The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s 78 rpm Records
(Scribner, Simon &Schuster, 2014)
By Amanda Petrusich
While researching a story about the commercial resurgence of vinyl records for Spin magazine Amanda Petrusich asked to speak to record collectors who would respond on the record. Mike Lupica, a DJ and the director of WFMU Record Fair, slipped her collector, John Henegan’s number, and warned: “These 78 guys are another level.”
Through plucky investigative reporting and encounters with the world’s foremost record collectors, Petrusich learned, “they come in all shapes and sizes, lead challenging full-time jobs, romantic partners, pleasant social lives, and functional wardrobes.” She also learned they often view themselves as outsiders, underdogs, discoverers, and preservationists, helping to save and digitize music that gave rise to the blues, country, jazz, and gospel.
Petrusich introduces readers to collectorsJohn Henegan, Christopher King, Harry Smith, Big Joe Clauberg, Jack Whistane, Sherwin Dunner, John Tefteller, James McKune, and Jonathon Ward and lost backwood blues artists Geeshie Wiley, Blind Uncle Gaspard, Charly Patton, Lemon Jefferson, Paul Miles, and his Red Fox Chasers, Long Cleeve Reed, Little Harvel Hull, and the Down Home Boys to name a few.
If you’ve ever collected anything, the writings of the French sociologist and professor Jean Baudrillard might ring a psychological bell. Notably, the essay “The System of Collecting.” According to Baudrillard, “It is Invariably oneself that one collects. “The collection, with all its attendant pieces, is a complex, multi-faceted statement of self, and the worth of each component is determined by how it interacts with and complements its neighbors. If a particular part of the collection is absent, then a part of the collector is also missing.
“What I’d hope for, at least at first, was to tell the story of a strange, misunderstood community, why the work mattered so much, what was at stake, how it got done. Eventually, I started to want what they wanted,” says Petrusich. So much so, she acquires a scuba certification for the sole purpose of scouring the Milwaukee River (where a record plant once stood) in search of discarded 78s. She comes up empty but her actions are in line with the lengths some collectors will go to acquire a rare record.
On the surface, Do Not Sell at Any Price is about music and collectors but, it’s also a fascinating story about preservation, loss, obsession, and art.
Amanda Petrusich regularly contributes to Pitchfork, The Oxford American, and the New York Times. She is the author of If It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, The Search for the Next American Music, and Nick Drakes Pink Moon (33 1/3 series).