With almost all the music you'd ever want to listen to available online digitally, the obsessive hunt for scratchy, fragile 78 RPM records may seem anachronistic. But author Amanda Petrusich says that those early records, which hold between two and three minutes of music per side, showcase the sound and spontaneity of a time before second takes were common in record studios.
"There was a red light that could come on in the studio often when a performer was sort of reaching the end of his or her three minutes. So on a lot of these records, you can hear someone sort of start to hurry up and panic when the light came on [indicating] that they had to finish up," Petrusich tells Fresh Air producer Sam Briger. "Then the record just kind of went out into the world that way."
In her new book, Do Not Sell At Any Price, Petrusich writes about the extreme measures music collectors take in pursuit of rare 78 RPM records. Some, she says, have been known to take jobs specifically because they allow access to strangers' basements, where rare records may be collecting dust.
"You would hear stories of collectors getting jobs like census worker or exterminator — jobs that would allow them to wander through rural Southern neighborhoods," she says. "They could knock on doors and ask people if they had any records in their basements. 'Do you need to be sprayed for termites, and do you have any records in your basement?'"
On the rare 1931 recording of Devil Got My Woman by Skip James
Devil Got My Woman is one of those records that I think people hear it and have an incredibly immediate and sort of dramatic reaction to it. There's a kind of great scene in the movie Ghost World, which features 78 collectors, which are also featured in my book, in which a character, a young woman (played by Thora Birch), is talking to a collector about Devil Got My Woman ... and she says, "I want to hear more records like that." And he looks at her and says, "There aren't any more records like that." For me, that's kind of a perfect encapsulation of the strange and haunting beauty of that song.
On what makes 78 records different
78s are kind of the earliest iteration of what we think of as a record today. They were introduced around the turn of the century, and they are 10-inch flat-grooved shellacked discs that spun at around 78 revolutions per minute, hence the name. They were double-sided; each side contained about two to three minutes of music, and they are extraordinarily fragile. They were produced in finite quantities because home recording equipment was not nearly as common as it is today, so they weren't making as many. But they also have not survived, in part because they are really easy to break. They are heavy and they are brittle. If you drop one on the floor at the wrong angle, it will just shatter into pieces like a dinner plate. It requires a particular kind of stylus, which is a little bit different from a contemporary stylus — it's thicker and, of course, you need to find yourself a turntable that spins at 78 RPM in order to play them. They were mostly phased out by the 1960s, but you can still find quite a few of them around at junk shops and antique malls.
On how the 78s were made of organic materials, such as wax or shellac
It's cool to think about how organic they are. In part, that's contributed to their decay over time, of course, but there is something about the material itself and the way that a particular 78 sort of wears its history on the face and in the grooves, because they're malleable and they are fragile and they change depending on how they're played and how many times they've been played and whether there was a slope in the floorboard in the room where the phonograph was, whether people were dancing while the record was spinning. There's something really nice about that material history getting kind of etched into the song itself — which, of course, is something that's very difficult to experience with a digital audio file.
On how many records were made for African-American audiences
These records were almost all part of the "race records" series, which were records recorded by African-American performers for African-American audiences. That was something that started happening in the '20s, and I think it was a very mercenary impulse in a way on behalf of the record companies. It wasn't an idea that, "Oh, here's this kind of undiscovered art that people should hear. No one is hearing African-American singers, no one is hearing those songs. They should be commercially released." I don't think it was that at all. It was that suddenly it seemed like that maybe there was a chance to make a little bit of money, and so many labels — including Paramount Records, which is based out of Grafton, Wisconsin — launched these race records series. They cast a very wide net and I think accidentally ended up recording what are, to my ears, some of the greatest performances in American musical history. But they weren't curated. It was fortuitous and serendipitous, and I feel very grateful that it happened at all.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. With almost all the music you'd ever want to listen to available online digitally for little or no money at all, depending on your scruples, the obsessive hunt for scratchy, fragile 78 records may seem anachronistic. But the collectors of 78s who ferret around dusty basements, attics and junk sales have saved so much great music from oblivion, we have a lot to thank them for. Those collectors and the music they found is the subject of the book "Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 RPM Records," which has recently been published in paperback.
Our guest is the author, Amanda Petrusich. She met with many prominent 78 collectors, went out on the hunt for records with them and got bitten by the 78-collecting bug herself. Petrusich is a contributing writer for the music website Pitchfork and a contributing editor to Oxford American. She also teaches music criticism at NYU's Gallatin School. She spoke with and listened to some records with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with one of the rarest 78s, Skip James' recorded - Skip James' recording "Devil Got My Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN")
SKIP JAMES: (Singing) I'd rather be the devil to be that woman man. I'd rather be the the devil to be that woman man.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's "Devil Got My Woman" by Skip James, recorded in 1931. It's one of the songs that Amanda Petrusich talks about in her book "Do Not Sell At Any Price." Amanda Petrusich, welcome to FRESH AIR.
AMANDA PETRUSICH: Thank you so much for having me.
BRIGER: So what can you tell us about Skip James on this record?
PETRUSICH: Well, "Devil Got My Woman" is one of those records that I think people here it and have an incredibly immediate and sort of dramatic reaction to it. There's a kind of great scene in the movie "Ghost World" which features 78 collectors, which are also featured in my book, in which a character - a young woman played by Thora Birch is talking to a collector about "Devil Got My Woman" - a guy played by Steve Buscemi - and she says, I want to hear more records like that. And he looks at her and says there aren't any more records like that.
PETRUSICH: And for me, that's kind of a perfect encapsulation of the sort of strange and haunting beauty of that song.
BRIGER: When I was talking to people about your book, many of them didn't really know what 78 records were, so can you give us a little primer about the 78?
PETRUSICH: Sure. Seventy-eights are kind of the earliest iteration of what we think of as a record today. They were introduced around the turn of the century, and they are 10-inch, flat, grooved shellac discs that spun at around 78 revolutions per minutes, hence the name. And they were double-sided. Each side contained two to three minutes of music. And they're extraordinarily fragile. I mean, they were produced in finite quantities because home recording equipment was not nearly as common as it is today, so they weren't making as many. But they also have not survived, in part because they're really easy to break. They're heavy, and they're brittle. If you drop one on the floor at the wrong angle, it will just shatter into pieces like a dinner plate. And it requires a particular kind of stylus which is a little bit different from a contemporary stylist. It's thicker. And, of course, you need to find yourself a turntable that spins at 78 RPM in order to play them. They were mostly phased out by the 1960s, but you can still find quite a few of them around at junk shops and antique malls.
BRIGER: Yeah, and also - one thing I like about them - they're so organic. You write that they're made of wax and slate and cotton clay and shellac, and shellac itself is, like, a product - like, a resin made from a bug, right?
PETRUSICH: Yeah, it's sort of cool to think about how organic they are. In part, that's contributed to their decay over time, of course. But there is something about the material itself and the way that a particular 78 sort of wears its history on the face and in the grooves. Because they're malleable and they're fragile and they change depending on how they're played and how many times they've been played and whether there was a slope in the floorboard in the room where the phonograph was - you know, whether people were dancing while the record was spinning. There's something really nice about that material - history getting kind of etched into the song itself, which, of course, is something that's very difficult to experience with the digital audio file.
BRIGER: One thing you say in the book is that, you know, living in the 21st century, it's kind of hard to imagine how songs from 25 years ago could become extinct so quickly. And you say in the '50s when people started collecting 78s, the music - it was so foreign, it felt otherworldly to them.
PETRUSICH: Absolutely. And I think, in part, it's that a lot of the music that's been canonized - particularly the blues records that have been canonized by collectors - you know, they were made by outlier artists, so these weren't popular records, even in their moment of release. And the fact that they were rediscovered and lionized later by figures - collectors who I think, in a way, were the perfect audience for these records. I mean, we're talking about marginalized outlier performances becoming heralded by these marginalized outlier figures however many years later. So it sort of makes sense to me, in the way, but then there's also, of course, the fact that just not that many of these records were pressed, and they very quickly sort of receded into memory.
BRIGER: And I guess, also, they were marketed to an African-American audience while the people that later discovered them in the '50s were white guys, right?
PETRUSICH: Yeah. These records were almost all part of race record series, which were records recorded by African-American performers for African-American audiences. And that was something that started happening in the '20s, and I think it was a very mercenary impulse, in a way, on behalf of the record companies. It wasn't an idea that, oh, here's this kind of undiscovered art that, you know, people to hear. No one's hearing African-American singers. No one's hearing those songs. They should be commercially released.
I don't think it was that at all. It was that suddenly, it seemed like maybe there was a chance to make a little bit of money. And so many labels, including Paramount Records, which is based out of Grafton, Wis., you know, launched these race record series that sort of - you know, they cast a very wide net and, I think, accidently ended up recording what are, to my ears, some of the greatest performances in American musical history, but they weren't curated. It was fortuitous and serendipitous, and I feel very grateful that it happened at all.
BRIGER: So the pursuit of 78s requires a certain obsessiveness, and at least one of the collectors that you talk about in your book "Do Not Sell At Any Price" described his needs for records as almost like his disease. What were some of the lengths you saw collectors go to to find important records?
PETRUSICH: It was interesting to me how frequently collectors would speak about their collecting as a kind of illness. I mean, it seemed like a compulsion. It was something they couldn't quite control, they didn't entirely understand and that they couldn't necessarily reason with. I mean, you would hear stories of collectors, you know, getting jobs like census worker or exterminator - jobs that would allow them to wander through rural Southern neighborhoods and knock on people's doors without getting shot - you know, sight unseen. They would have this guise of whatever the kind of professional trade was they had happened to learn. Also, they could knock on doors and ask people if they had any records in their basements. You know, do you need to be sprayed for termites, and do you have any records in your basement?
BRIGER: All right. Well, let's listen to another Paramount record. This one is a very rare one. I think this is Geeshie Wiley - "Last Kind Words Blues." How many versions of this exist?
PETRUSICH: I asked that question of a collector named Chris King (ph) recently, and he said two and a half.
PETRUSICH: You know, who know what that means exactly? I believe there are two pretty decent copies of this record, including one that Chris owns, and then a third of that is sort of in nearly unplayable condition, so two and a half.
BRIGER: And we don't really know much about Geeshie Wiley, right?
PETRUSICH: Geeshie Wiley is a bit of a cipher, and I think many collectors sort of enjoy her occupying that space. I mean, when you hear the song, it's so ghostly and so strange and so evocative that the idea that it's this woman about whom we know virtually nothing - you know, it adds a little bit to it. I think it allows us to kind of project whatever we need into her voice and on to this performance. We do know that Geeshie is likely a nickname. I think that probably her name was Lily Mae (ph) and that Geeshie referred to her being of Gullah descent, or of the West African slaves that came through Savannah and Charleston. Other than that, we know very little. I mean, we don't know where she was born and where she died or what happened in between, other than that she recorded a handful of songs for Paramount in 1929.
BRIGER: OK, well let's hear this. This is "Last Kind Words Blues" by Geeshie Wiley, recorded for Paramount Records in 1930.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST KIND WORDS BLUES")
GEESHIE WILEY: (Singing) The last kind words I heard my daddy say - Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say. If I die - if I die, in the German War, I want to send my body. Send it to my mother, Lord. If I get killed - if I get killed, please don't bury my soul. I prefer - just leave me out. Let the buzzards eat me whole.
BRIGER: So that was "Last Kind Words Blues" by Geeshie Wiley, recording in 1930 for Paramount Records. It's one of the songs my guest Amanda Petrusich writes about in her book "Do Not Sell At Any Price" pleased by the PC widely recorded in 1934 comma record. It's one of the songs I guess Amanda writes about in her book "Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 RPM Records." It's just recently come out in paperback. Amanda, another thing I really like about these records is how little mediation there is between the musician and the listener. I mean, the singer, when recording these, the singer would sing into a microphone, and the microphone would create vibrations that would make a stylus, you know, cut these sound waves into this piece of wax. I mean, and that's the recording. You know, there's no overdubbing. There's no - there's no editing. I mean, think - in the early recordings, there was hardly any mixing, right? I mean, it just feels so immediate.
PETRUSICH: Absolutely - no second takes. There was a red light that would come on in the studio, often when a performer was sort of reaching the end of his or her, you know, three minutes. So on a lot of these records, you can hear someone sort of start to hurry up and panic when the light came on that they had to finish up. But, you know, then the record just kind went out into the world that way. And I think, in addition to the way in which they were recording, which, as you say, is unusual and kind of transfixing, there was also an un-self-consciousness, I think, to the way people used to sing that maybe we've lost a little bit of.
I'm hesitant, in general, to kind of grant any credence to the way collectors are dismissive of contemporary music as being sort of soulless and dead. But I do think sometimes that they have a bit of a point there - that now performers are kind of hyperaware that they are making a thing that's going to endure. When they make a recording, they realize that it will have its own sort of material legacy, that it will be out in the world, that it can travel very quickly. And back then, I think, you know, they just weren't thinking about that. They just sang the song. You know, the repercussions were not necessarily at the front of their mind. I don't think any of these performers were thinking about the fact that this was going to be preserved, this was going to be their legacy, this was a kind of capital S statement. It was just, you know, a song that they sang one afternoon.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Amanda Petrusich, author of "Do Not Sell At Any Price." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Amanda Petrusich, author of "Do Not Sell At Any Price." It's about 78s and the people who collect them.
BRIGER: So one of the collectors you met for the book, and someone who's become a friend of yours, is named Chris King. And you write that he's known for being really great at digitally remastering these 78s, and he's able to pull, like, extra sound out of these old records. How does he do that?
PETRUSICH: Watching Chris work feels to me a little bit like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. He will very carefully adjust the speed on his turntables, sometimes, you know, by as little of - as, like, a 10th of a rotation. You know, something that you'd think, all right, we'll just put it on at 78 RPM. You know, he'll play it at 77.4 rpm. Or he will sometimes place a popsicle stick on the stylus if he feels that it's a record where the grooves have been gouged out and that the needle needs to get in there a little bit deeper. There's all these sort of little, kind of funny analog tricks he does to make the thing sound as good as possible.
BRIGER: Well, King owns one of the two-and-a-half extant copies of Geeshie Wiley, the record that we heard earlier. But he also owns a copy of what you describe as your favorite record of all time. It's called "Sur Le Borde De L'eau" by Blind Uncle Gaspard and was recorded in 1929. Why do you love this record so much?
PETRUSICH: I think this record contains a particular quality that I sometimes hear in prewar American music that I have failed to find in almost any other genre or time period which is this sort of unspeakable yearning. And, of course, with this record, he's singing in French, and a French that's speckled with Creole idioms, so even if my French was better, I'm not sure I would understand what he's saying. So whatever it is that he's communicating, it's extra musical. It's something in the tone of his voice, the way that he plays the guitar. For me, it's just extraordinarily sad. When I try to imagine the circumstances that would lead someone to be able to sing this way, it is just devastating.
BRIGER: All right, well listen to the song. It's "Sur Le Borde De L'eau" by Blind Uncle Gaspard. And we're going to start this about halfway in because at the end there's this part where his - sort of his voice kind of breaks up. And it's most likely, like, he just swallowed wrong or something and his voice caught, but, you know, the fact that he falters it really gives the performance the sort of extra emotional quality. So let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUR LE BORDE DE L'EAU")
BLIND UNCLE GASPARD: (Singing in French).
BRIGER: Amanda, it's so great that this song exists in this version. You could imagine, like, a producer today saying, like, OK, let's do another take, you know? Try not to choke up at the end this time.
PETRUSICH: Yeah, absolutely, which seems so tragic because I feel, like, by the time he gets to the end of the song and you hear him sort of disintegrating a little - I mean, for me, at least, that mirrors how I feel in that moment, too. There's this sort of wonderful solidarity with him, which is, like, yeah, man, it's - life is hard, you know? I don't know. I would be so sad if that weren't possible, that kind of tiny moment of communion, which, as you were saying earlier, is kind of made possible by these imperfections. I think it's very human and very moving.
BRIGER: One of the reasons your book spoke to me is because, you know, I remember hunting down records. You know, not 78s but 33s when I was younger, going to, like, the downtown, you know, secondhand shop and having a list of things that I was looking for and finding one and being so excited and, like, clutching it on the subway home, you know, waiting to play it on my turntable. And there's such a thrill to that find. And, you know, I don't want to sound like the kind of grousing, old guy, but that experience doesn't really exist for a lot of younger music listeners today.
PETRUSICH: It's true. That real joy of discovery, and also of contextless (ph) discovery, I think is something that younger listeners are not necessarily privy to, which does not, you know, mean that they don't have other things that we didn't have that are great and I'm envious of. But yeah, I mean, when I was a kid, I bought records all the time, kind of based on cover art, based on God knows what, and would bring it home and would have a real kind of moment of surprise that was wonderful. I think it's rare now for younger listeners to be surprised by what they hear. But yeah, absolutely, the relationship to music as an object, having something you can bring home and line up on your shelf and own and feel a real relationship with, feel a real sense of pride in, I think that's a really beautiful thing.
BRIGER: Well, Amanda Petrusich, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PETRUSICH: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.
GROSS: Amanda Petrusich spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her book, "Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 Rpm Records," was recently published in paperback. Tomorrow - a wildlife story that's a crime story involving terrorist militias. We talk with journalist Bryan Christy who has investigated how terrorist militias are responsible for slaughtering African elephants, smuggling their tusks and trading ivory for weapons or selling the ivory for cash to fund their operations. He wrote the cover story for the September issue of National Geographic. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.