other curators of music or music memorabilia, are doing essential preservationist work, chasing after tiny bits of art that would otherwise be lost. Even though their pursuits are inherently selfish, fueled by the same untempered obsession that drives all collectors, without Heneghan and his peers a good slice of musical history would be absent from the contemporary canon. And while academics, anthropologists, archivists, and reissue labels all assume roles in the preservation and diffusion of early songbooks, the bulk of the material being released or reissued is still being sourced from the original 78s—which are found, almost exclusively, in the cramped basements and bedrooms of 78 collectors.

Still, the historical heft of his effort didn’t mean Heneghan was free from the neuroses that characterize so many collectors: his collection was historically significant, but it was also deeply personal, even pathological. Collectors, like everyone, get seduced by the chase.

“I have a recurring dream about finding Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman,’ ” Heneghan said, leaning in, his voice low and solemn. “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 . . .” He shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and scratched a craggy blond goatee. Heneghan is a formidable physical presence, and his narrow, slate-gray eyes betrayed an intolerance for certain strains of bullshit; he was exceedingly pleasant but uninterested in pleasantries, and it occurred to me that I wouldn’t ever want to be standing between him and a copy of “Devil Got My Woman.”

“On a good day, you look at yourself like, I’m preserving American history: I’m an archaeologist. But the bottom line is that there’s seriously something wrong,” he continued, adjusting the black bowler hat he frequently sports. “The first time I bought a record, I remember thinking, I have to see if this band has any other records. And then when I got the other records, I thought, I need to figure out which one came first so I can put them in order. I remember going to friends’ houses and they just had their records anywhere, and it was like, ‘How can you do that? They have to be in order!’ I just spent so much time thinking about the perfect way to put everything in order.”

Heneghan finally asked me what I’d like to listen to, and we huddled around his turntable, taking turns pulling 78s from his shelves. My hands shook. Unlike vinyl records, which are forgivingly pliable, 78s are thick, brittle, and heavy. Drop one on the wrong surface at the wrong angle, and it’ll shatter like a dinner plate.

The bulk of Heneghan’s collection consists of early blues and hillbilly records, and they range in quality and tone. Up until about 1925, recordings were made acoustically, meaning the musicians would have to bellow and pluck directly into the phonograph’s diaphragm cone, where the resulting sound vibrations would nudge the cutting stylus and create a transcription, which could then be played back. There were considerable drawbacks to the technology: drums and bass were rarely recorded because the depth of their vibrations would knock the cutting stylus from its intended groove, and things like cellos, violins, and even the human voice didn’t always resonate enough to be properly rendered. By 1927, engineers had figured out how to use a carbon microphone—another Edison gadget, from 1877—which could then be amplified with vacuum tubes and used to power an electromagnetic recording head, meaning a far wider range of frequencies could be picked up and reproduced, yielding a richer, more authentic sound. Still, if you are not prone to romance and nostalgia, the process can seem silly in the face of today’s error-free digital recording, where analog sound is converted into clean streams of binary code. To a modern sound technician, things like styluses and diaphragm cones are about as clunky and outmoded as the iron lung.

But for traditional record collectors—ones who, like Heneghan, came of age in the late 1970s—the upsides of digital recording are largely irrelevant. Although he owns an iPod (he bought it for Eden, who said she rarely used it) and a few shelves of CDs (mostly from the reissue label Yazoo Records, which was founded in the late 1960s and is now run, in part, by his friend and fellow collector Richard Nevins, who works exclusively from original 78s), he was not particularly interested in consuming digitally produced music. I could see how Heneghan might find MP3s a bit unsettling (those intangible streams of zeros and ones are about as far from cumbersome shellac discs as possible), but even the CD, the MP3’s doofy, moonfaced older brother, was inherently unappealing to him. “If I find a great record, and a friend of mine says, ‘How about I keep that record and just make you a CD of it?’ it’s like, ‘Are you insane?’ ” he snorted.

Heneghan pulled Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues,” the Cannon Jug Stompers’ “Walk Right In,” and a 1920s test pressing of Frankie Franko and His Louisianans’ “Somebody Stole My Gal” from his shelves. He laid the John Hurt record on his turntable, flipped a switch on a receiver, and dropped the stylus. The room filled with crackle. I held my breath.

The thing is, I wasn’t exactly an analog rookie, even then. I owned plenty of LPs, and while my initial interest in vinyl was driven by mathematics (I could pay twenty-five cents for a Led Zeppelin III LP at my local Salvation Army, or slap down fourteen dollars for a plastic CD version at the record store), I secretly appreciated all the tender platitudes—Warmth! Texture! Authenticity!—spewed about analog sound. But because the bulk of my collection was lazily sourced from junk shops (I can still identify a three-LP set of Handel’s Messiah—that brown-and-yellow thrift-store staple—from approximately forty-five feet away), I was never captivated by rare records in particular. My expertise regarding coveted vinyl consisted mostly of ribbing my pal Clarke for his pristine copy of The Anal Staircase, a three-song, twelve-inch EP released by the British industrial band Coil in 1986 and worth around eighty dollars to the right customer. (There’s a photograph of a human anus on the cover.)

So while I possessed a working understanding of what 78s were and when they were produced, I had never purchased or played a single one. Still, I loved scrappy, prewar country blues in the same way I loved punk rock—something about the tenuousness of the entire enterprise, the threat of spontaneous dissolution, the immediacy—and had always been more than content to listen to it via digital reissue. Prior to this moment, it had never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. That I might be chasing an approximation.

Right now, there are 78 collectors working to gather and preserve all forms of prewar music—jazz, opera, classical, gospel, country, dance, pop—but there’s something particularly seductive about the way blues music played on an acoustic guitar between 1925 and 1939—the so-called country blues—sounds on shellac. While playing the country blues can require a staggering amount of technical prowess (no other genre, except maybe rap, is as routinely underestimated), the most important component of any country blues song is still the performer’s articulation of blues “feeling,” that amorphous, intangible, gut-borne thing that animates all music and gives it life.

The necessity of emotion obviously isn’t unique to the country blues, but because most prewar blues songs were assembled rather than composed (performers were often working with the same old folk songs as bases, tinkering with and rewriting verses to suit their needs), and because many performances were barely captured, let alone manipulated, it’s often the only difference between a middling blues side and a transcendent one. Critics and scholars can pontificate at length about the technical dexterity of a country blues performer like Robert Johnson—the way his long fingers curled around the fret board, what his left foot was doing—but blues feeling is a lot trickier to dissect, in part because it runs counter to the very notion of analysis. It becomes the singular challenge of blues critics (of all critics, really) to articulate some sense of that bewildering force. It becomes the obligation of the fan to hear it.

That afternoon, sitting upright on Heneghan’s couch, I was playing it real cool. But 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 into my esophagus. Even now, I’m not sure there’s a way to accurately recount the experience without sounding dumb and hammy. I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it. Then I wanted it to inhabit me: I wanted to crack it into bits and use them as bones. I wanted it to keep playing forever, from somewhere deep inside my skull. This is how it often begins for collectors: with a feeling that music is suddenly opening up to you. That you’re getting closer to it—to blues feeling—than you’ve ever gotten before.

The aesthetic superiority of analog playback has been so thoroughly and aggressively trumpeted that it feels almost silly to talk about it now, but if you’re accustomed to low-quality MP3s, and if you primarily route them through your computer’s speakers or cheap headphones, listening to a vinyl record on a proper stereo is still something of a revelation. It’s luxurious rather than serviceable—like delicately consuming a fancy French chocolate when you’ve only ever gnawed on Hershey bars in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly.

Prewar 78s, though, are not particularly easy to relish, or at least not at first. Depending on the quality of the recording and the condition of the disc, there’s often a high and persistent background hiss. The melody might be fully obscured by a staticky sizzle that feels otherworldly and distant, like the song had been buried in the backyard and was now being broadcast from beneath six solid feet of dirt.

I’d heard “Big Leg Blues” before; in 1990, Yazoo Records had released a CD of the thirteen tracks Hurt recorded for the Okeh Electric Records Company in 1928, and I’d picked up a used copy at a local record store a few years earlier. Not only was I familiar with the song, I’d experienced an expert digital rendering of an actual 78. My reaction to hearing the 78 itself played four feet in front of me felt wild and disproportionate even as it was happening. I like to think that I was reacting to the song, and that the record was just a conduit, a vehicle of presentation. But I suspect I was also seduced by the ritual—by the sense of being made privy to something exclusive, something rare.

The record ended. Clutching my notebook to my chest, I tried to think of a professional-sounding thing to say. “Wow!” I yelled. Heneghan looked at me. I stared at my list of handwritten questions for a beat or two too long before finally asking him if he thought that, given technological advancements in the way music is disseminated and stored, record collecting was a dying art.

“I think it’s funny that you even call it an art,” he answered. “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 always thought I was really crazy, that there was something really wrong with me. Especially when I started collecting 78s, because I didn’t know anyone else who collected them, and I felt really isolated and weird,” he continued. “But then when I met guys like Crumb and Nevins, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, we’re all crazy.’ I’ve never met [another 78 collector] who wasn’t like, ‘This is sick, we’re all sick,’ ” he said. “When I finally gave in and started buying 78s, it was a conscious decision to embrace my sickness and do what I always wanted to do. It’s probably like when someone dabbles in drugs their whole life and finally decides to shoot heroin. There has to be something in your mind that says, ‘I give up.’

“If I really wanted a big house in the suburbs, I wouldn’t be able to buy records as often, if ever,” he conceded. “But the thing is, I don’t really want a house in the suburbs. I’m happy, which is a little bit of a problem.”


Heneghan and I kept in touch, and a few months later he invited me to a 78 listening party in his living room. On a gleaming afternoon in early May, I plodded down Second Avenue toward Heneghan’s apartment, toting a warm six-pack of Brooklyn Lager.

I was the first to arrive. As Heneghan handed me back a beer, he pointed out a new acquisition: a small, weathered banjo, signed in fading pencil by the 1920s folksinger Chubby Parker. The banjo was hung above Heneghan’s computer, alongside a framed headshot of Parker. A tiny silver star, inlaid deep in the instrument’s head, shined. It reminded me of a Christmas tree.

Heneghan explained that he had recently scored an extremely rare 78 of Parker’s “Davey Crockett” on eBay. Parker was one of the first performers to be featured regularly on Chicago’s National Barn Dance, itself a precursor to The Grand Ole Opry, but his legacy was middling at best, and he is mostly known, when he is known at all, for chirping goofy folk songs like “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now.” As was often the case, Heneghan was the only serious bidder. “When I first saw it on eBay, I had a weird panicky feeling,” he said. “This was it, this was the day I’d been waiting for. But you just don’t know. All it takes is one other person. I have my archenemies on eBay—I don’t know who they are, but their monikers haunt me. When I saw ‘Davey Crockett,’ I didn’t sleep that well for a week. I knew this was it—I was never gonna see it again. All my crazy friends saw it and knew that I wanted to get it and valiantly stayed away, and then they congratulated me when I got it.” He smiled.

Until Heneghan manages to locate a copy of Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman”—his Holy Grail—he placates himself with smaller victories like “Davey Crockett.” That may be all he ever gets. There are only three or four known copies of “Devil Got My Woman” remaining, two of which are so damaged as to be inconsequential. The song was recorded in February 1931 in Grafton, Wisconsin, for a small record label called Paramount Records. James created eighteen sides (or nine double-sided 78s) in Wisconsin that winter, but they were commercial nonstarters, and soon after, he quit playing blues music and became a choir director in his father’s church. James wouldn’t record again until the 1960s, when he was “rediscovered” in a county hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, by an enterprising trio of blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to come out of retirement. (“Well, that might be a good idea. Might be. But right now Skip is awful tired,” he was quoted as saying.) In 1964, a sixty-two-year-old James appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, and he continued to perform sporadically until his death in 1969. Because his records weren’t especially popular or very widely sold, few copies were made, and now, more than eighty years later, collectors have a slim-to-improbable shot at finding one in playable condition.

Still, “Devil Got My Woman” exists in infinite quantities in a remastered digital format and can be purchased instantly on iTunes for ninety-nine cents, thanks to the collector Richard Nevins, who possesses an original copy. As Nevins explained to me in an e-mail, almost any time anyone listens to “Devil Got My Woman,” regardless of the individual source, chances are good that the recording they’re hearing originated from his personal 78: “ ‘Devil Got My Woman’ was first reissued on LP in the 60s, and, like for almost all old 78s of backcountry music, no masters have survived,” he wrote. “I’d say that all reissues of this came from my copy, which is close to new and which previously belonged to [late Yazoo founder] Nick Perls. Many of the European labels that reissued this just dubbed it off the Yazoo release [1994’s The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James].”

“Devil Got My Woman” is meandering and almost structureless, composed of little more than a three-bar vocal phrase and variations on two guitar chords, which are embellished and augmented by vocal and instrumental flourishes. That’s the technical description. I can’t really explain the rest. His falsetto careens, soaring and plummeting as if it were powered by some unseen, disreputable force. “Aw, nothin’ but the devil changed my baby’s mind,” James whimpers over a bit of nefarious-sounding guitar. My favorite part of the 2001 film Ghost World—directed and adapted by the 78 devotee Terry Zwigoff—is when Enid, a recent high school graduate played by Thora Birch, asks Seymour, a 78 collector played by Steve Buscemi, if he has any more records like “Devil Got My Woman,” and Seymour looks back at her, duly appalled: “There are no other records like that!” he yelps. When Bob Dylan featured the track on his Theme Time Radio Hour, he introduced it by declaring, “Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the rail, magic in the grooves . . . rare and unusual, mysterious and vague, you won’t believe it when you hear.” “Devil Got My Woman” is so strange, so volatile and wraithlike, I can understand why James’s biographer Stephen Calt called the song “one of the most extraordinary feats of vocalizing found in blues song.” I can see why Heneghan has been consumed by it.

While we waited for the rest of his guests to arrive, Heneghan and I dipped crackers in the small tub of hummus he’d set out on his coffee table. I admired his walls, which were covered with framed pieces of sheet music, hung just inches apart to ensure maximum capacity. Heneghan was self-effacing about his collecting habit; he recognized the practice as maniacal and his interests as outmoded. Still, he fancied himself an amateur historian of sorts—which was not entirely unreasonable—and was also convinced that, on some level, having interesting stuff around made him a more interesting person. Ironically, it was a very twenty-first-century approach to identity: broadcasting in lieu of communicating.

“When people come to my apartment, some walk in and get really silent, and I can tell they think it’s creepy,” he said. “And I think, Okay, your house is like the Ikea catalog, and so my stuff seems really strange. But I’m a little uncomfortable when I go to someone’s house and it looks like the Ikea catalog. This is the most thought you could put into the stuff you want to be around?” he asked, his voice rising. “Give me that, give me A, B, C, and D, because they’re on the same page? To me, that’s why George Bush was president. That’s why everyone eats at McDonald’s.”

Even though he rarely framed it as such, collecting had clearly become, for Heneghan, a functional way of rebelling against mainstream culture. Like getting a tattoo or jamming a titanium post through your septum, packing your apartment with old records and sheet music was a semipublic way of establishing a countercultural identity, of rejecting a society that felt homogenized and unforgiving. Heneghan frequently spoke of collecting as a form of submission, as a way of giving in to basic urges and desires that other people stifled, and when he did, it wasn’t without a certain amount of pride.

Heneghan earned his cash as a freelance video technician, setting up cameras for television shows and concerts; when pressed, he gently grumbled about the artless nature of the gig. He was particularly disgusted by the extent to which backing tracks were employed by pop stars paid mounds of cash to sing their songs live. He considered the entire enterprise an epic charade: “It sounds like the album because you’re listening to the album,” he’d spit. When he wasn’t working, Heneghan was performing with Eden; together they comprised John and Eden’s East River String Band, a beguiling old-time outfit featuring John on guitar and Eden on ukulele and vocals. When they played, they sported period-appropriate garb and strummed antique instruments. (Heneghan collected old guitars, too.) Each time I saw them perform—at bars and small clubs downtown or in Brooklyn, mostly—they enthralled the room with their charmingly antiquated odd-couple rapport. That afternoon, Heneghan told me he’d been endeavoring to get their newest self-released album, Some Cold Rainy Day, issued on 180-gram vinyl with a gatefold cover, a cardboard sleeve that opens like a book. He ran into a snag when the kid who answered the phone at the pressing plant didn’t understand what “gatefold” meant. “I finally had to ask, How old are you? I told him to find the oldest person who worked there and to ask them.”

We ate some green grapes. A few minutes later, Heneghan buzzed in Sherwin Dunner, a jazz and blues collector who worked with Richard Nevins at Yazoo. He sat in a chair. “I notice that your Starkist lamp has a different shade than mine,” he said, surveying a Starkist tuna–brand promotional lamp perched on Heneghan’s bookshelf. He and Heneghan had identical carrying cases for their 78s, each marked with a little plaque that read MUSIC APPRECIATION RECORDS. Dunner set his box of records on the floor. The handle had been reinforced with duct tape. He had been amassing 78s for years, and, like Heneghan, understood collecting as a way of insulating oneself from a culture that was not always especially welcoming. “It’s the 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,” Dunner told me later.

Both Dunner and Heneghan were fervent, focused music fans with comprehensive knowledge of the various subgenres of early American music, and, accordingly, their collections were more functional than decorative. These records were not squirreled away in Plexiglas cases or sitting silent in locked boxes. They were handled with care, but they were handled—frequently and with enthusiasm, spun for friends and in private. Consequently, Heneghan had little interest in 78s that were so severely worn they no longer played properly. Both men also expressed deep vitriol for anyone who didn’t share a similar keenness for the music, like some of the more investment-minded 78 collectors who procured records because of their potential for financial appreciation. For Heneghan and Dunner, such fetishistic thinking failed to acknowledge the wealth inherent in the songs themselves.

“That’s a level of collecting that I despise,” Heneghan said. “The guys who just buy [a record] because it’s worth something and they’re speculating that it’s going to be worth more. But with something like 78s, there’s so few of them available in the first place, and if [Sherwin] gets a good record, I may be envious or whatever, but I don’t feel like, Oh, that’s so horrible. There are other people who get a record and it’s like, Well, that’ll just sit on a shelf. No one’s enjoying it, it’s out of circulation, no one can hear it. With some of these records, there are so few copies [remaining] that really, no one can hear it,” Heneghan seethed. “There’s just something really despicable about that mentality. Those people tend to be the most, you know, ‘That’s mine now, I got that before you could get it.’ ”

Heneghan, accordingly, is generous with his records. He is periodically approached about loaning songs to documentary films—he had just given Cleoma Breaux and Joseph Falcon’s “Fe Fe Ponchaux,” a Cajun song from 1929 of which he has one of the better known copies, to the BBC—and routinely posts requested tracks on his Facebook or MySpace page. If you manage to land an invitation to his home, he will play you anything you want to hear.

Three more guests arrived and settled into chairs. Dunner and Heneghan realized they owned two different 78s festooned with identical stickers foreswearing future commerce. In careful, handwritten block letters, someone had printed DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE and affixed it to each record’s label. Considering that both 78s were purchased (in separate transactions) with the stipulation already in place, only two scenarios made sense: the author had changed his mind, or—the more likely option—he was long gone, and his estate hadn’t been terribly concerned with his posthumous wishes for his precious discs.

I was subsumed by a strange gratitude, just then, for that faceless person and his little white stickers, for his vehemence, for his commitment to music as a thing to work for and revere and treasure and save, till death do you part. And even then, a desperate posthumous incantation, a plea: DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE. It felt poetic. It felt certain.

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. Whether that happiness actually manifested itself at the end of the quest didn’t necessarily matter—I believed in all those old, insipid chestnuts about the journey trumping the destination, about the process being more important than the product.

I realized then it was about the knowing, and the wanting.

Revue de presse

“One of the best things I've read about that inexplicably, but endlessly, fascinating group of people, the so-called Serious Collectors of 78s. Petrusich burrows into not just their personalities but the hunger that unites and drives their obsessions. She writes elegantly, and makes you think, and most important,manages to hang onto her skepticism in the midst of her own collecting quest.” (John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of "Pulphead")

“This is an adventure story: Amanda in the Land of MagicalShellac. Petrusich, a warm and witty writer and longtime music journalist,encounters the eccentric, soulful characters who've devoted their lives thearcane practice of hunting old records, shares stories of great lost musicians,and ponders the philosophical issues that make collecting more than just afancy version of hoarding. Readers will be delighted to become her confidanteson this life-changing journey.” (Ann Powers, author of "Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America")

"I don't know hillbilly from Blind Willie, but I loved Amanda Petrusich's archaeology of an almost-lost world of American music. Do Not Sell at Any Price is like a well-loved 78: it pops, it crackles, it seduces utterly." (Ken Jennings, author of "Maphead")

“This is American history as the tale of an American obsession—the record collectors, be they scholars, scroungers, hoarders, or heroes. In this brilliant book, Petrusich hits the road with these junk-shop blues Ahabs around the country—she makes you feel the frenzy of the chase, on a crazed, loving quest to rescue lost music from oblivion.” (Rob Sheffield, author of "Love Is a Mix Tape" and "Turn Around Bright Eyes")

"Amanda Petrusich’s fascinating and insightful journey into the arcane netherworld of 78 records and its bring-‘em-back-alive collectors brims with the joy and passion of discovery, along with a heartfelt affection for those who keep alight the flame of our musical heritage." (Lenny Kaye, guitarist, "Nuggets" anthologist, author "You Call It Madness")

“Petrusich enters the dusty realms of 78 rpm record junkies, and like Rolling Stones chronicler Stanley Booth, catches her subjects' disease. But she's mostly interested in the emotional heart of things, and the old music's strange power. An entertaining road tale and moving self-interrogation that dives deep for answers, sometimes literally.” (Will Hermes, author of "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire")

“Do Not Sell at Any Price tracks generations of obsessive collectors who dedicated their lives to the holy grail of blues and country music—78rpm records. Inspired by collectors like R. Crumb and Harry Smith, Amanda Petrusich wants each record ‘to keep playing forever, from somewhere deep inside my skull.’ Her book is essential reading for all who love American music.” (William Ferris, author of "Blues from the Delta" and "The Storied South")

"An engaging and deeply personal journey, for both the writer and her subjects, and an adroit disquisition on the nature of this distinctly American form of insatiable lust." (Kirkus Reviews)

“[A] thoughtful, entertaining history of obsessed music collectors and their quest for rare early 78 rpm records…Fascinating.” (Los Angeles Times)

“Ms. Petrusich goes on a pilgrimage to see and hear firsthand the legendary holdings of the top collectors…[she] brings a discerning eye to her profiles.” (Wall Street Journal)

“[Petrusich] weaves her interviews with personalobservations and just the right amount of dry humor to make us feel as if we’relooking (and listening) over her shoulder as she travels up and down the EastCoast…a propulsive read." (Denver Post)

“Do Not Sell enticingly chronicles [Petrusich’s] immersion in a subset of record collectors…Her compelling, finely drawn portraits such as James McKune and Harry Smith amount to a rich study.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“Captivating…Whether you’re already a 78 aficionado, a casual record collector, a crate-digger, or just someone like me who enjoys listening to music, you’re going to love this book…Elegant and witty.” (Slate)

"Do Not Sell at Any Price is full of little epiphanies ... [Petrusich's] persistence pays off in the form of stories and observations that humanize the collectors and their pursuit ... [Petrusich] effectively uses the prism of her personal experience to analyze the aesthetics of collecting, consuming and enjoying music." (New York Times)

"A profound rumination on the idea of recording, asking what it means to capture sound, to be moved by it, and ultimately, to obsess over it. With “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” we have an astounding new writer not of musical criticism but of longform narrative prose. When Petrusich writes about music, she is akin Keats writing about a Greek vase: She is telling us what it means to be human beings adrift in time." (Baltimore City Paper)

"In this entertaining book about the finite universe of oddballs who scrounge frantically to collect the shellac fossils the rest of us consider worthless, you get all the joy of discovery without having to grub through boxes at garage sales.... Petrusich proves an engaging, frequently funny tour guide." (The Boston Globe)

"Full of strange, even beautiful, tales of obsession....Even someone who knows little or nothing about 78s will find Petrusich's book an incredibly enjoyable read." (Fine Books Magazine)

"A wise, entertaining study of 78 rpm collectors.... Petrusich writes beautifully." (The Wire Magazine)

"Exquisitely offbeat experiment in embedded journalism." (Chicago Tribune)

“Petrusich wisely and insightfully goes beyond just documenting these collectors’ peculiarities, as she also traces the history of early American recordings and their legacy in contemporary music. Perhaps most powerfully, the book serves as a treatise on the act of collecting itself, probing the psychological, social, and cultural implications arising from these pursuits of passion.” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

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  • Format : Format Kindle
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  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 289 pages
  • Editeur : Scribner; Édition : Reprint (8 juillet 2014)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) HASH(0x8f2f7678) étoiles sur 5 66 commentaires
36 internautes sur 39 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8f1129d8) étoiles sur 5 78 collectors obsessive? - apparently very much! 12 juillet 2014
Par Bryan Case - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
A very interesting book about the cabal-like world of 78rpm collectors, the records they collect, and the music that obsesses them.

The author, Amanda Petrusich, is an engaging and capable writer. Had I not been interested in the subject, her enthusiasm would likely have sparked my interest.

As an inveterate collector and listener of 78s, I was particularly intrigued by this book. I also love reading about collectors - so it's the perfect book, right? Well, almost (more below). Although I was largely familiar with the cast of characters and a fair number of the stories, I still found her retellings interesting. I discovered many little nuggets of information I was heretofore unaware, and a few clarifications that were very helpful.

However, I do have a couple small gripes. There were a few personal digressions that added little to the narrative and sometimes got in the way. In particular, the section about her journey to troll the Milwaukee River to find long discarded 78s from the Paramount Records pressing plant in Grafton, Wisconsin. The idea was clever - sort of George Plimptonesque - but there was too much of a narrative detour, especially considering she came up empty. I found myself skimming/skipping several pages until the story got back on track. There's a trend I've noticed among some younger writers, to occasionally insert too much of themselves in the story. A little adds context and a personal touch to the story, but too much is a distraction.

Also - I was hoping to hear more biographical detail from members of the so-called blues mafia, particularly Bernard Klatzko and Pete Whelan (whose 78 Quarterly was a wonderful publication). She did a fantastic job with James McKune, however.

So, should you buy this book? If you have any interest in prewar music, then YES. If you are 78 collector, another big YES. If you are a record collector - YES again. If any of this seems even a little intriguing - a final YES. Especially if you are under 40 (or 30) and don't know what a Victrola is. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the music of the early 20th century!
21 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8f112cb4) étoiles sur 5 It's About Longing 5 août 2014
Par Carol Peckham - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
The best way to read Amanda Petrusich's wonderful book Do not Sell at Any Price is with a computer or smart device at your side, open to YouTube. Without this, the experience may not be as deep or rich and most likely you might not fully understand the emotional layers involved in the arcane activity of collecting 78 rpms, those dark shellacked discs, preceding LPs and 45s, which changed forever the way that people listened to music. When I was kid, we had a wind-up Victrola and I guess more than one 78, but all I remember was "Italian Spring Song" on the first side and "Tales from Hoffman" on the flip. Even then, the recording was old and the voices scratchy but haunting, weirdly high and flat, like musical ghosts circling the room, urging attention from the living. My sister and I must have played this record a hundred times. So I was already willing to accompany Petrusich while she explored this medium, its history, its eccentric community of collectors, and above all the jazz and blues artists of the late 20s and early 30s who sang and strummed into microphones for exploitive businessmen in crude early recording studios and for earnest folklorists on their own porches.
I started listening to the songs she noted in the book when she was interviewing Chris King, a 78 collector and one of her best sources of knowledge on this subject. He played Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Words Blues" and Blind Uncle Gaspard's "Sur le Borde de l'Eau", which the author described as "arguably two of the saddest, strangest songs ever recorded." I knew I had to listen to these songs, and although the YouTube experience is not that of a 78, I bought into Petrusich's response (and also bought both on ITunes). It took me four days to finish this rather short book, stopping to hear, among many other songs, Skip James' "Devil Got my Woman", Kid Bailey (or Willie Brown) singing "Mississippi Bottom Blue", Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere" and "Some of These Days I'll Be Gone," and even the mournful Albanian "Lament from Epirus", the popular African song "Skotiaan", and the strange Asian sound of the cowboy throat singer.
The reader follows Petrusich, a reporter and music critic, as her subjective involvement in the subject takes on an equal role with the objective. In fact, the essential pleasure of this book is her ability to balance both sides of her involvement, resulting in a self-deprecating but highly observant and often very funny narrative of the eccentric collector subculture and the important body of work they preserved and saved.
In the process of meeting the collectors themselves, Petrusich tries to find some common psychological ground for their obsession with these round heavy shellacked objects, sometimes regardless of the music on them and often at the expense of their own personal relationships and physical well being. She is never judgmental, however, particularly as she increasingly shares their passion.
Petrusich's peripatetic search for collectors and collections took her to the South, the Midwest, Germany, a terrifying winter ride through the mountains of Virginia, and, best of all, a course in scuba diving so she could rummage in the silt of the Milwaukee River in hopes of finding 78s dumped after the close of Paramount Records. Originally a chair company, Paramount began making wooden phonograph cabinets and subsequently produced LPs that might attract buyers to the machine. The company executive discovered that "race records" were an untapped market, so he built a ramshackle recording studio and filled it with unknown jazz and blues musicians who didn't charge much.
At the end of the book, she recounts the recent resurgence in interest of LPs, including a popular DJ who performed at a New York party using 78s borrowed from the New York Library, while "young people milled about, drinking artisanal cocktails, scratching their beards, readjusting their skirts.' Petrusich finds herself "fiercely protective of a subculture I had no real claim to...I wanted 78s to continue offering me-- and all the people I'd met -- a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world."
However, I am glad that these 78s and the music they make are back in whatever manifestation they make take. The songs on those scratchy records, played and sung by musicians who died without recognition, inspired the folk and rock musicians of the 60s to use their words and chords as background for the movements that revolutionized American political and cultural thought. As an old woman, a child of the sixties, listening to those blues once again reasserting themselves back into the present, I am hopeful that this deep and essential music will resonate once again with the young, and remind them that the expression of suffering is worth listening to for its fundamental joy, and that it can be transformative.
This book is a palimpsest of layers defined by longing: the longing of collectors for objects; the longing to revive the sustaining music of raw artistry, and the terrible longing of the musicians themselves, open to the universe, without filter in their expression of pain and pleasure.
I am so grateful for this book. Thanks Amanda.
13 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Par Stuart Jefferson - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
If you like the "old, weird" music from an America now long gone--like Harry Smith's "The Anthology of American Folk Music", "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" (plus the sequel "The Return Of..."), and all the various box sets collecting early country blues and other then contemporary music--you will find this book of interest.

It's simply one person's attempt to search out and begin to understand why (and who are) these people who collect old 78 RPM records with a detective's zeal and sometimes deep pockets. You'll come across collectors who are pure collectors--never paying much for a dirty, dusty, easily breakable shellac covered piece of history. Or others who buy low and sell high. But they all have one thing in common, to find these records before they disappear forever. What information the author gleans from her subjects is told in a witty, easy to read style.

The book isn't perfect. The portion where the author, Amanda Petrusich, learns to scuba dive in order to search a river for old metal stampers or records themselves takes up too much space. But it's when she talks about going on a hunt with a longtime collector to a dirty, greasy swap meet in search of 78 RPM treasures where the book becomes interesting. Or her descriptions of some of the more (relatively) notable collectors (a difficult feat), the artists, the record labels, and her descriptions of hearing some of these long lost recordings for the first time that makes this book eminently readable. Some of these collectors are very private, "quirky", and sometimes suspicious of other collectors or anyone interested in what they collect. But Petrusich goes behind the surface and gives the reader at least some idea of why these people do what they do with such a fervent passion.

Another interesting chapter is when Petrusich goes in search of original 78 RPM records from Harry Smith's collection. Smith put together "The Anthology of American Folk Music" set (now reissued by the Smithsonian) and if you've never heard this collection of music from the years 1927-1932 you need to. If you like "American music", this is it. It's revered by many well known musicians for giving them insight into different musical forms. Smith's choice of, and the recordings themselves, have a strange kind of wild magic about them. It's haphazard in contents--certainly not all-encompassing--but what's there you need to hear. And it's a sometimes strange listening experience, because I too had this happen to me, as related in the book--"'s the weirdest thing, every time you listen to think, 'Wait, was that song there before?'". It has that kind of an effect. But if you don't own this collection you're music library has a hole in it. Check it out.

I found myself liking this book the more I got into it. If you're a music collector or a deep music lover (like me) you'll recognize the feelings generated by the collectors in the book. The thrill of finding a long lost 78 RPM treasure, and the agony of your hopes dashed when your search is in vain and you come away empty handed. So if you find something special in hearing some old scratchy Paramount recordings (now issued on CD) or anything else that (usually) sounds like it was dragged over rocks and through the dirt, this book will give you a pretty good look into what it's all about.
19 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8f112f6c) étoiles sur 5 2 or 3 stars 8 août 2014
Par Jason Kirkfield - Publié sur
Format: Relié
It would be the epitome of snark to title this review, Do Not Buy At Any Price. The book isn't quite that bad, but it isn't very good, either.

This should have been a compelling read. The subject matter could have been lifted from an episode of the popular series American Pickers or Hoarders. As humans, we tend to hoard worthless junk, all the while looking through other people's junk for buried treasure.

Unfortunately, when presented with an opportunity to profile a slice of collecting nirvana--early 20th century blues records--Petrusich opts instead for a meandering storyline which is not always compelling nor entirely educational. With few exceptions (notably Chris King and Joe Bussard), the characterizations are shallow. Ultimately, what we get here is a story that is at times more about the author than it is her subjects. I think this may be due to her own background in music criticism, where a reviewer judges how he or she is affected by the music. I also disagree with Petrusich on what she calls subjective curating. I believe *all* curating is subjective, that any collection necessarily reflects the biases and personality of its collector.

The best bits in this book are when the author quotes other people.

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard on collecting: "It is invariably oneself that one collecs."

Writer Donovan Hohn in Harper magazine on the collectibility (or lack thereof) of a new-in-box ink-jet printer: "[It had] already passed into that limbo of worthlessness that exists between novelty and nostalgia."

One of the author's best turns, in explaining why Paramount records were often low-fidelity: "Wisconsin stone is good for lots of things, but not for being ground up and crushed into blues records."

This book should have been an elbows-deep excursion into the physical and psychological debris of basement-dwelling record collectors. Instead, it reads like a compilation of not-necessarily-linear magazine articles. The scuba episode starting in Chapter 6 was particularly out of place. I hoped the search might come to fruition or at least dovetail with the rest of the narrative, but it does neither. The end of the book just sort of happens. Disappointing.

Compare this to the captivating story of another record hunt, for the lost 45 of Stormy Weather. The long article, originally published in the L.A. Times (link in Comments section below) and subsequently collected in Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader, sets the wonderful scene of Slim Rose's Times Square Records and the eponymous "Slim." That piece of writing offers both contextual history and a compelling treasure hunt storyline.

I liked the chapter titles (all soundbites from people in the book), but the chapter topics are much less appealing. Why ruin the suspense and literary tension? I remember encountering such an "outline" feature in Crazy River from Free Press, another Simon & Schuster imprint.

[The reviewer was provided with a complimentary copy of the book. The juxtaposition of the ARC's "Not For Sale" banner and the book's own "Do Not Sell" title was amusing.]
24 internautes sur 33 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8f12148c) étoiles sur 5 Great Subject Served... Not Entirely Well 29 juillet 2014
Par Rondo KV 511 - Publié sur
Format: Relié
First, credit the author for choosing a remarkable subject. The mini-profiles of various collectors are, for the most part, decent, though a lot less food chat and a lot more social history would have served Petrusich well. Whether or not one likes Petrusich after reading this book is definitely a matter of taste.

While she evinces curiousity about her subjects, she's often quite patronizing (I won't deign to repeat her banal insults cum "jokes") and, with little to no concomitant sense of self-critical humor, the tone gets irritating.

Most crucially, however, is Petrusich's superficial grasp of history-- including cultural history, i.e. music (for all her many gratuitous references to "Brooklyn," she seems wholly unaware of the vast amount of 78 RPM recordings made in nearby Manhattan; Long Island City, Queens; Camden, NJ)-- and the HUGE blank spots and errors that result.

I'll simply note three examples; I wasn't paid to edit nor factcheck the manuscript and won't pretend do so here.

1) "In the 1920s, races records typically sold around five thousand copies each; a hit record would move twenty to fifty thousand units."

Question: what does she mean by "typical"?

Think about that number: 5000, and remember that race records were sold, as far as we know, almost exclusively to black folks whose 1930 population was 11,792,593, or 9.7% of the total U.S. population (source: 1930 Census).

Take a zero away from 5000 and I think we're MUCH closer to the 'typical' truth-- this is important because there was vast number of "race" recordings and only X # of big hits, many of those by women blues singers. Since this book is, in large part, predicated on the erstwhile "rarity" of certain records, a firmer grasp of the early 20th century record business and relevant U.S. demographics wouldn't be remiss.

Note: Petrusich offers no source for her statement.

2) "Like [Charley] Patton, [Skip] James had never been reissued before [Pete] Whelan thought to do it."

FALSE. This statement is in reference to Pete Whelan-compiled "Really! The Country Blues" anthology of 1962, which was the first ** LP ** to reissue a Skip James recording.

Towards the end of 1940s, the tiny Chicago record label, S.D.-- co-founded by record collectors, John Steiner and Hugh Davis-- issued a 78 RPM record with Skip's "Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues" on one side, with pianist Jabbo Williams' "Fat Mama Blues" on the other.

Given this book's subject, this is NOT a trivial matter and, indeed, it helps clarify the often shadowy path of musical rediscovery, in this case of the now revered Paramount label. That S.D. was almost entirely a JAZZ label is likewise important, because it was jazz collectors who were at forefront of figuring these things out. It's easy, perhaps, to criticize jazz collectors for small-mindedness and the riches they left behind but...

Meanwhile, S.D. not only "thought" to reissue Skip James back then, they actually did it; surely this should not have remained unknown to the author?

Lastly, yhere's a silly scene near the end of this book placed at now closed J&R Music World.

Petrusich must have gone during their admittedly pathetic, duplicitous 2014 death spiral but for DECADES-- perhaps for as long as Petrusich has been alive (certainly longer than she's been studying music history)-- J&R was a phenomenal resource for nearly all music (including classical, blues, cajun, old-timey, 'ethnic', you-name-it), old and new-- including the estimable blues calendars (+ CD) of John Tefteller whom Petrusich writes about. (What "indie"-centric NYC store can claim likewise?)

Instead, we get this: "... J&R Music World, a hulking relic of an electronics store in downtown Manhattan, across from City Hall. Opened in 1971, J&R used to sell records. Now, walking through the ground floor, I grimaced at a few unertrafficked racks of compact discs and shelves of dusty-looking computer accessories."

Which is so so so SO far from decades of reality one has to take everything else the author writes with appropriate skepticism.

Read also, instead: Nick Tosches "Country" and "Where Dead Voices Gather"; Mary Beth Hamilton "In Search of the Blues"; Stephen Calt "I'd Rather Be The Devil"; everything by R. Crumb; all liner notes by Don Kent and Pat Conte; "Cat On A Hot Thin Groove" by Gene Deitch etc etc.

Listen and read the notes to every Archeophone label 'yearbook' CD, something I highly suspect Petrusich did NOT do or else she could not maintain so many parochial views on history, memory, collecting, the totemic power of sound qua sound etc.

1917: "Yankees to the Ranks"

1920: Even Water's Getting Weaker

Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1891-1922
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