Preposterous Routes

I happened to inherit an old banjo from my granddad just as I was trying to quit smoking for the 20th time and I figured I could use the instrument to replace those perfect seven-minute smoke breaks as I wrote a deadly boring dissertation. Those seven-minute stretches soon turned to hours and my days were consumed with tracing recordings back earlier and earlier, attempting to imitate the oldest and weirdest banjo sounds imaginable, from back in the days when each little hollar had its own style, before the Dixie Limited of Earl Scruggs blew through and killed them all. 

Like everyone else, I was obsessed with the Harry Smith “Anthology of American Folk Music,” but it was also local 78 rpm record collectors such as Dick Spottswood (who has a great show on Washington’s WAMU) and Joe Bussard who were responsible for the fact that I could, rather easily, track down these old sounds at all. Though I wasted years trolling around for the sounds of what Greil Marcus dubbed “the Old, Weird America,” I am eternally grateful that I never went so far as to follow that path with all its hellhound attendants to its logical conclusion. I wanted to play music on instruments, not 78s. 

But I am equally grateful that music critic Amanda Petrusich did succumb to the siren call of old shellac records. Her book “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records” (Simon and Schuster) is not only a series of gorgeously told stories about the eccentrics who collect old records, but also 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. 

And Petrusich does obsess. In a book full of lively characters like locals Bussard and Ian Nagoski, who both play prominent roles in the book, Petrusich herself is the most colorful, and ultimately winning, as the book follows her growing obsession with rare 78 rpms, until she realizes, near the end of the book that she is no longer quite a reporter, but has instead “gone native” like some collector Kurtz in the backwoods. 

She should have realized long before that. One of the most moving aspects of “Do Not Sell” comes from Petrusich’s almost immediate recognition that she has showed up late to this party at a time when it is impossible to build a good collection of old blues records.

How does she respond to this? By undertaking something insane. “Only preposterous routes remained,” she writes. Many of the rarest blues 78s were pressed by Paramount, originally a furniture manufacturer, in Grafton Wisconsin. Legend had it that “When they had excess plates or excess recordings that were going to be thrown away, what they would do is take them out and sail them into the Milwaukee River,” as collector John Tefteller put it. So, a young Brooklynite woman—most collectors are decidedly male—who is “so aggressively dispassionate about ‘extreme’ sports that I shudder when confronted with an open bottle of energy drink” decides to become a certified diver so she can muck around in the Milwaukee River and miraculously build a collection. She takes lessons at a pool in New York, practices in Beaufort, North Carolina, finds someone willing to go out with her and her husband in Grafton—and utterly fails to find anything. 

But the awareness of failure, of the fragility of history, is why collecting is important. Like the Greek poet Cavafy, Petrusich uses the tenuous existence of these ancient monuments to reflect, in beautiful prose, on the tenuous nature of her own existence. “It was a preference, unfortunately, that I recognized in myself—a base, possibly shameful desire to hear someone so overcome by emotion that they could no longer maintain any guise or restraint. I suppose the idea was that it made us feel less alone, hearing someone else unravel. Or maybe it was a yardstick by which we could measure our own relative damage.”

Or even more poignantly, she writes of looking for “songs that somehow captured the tenuousness of even being alive in the first place. Songs that recognized, either explicitly or implicitly, the threat of swift and complete termination that all living creatures are forced to contend with. It’s not just that our existence is friable. Our happiness is, too. Anything can fall apart.” Here, she takes literally the dustiest and driest subject possible, lost old shellac, and fills it full of a Faulknerian pathos, the conflicts of the human heart, which the great writer predicted in his Nobel speech, will still ring out even “after the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded.” 

But she is also aware of the pitfalls along the way. Failure is, often, the most certain sign of success in this strange world of the Blues Mafia, where, as Elijah Wald put it in “Escaping the Delta,” “they essentially turned the hierarchy of blues stradom upside down: the more records an artist sold in 1928, the less he or she was valued in 1958.” But even this success of failure, at this late date, has its own pitfalls: “It’s a young woman at an open mic night, oversinging ‘Chain of Fools’ with her hands in the air. It’s a guy with a T-shirt tucked into his shorts, nodding appreciatively at a bar band with three shrieking electric guitars. It’s bright colors and branded guitar slides and old, pinkish-white guys bellowing about women.”

The fact that Petrusich is a woman gives her a perfect angle from which to view this subculture largely dominated by outcast and loner males. The tension of the gender dynamic allows her to be an outsider among outsiders but in one chapter she explicitly investigates what this dynamic might mean in a way that makes the reader recall all the boys in Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” obsessed as they were with the facts, figures, and other arcana surrounding the things that they love. 

But if Petrusich is acutely self-aware and self deprecating, she isn’t immune to this tendency herself. She writes that as a young critic “I’d dutifully memorized facts about amplifier settings and pedals and filters and microphones and producers and years of release, even when it felt depressing and hollow, like I was methodically teaching myself exactly how to miss the point.”

Here, her analyses are right on point, not only when she’s writing about collectors such as Smith, Bussard, and Nagoski, but also when she turns her eyes to the musicians themselves. I’ve never read more moving accounts of why Charlie Patton or Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson really matter. 

The book is as lyrical and as wild as the musicians she writes about, while remaining as meticulous as the men who collect and categorize that music. 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.

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