I’ve long been an admirer of the writings of Amanda Petrusich: she’s an excellent chronicler of musicians who draw inspiration from decades- (or centuries-) old traditions and make them sound fresh and vital. Her new book, Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, takes that into a new dimension, focusing on a particular group of record collectors, their obsessions and practices, and the effects that they’ve had on musical history and documentation. It’s also partially a documentation of Petrusich’s own immersion and participation in this culture, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, educational and entertaining in equal measure. I caught up with her via email to learn more about the process of researching and writing Do Not Sell At Any Price.
At what point when researching 78 collectors did you realize that this was a subject that would be best served by a book?
Do Not Sell… was preceded by a magazine story – a news-y front-of-book thing for Spin about the commercial resurgence of vinyl records – and then a profile, in 2011, of a 78 collector named John Heneghan for the New York Times. A lot of nonfiction writers I know do some version of this – you sort of test the ice a little bit. Is there a book here? Does the center hold? For me, there were so many parts to the story – it’s about an oddball subculture, but it’s also about longing and obsession and desire, and art and preservation and love, in a way – I was really craving the space and time to stretch out, to unpack all those things and what they mean. Time was a big part of it, too. It took me awhile to even begin to understand these records and these men. Luckily, I had two years to do that work.
You detail the ways in which collectors have pursued 78s, including searching in bodies of water near pressing plants. What has been the most extreme way of searching for lost records that you’ve encountered?
Well, I went scuba diving in the Milwaukee River. Years before me, a collector named John Tefteller sent a postcard to every resident within a fifty-mile radius of Grafton, Wisconsin – where a blues label named Paramount Records was based in the 1920s and 30s – and then sat in a hotel room at a Best Western waiting for someone to call him and say that they had old records in their attic to sell. There are stories of guys getting jobs as exterminators so they could go door-to-door in the south, knocking, asking if your house needed spraying for termites and also, “Got any old records?” A blues researcher in Texas got a gig as a Census taker just so he had an excuse to knock on people’s doors and peek around. But the most extreme repercussions of collecting, and this likely applies to collecting anything, are quieter and less obvious. You know, being overcome by that kind of longing, it changes a person. It can affect your personal relationships in serious ways.
What has the reaction been from the collectors profiled in Do Not Sell at Any Price to the book’s release?
The ones I’ve talked to about it have been very kind! I get a lot of notes from collectors who recognize themselves in its pages, who find something funny or true or familiar there. Still, I’m sure there are plenty who find it incredibly annoying – me parachuting in and drawing conclusions about their world. But ultimately, it’s not a book for collectors, although of course I do hope they like it. It’s very much for a general audience who maybe doesn’t even know what a 78 is yet. It’s also a very, very personal book. It’s written in the first person, and it’s more about me than anyone else – me working out my relationship to the music I love.
A point that you make here, and that John Jeremiah Sullivan also made in his recent New York Times Magazine piece, is the way that collectors often possess culturally significant works–sometimes the only copy left available. Has there been a particular record that’s struck you as the most vital or important work to be discovered in recent years?
This is a tough one. There are recently discovered records that feel vital to me – that have changed my perspective in one way or another. In 2005, someone found what I think is still the only known copy of Son House’s “Mississippi County Farm Blues” / “Clarksdale Moan,” which was recorded for Paramount in 1930. John Tefteller owns that record now; I think it was dug up at a thrift store somewhere near Philadelphia. That song just devastates me. And it could have so easily not survived. It nearly didn’t!
When writing Do Not Sell at Any Price, did you generally listen the music that you were writing about, or did you need to separate the subject from the process?
I did, yeah. For the most part, serious 78 collectors are not terribly interested in contemporary music, and by “contemporary” I mean anything recorded after, say, 1950. I love pre-war vernacular recordings – it’s the music I listen to the most, probably – but there are times when I would get frustrated with the whole thing and start to crave something very much of my time. I’d put on a Kendrick Lamar record and go stomping around.
In addition to Do Not Sell at Any Price, you’ve written two other books: It Still Moves and a 33 1/3 on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Do you find any thematic overlap between the three?
All of those books are about searching, in a way. They’re all quest stories. I think that’s present in almost everything I write, for better or worse.
Do you have an idea of what your fourth book will be about?
Man, I hope I get to do another book! But I have no idea what it will be about yet. A person looking at my Instagram might think I am researching a book on cats right now.
You wrote about how you became a collector yourself. What are the highlights from purchases you’ve made since completing the book?
I have a Washington Phillips 78, a song called “Denomination Blues,” that I found in Wisconsin. It’s such a sweet and transporting song, and pretty rare record, too – although not nearly as rare as many of the blues 78s featured in the book. It’s my favorite piece in my collection right now.
Are there any recent compilations or collections of newly-discovered 78s that you’d recommend?
Yazoo’s The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of and The Return of the Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of are both incredible, and if you’re interested in collecting, the liner notes to those are a very fun read. Nathan Salsburg, one of the collectors featured in the book, put together a compilation in 2012 called Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time, and End Time Music 1923-1936, sourced primarily from a bunch of 78s he found in a dumpster in Louisville, Kentucky, and it’s just insanely good. Chris King, another collector from the book, most recently produced a collection of Albanian laments from a violinist named Alexis Zoumbas, called Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus 1926-1928, that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. That’s the real joy of 78 collecting, I suppose. There’s so much music out there that remains undiscovered.