Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 21 Mar 2021

Rereading Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich

I have returned to a book I last reviewed here on Letterpress in October 2017, Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price. Inadvertently, that is. 2017 seems a lifetime ago and I wrote the new review below having completely forgotten the earlier coverage. Nonetheless, two somewhat different accounts may be of interest to someone.

Before EPs, before LPs, before tape cassettes and mini-disc recorders, before compact discs and more than a century before digital streaming, music and speech came pressed on fragile 78rpm records made from brittle and often adulterated shellac. Played on brutally primitive wind-up phonographs, 78rpm records were ubiquitous. They were often played in what might be regarded as hostile environments for records – rural communities, in developing countries, on picnics and boat trips and at parties. In short, the early technology of music-playback was ideally suited to any location where  a desire for music existed but no electricity.

The invention of the vinyl long-playing vinyl record in the late-1950s largely swept aside 78s, although the technology did continue in some parts of the world well into the 1970s. (I recently came across a video of a Bangkok DJ playing rural music from Thailand and everything he plays is on 78rpm records.) Generally though, 78rpm records disappeared in their countless millions – typically along with the original recordings and the metal parts used to press the records. It all disappeared into the void. Consequently, much of what is now recognised as essential in the history of recorded music – the pre-war rural blues canon from the American south, hillbilly and mountain music, bluegrass, laments, work songs, indeed, much of the music of the rural poor almost right around the world – only exists because fanatical collectors have hunted down original 78s and in many cases been central to researching and resurrecting the music.

This, essentially, is the subject of Do Not Sell at Any Price and parts of it are utterly fascinating. I say parts of it, because there are a few caveats. Perhaps in order to ensure something for everyone, Petrusich casts a wide net and comes at the subject from a variety of different angles. Not all of these succeed. Whether male (and of course it is mainly male) collecting has a neurobiological foundation couldn't interest me less. Similarly, I found the description of Petrusich learning to scuba dive so that she could scour a riverbed where excess 78s may have been disposed of in the 1930s stretched my patience. And Petrusich began her writing career as a music journalist and this shows in a rather strange over-descriptive journalese that a more rigorous editing would have addressed.

But these quibbles don't detract from the overall merits of the book. It is a story that has been waiting to be told. From the early collectors in the US in the 1940s, to happy souls such as Joe Bussard who in the 50s, 60s and 70s toured the southern states of the US buying up thousands of now impossibly rare jazz, blues and country music 78s, to collectors such as the frankly disturbed Harry Smith, whose collecting eventually resulted in the Smithsonian Institute Anthology of American Folk Music, considered by many to be not just a foundation stone in the history of recorded music but also having underlying occult purpose that only Smith understood. He died in 1991 in abject poverty in the Chelsea Hotel in New York aged just 68.

The story comes right up to date with the inclusion of younger contemporary collectors, such as Lance Ledbetter, who with his wife April founded the Dust-to-Digital reissue label, Jonathan Ward, who set up Excavated Shellac to showcase some of the rarest world music on 78s, and Nathan Salsburg, whose compilation Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard on the award-winning Tompkins Square label, showcases 1920s and 30s country and gospel music from his own huge collection of 78s. The list goes on.

Like any truly interesting sub-culture, the world of 78 collectors is richly disputatious, bitterly competitive and peopled by some resoundingly strange oddballs and outsiders. But if you have ever wondered what life in such a world might be like, then this is the book for you. And along the way you’ll encounter a number of genuinely interesting debates – for example, why the established rural blues canon looks the way it does. It helped kick-start a British and eventually global blues boom in the 1960s, as rock musicians such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant began to discover the first imported vinyl reissues of legendary bluesmen. But is it a representative canon? Does it reflect ‘the blues’ as they were sung on front porches and plantations and freight trains in the early years of the twentieth century? The answer, of course, is no. It is a canon that at least in part has been influenced – some might even say deformed – by rarity: the more fabulously rare the records, the higher they have ascended in the canon. And of course, almost without exception, the most influential collectors of this black music have been white men. But that’s an argument for another day, perhaps.

With the slight quibbles I have noted, Do Not Sell at Any Price offers a splendid window onto a very strange world indeed and ensures hours of reading pleasure into the bargain. And for those so-inclined, it will almost certainly prompt hours of listening pleasure too. In many ways it is a perfect lockdown book.


Alun Severn

March 2021