Before MP3s, CDs, and cassette tapes, even before LPs or 45s, the world listened to music on fragile, 10-inch shellac discs that spun at 78 revolutions per minute. While vinyl has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, rare and noteworthy 78rpm records are exponentially harder to come by. The most sought-after sides now command tens of thousands of dollars, when they’re found at all.
Do Not Sell at Any Price is the untold story of a fixated coterie of record collectors working to ensure those songs aren’t lost forever. Music critic and author Amanda Petrusich considers the particular world of the 78—from its heyday to its near extinction—and examines how a cabal of competitive, quirky individuals have been frantically lining their shelves with some of the rarest records in the world. Besides the mania of collecting, Petrusich also explores the history of the lost backwoods blues artists from the 1920s and 30s whose work has barely survived and introduces the oddball fraternity of men—including Joe Bussard, Chris King, John Tefteller, and others—who are helping to save and digitize the blues, country, jazz, and gospel records that ultimately gave seed to the rock, pop, and hip-hop we hear today.
From Thomas Edison to Jack White, Do Not Sell at Any Price is an untold, intriguing story of the evolution of the recording formats that have changed the ways we listen to (and create) music. “Whether you’re already a 78 aficionado, a casual record collector, a crate-digger, or just someone…who enjoys listening to music, you’re going to love this book” (Slate).
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Do Not Sell At Any Price
John Heneghan, “Devil Got My Woman,” Dreams, Analog Playback, “Davey Crockett,” Do Not Sell at Any Price
The living room of John Heneghan’s East Village apartment is crammed with dusty American artifacts: antique wooden furniture, kitschy paperback novels, a Beverly Hills, 90210 pencil case with matching ruler and eraser. All available surfaces are littered with collectibles; all accessible closets are bursting with vintage clothes, discerningly acquired by Heneghan’s striking live-in girlfriend, Eden Brower. I sat on his couch with my hands folded in my lap and sucked in the smell: old. Two skittish housecats, both rescues, nipped in and out of cardboard boxes, eyes wary and wide.
Alongside the far wall, sixteen squat wooden cubes—each filled with about a hundred 78 rpm records, most recorded before 1935—loomed, parsed into genres like Hillbilly, Blues, Hawaiian, and Comedy and organized alphabetically by artist. Each section was blocked out with a neatly labeled cardboard divider. Individual 78s were housed in unmarked brown paper sleeves. It was an impeccable display. I asked Heneghan if he ever sat in his living room and gazed at his record collection, mesmerized by each flawless row. “All the time,” he answered.
Every last person alive right now came of age in the era of recorded sound, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for any of us to properly conceive of a time in which music was not a thing we could hear whenever we felt like it. The 78 rpm record was introduced in the 1890s, about ten years after Thomas Edison developed his phonograph machine and revolutionized the ways human beings thought about sound. Initially, Edison’s phonograph played cylinders—little tubes, smaller than a can of soup, that were crafted from metal (later wax, and then hard shellac), stored in cardboard canisters, and coated with a strip of tin foil. Sound transcriptions were pressed into the foil with a cutting stylus, and the phonograph translated the textures back into sound. After a dozen or so plays at 160 revolutions per minute, the cylinders wore down and became unlistenable.
In 1887, the German-born inventor Emile Berliner patented the gramophone, which worked similarly to Edison’s phonograph but played flat, grooved discs instead of stumpy cylinders. Berliner’s disc records—which were five to seven inches across, made of various materials (often rubber), and whirled, on hand-cranked players, at around seventy to seventy-eight revolutions per minute—were easier to produce and store than cylinders, and Edison’s tubes were nearly obsolete by 1929. Around the same time, the production of disc records became somewhat standardized, although there were still hundreds of rogue labels recording and manufacturing dozens of different kinds of records. Most were ten inches wide (which yielded about three minutes of sound per side) and crafted from a precarious jumble of shellac, a cotton compound, powdered slate, and wax lubricant. 78s would remain in relatively wide use until the 1960s, when they would be gradually replaced by seven-inch, two-song 45s and twelve-inch, long-playing 331/3 records—themselves ousted by cassettes, to be eventually supplanted by compact discs, which have now been succeeded almost entirely by digital audio files.
The first day we met, John Heneghan was careful to establish a disconnect between 78 collectors and the folks who stockpile LPs or 45s—for Heneghan, the distinction is acute, comparable to collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds. But his own collection began with an LP—a reissue of a Charley Patton record, which he acquired when he was sixteen years old. Heneghan can still describe, in remarkable detail, the subsequent epiphany: picking up the record, feeling its heft in his hands, squinting at the photograph on the cover, flipping it over to read the date printed on the back, placing it on his turntable and releasing the needle into the groove, feeling transported, feeling changed.
“I’m not even sure that I liked it at first,” he admitted. “I liked the idea of it. It was really hard to listen to. But I was a guitar player—I had played the guitar since I was a kid—and I thought, ‘What is this? What is he doing?’ It was only a matter of time before I started seeking out the original records, the 78s. I resisted it for a long time because I knew it would be nearly impossible, and I knew it would be a financial burden beyond what any rational mind would consider a wise decision.”
The price of a 78 ranges from a few cents to a fair amount of cents—in some cases, up to $40,000—depending on the cachet of the artist, the condition of the record, the rarity of the pressing, and the fervency of a collector’s desire. Because 78s are objectively worthless and because collectors are so particular about what they want, a record’s archival value often trumps its monetary value. But that archival value can still be astonishing. Because they weren’t produced in huge quantities (although a CD or MP3 player is a fairly common accessory in most American homes now, gramophones were hardly standard in the early 1920s) and because for so long, so few people were interested in salvaging them, a good portion of the world’s remaining 78s—and it’s impossible to say how many are even left—were also singular representations. Often, no metal masters of these recording sessions survived, meaning that if the records themselves were to break, or be crammed into a flood-prone basement, or tossed into a Dumpster, then that particular song is gone, forever.
Most of Heneghan’s collecting peers, including the famed illustrator Robert Crumb, are the types who went door-to-door in the 1960s, asking people if they had records in their attics and snatching up 78s for a quarter apiece. When I asked Heneghan where he scored the bulk of his collection, he looked at me as if I’d commanded him to disrobe. “You don’t expect me to answer that question, do you? I’m not sure I should answer any of these questions,” he guffawed, his voice incredulous. “Do you realize how limited . . . These aren’t LPs! All it takes is a dozen more people interested and . . .” He trailed off again. “It amazes me. It’s American musical history and it’s forgotten about, and there are only a handful of people out there preserving it.”
Heneghan wasn’t being particularly hyperbolic. He and his pals are often uncovering and heralding artists who were previously unknown, and who would have remained that way had a collector not bothered to listen and share his finds. “The amazing thing about 78s is that so much of the music is one hundred percent undiscovered,” he said. “There are still so many records out there that are so rare there are only one or two copies, or no copies—you’ve never heard it. I’m still often discovering things. You find some weird band name, you don’t know what it is, and you take a chance on it, put it on, and it’s some incredible masterpiece.”
John Heneghan was glib and, at times, aggressively self-deprecating about his fanaticism, but his collection was, independent of its personal worth, an extraordinary cultural document. Collectors of 78s, maybe more than any other curators of music or music memorabilia, are doing essential preservationist work, chasing after tiny bits of art that would otherwise be lost. Even though their pursuits are inherently selfish, fueled by the same untempered obsession that drives all collectors, without Heneghan and his peers a good slice of musical history would be absent from the contemporary canon. And while academics, anthropologists, archivists, and reissue labels all assume roles in the preservation and diffusion of early songbooks, the bulk of the material being released or reissued is still being sourced from the original 78s—which are found, almost exclusively, in the cramped basements and bedrooms of 78 collectors.
Still, the historical heft of his effort didn’t mean Heneghan was free from the neuroses that characterize so many collectors: his collection was historically significant, but it was also deeply personal, even pathological. Collectors, like everyone, get seduced by the chase.
“I have a recurring dream about finding Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman,’ ” Heneghan said, leaning in, his voice low and solemn. “It’s so vivid, so clear—the first time it happened I woke up in the middle of the night certain that I had the record. I was like, This is amazing. So I got up to check, and it wasn’t there, and I was like, Fuck. So then I have the dream again, and it’s so vivid the second time, and I think maybe the part about not having it was the dream. So I get up to check. Then I have the dream the third time, and the fourth time . . .” He shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and scratched a craggy blond goatee. Heneghan is a formidable physical presence, and his narrow, slate-gray eyes betrayed an intolerance for certain strains of bullshit; he was exceedingly pleasant but uninterested in pleasantries, and it occurred to me that I wouldn’t ever want to be standing between him and a copy of “Devil Got My Woman.”
“On a good day, you look at yourself like, I’m preserving American history: I’m an archaeologist. But the bottom line is that there’s seriously something wrong,” he continued, adjusting the black bowler hat he frequently sports. “The first time I bought a record, I remember thinking, I have to see if this band has any other records. And then when I got the other records, I thought, I need to figure out which one came first so I can put them in order. I remember going to friends’ houses and they just had their records anywhere, and it was like, ‘How can you do that? They have to be in order!’ I just spent so much time thinking about the perfect way to put everything in order.”
Heneghan finally asked me what I’d like to listen to, and we huddled around his turntable, taking turns pulling 78s from his shelves. My hands shook. Unlike vinyl records, which are forgivingly pliable, 78s are thick, brittle, and heavy. Drop one on the wrong surface at the wrong angle, and it’ll shatter like a dinner plate.
The bulk of Heneghan’s collection consists of early blues and hillbilly records, and they range in quality and tone. Up until about 1925, recordings were made acoustically, meaning the musicians would have to bellow and pluck directly into the phonograph’s diaphragm cone, where the resulting sound vibrations would nudge the cutting stylus and create a transcription, which could then be played back. There were considerable drawbacks to the technology: drums and bass were rarely recorded because the depth of their vibrations would knock the cutting stylus from its intended groove, and things like cellos, violins, and even the human voice didn’t always resonate enough to be properly rendered. By 1927, engineers had figured out how to use a carbon microphone—another Edison gadget, from 1877—which could then be amplified with vacuum tubes and used to power an electromagnetic recording head, meaning a far wider range of frequencies could be picked up and reproduced, yielding a richer, more authentic sound. Still, if you are not prone to romance and nostalgia, the process can seem silly in the face of today’s error-free digital recording, where analog sound is converted into clean streams of binary code. To a modern sound technician, things like styluses and diaphragm cones are about as clunky and outmoded as the iron lung.
But for traditional record collectors—ones who, like Heneghan, came of age in the late 1970s—the upsides of digital recording are largely irrelevant. Although he owns an iPod (he bought it for Eden, who said she rarely used it) and a few shelves of CDs (mostly from the reissue label Yazoo Records, which was founded in the late 1960s and is now run, in part, by his friend and fellow collector Richard Nevins, who works exclusively from original 78s), he was not particularly interested in consuming digitally produced music. I could see how Heneghan might find MP3s a bit unsettling (those intangible streams of zeros and ones are about as far from cumbersome shellac discs as possible), but even the CD, the MP3’s doofy, moonfaced older brother, was inherently unappealing to him. “If I find a great record, and a friend of mine says, ‘How about I keep that record and just make you a CD of it?’ it’s like, ‘Are you insane?’ ” he snorted.
Heneghan pulled Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues,” the Cannon Jug Stompers’ “Walk Right In,” and a 1920s test pressing of Frankie Franko and His Louisianans’ “Somebody Stole My Gal” from his shelves. He laid the John Hurt record on his turntable, flipped a switch on a receiver, and dropped the stylus. The room filled with crackle. I held my breath.
The thing is, I wasn’t exactly an analog rookie, even then. I owned plenty of LPs, and while my initial interest in vinyl was driven by mathematics (I could pay twenty-five cents for a Led Zeppelin III LP at my local Salvation Army, or slap down fourteen dollars for a plastic CD version at the record store), I secretly appreciated all the tender platitudes—Warmth! Texture! Authenticity!—spewed about analog sound. But because the bulk of my collection was lazily sourced from junk shops (I can still identify a three-LP set of Handel’s Messiah—that brown-and-yellow thrift-store staple—from approximately forty-five feet away), I was never captivated by rare records in particular. My expertise regarding coveted vinyl consisted mostly of ribbing my pal Clarke for his pristine copy of The Anal Staircase, a three-song, twelve-inch EP released by the British industrial band Coil in 1986 and worth around eighty dollars to the right customer. (There’s a photograph of a human anus on the cover.)
So while I possessed a working understanding of what 78s were and when they were produced, I had never purchased or played a single one. Still, I loved scrappy, prewar country blues in the same way I loved punk rock—something about the tenuousness of the entire enterprise, the threat of spontaneous dissolution, the immediacy—and had always been more than content to listen to it via digital reissue. Prior to this moment, it had never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. That I might be chasing an approximation.
Right now, there are 78 collectors working to gather and preserve all forms of prewar music—jazz, opera, classical, gospel, country, dance, pop—but there’s something particularly seductive about the way blues music played on an acoustic guitar between 1925 and 1939—the so-called country blues—sounds on shellac. While playing the country blues can require a staggering amount of technical prowess (no other genre, except maybe rap, is as routinely underestimated), the most important component of any country blues song is still the performer’s articulation of blues “feeling,” that amorphous, intangible, gut-borne thing that animates all music and gives it life.
The necessity of emotion obviously isn’t unique to the country blues, but because most prewar blues songs were assembled rather than composed (performers were often working with the same old folk songs as bases, tinkering with and rewriting verses to suit their needs), and because many performances were barely captured, let alone manipulated, it’s often the only difference between a middling blues side and a transcendent one. Critics and scholars can pontificate at length about the technical dexterity of a country blues performer like Robert Johnson—the way his long fingers curled around the fret board, what his left foot was doing—but blues feeling is a lot trickier to dissect, in part because it runs counter to the very notion of analysis. It becomes the singular challenge of blues critics (of all critics, really) to articulate some sense of that bewildering force. It becomes the obligation of the fan to hear it.
That afternoon, sitting upright on Heneghan’s couch, I was playing it real cool. But by fifty seconds into “Big Leg Blues”—right around the time John Hurt coos, “I asked you, baby, to come and hold my head” in his soft, honeyed voice—I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus. Even now, I’m not sure there’s a way to accurately recount the experience without sounding dumb and hammy. I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it. Then I wanted it to inhabit me: I wanted to crack it into bits and use them as bones. I wanted it to keep playing forever, from somewhere deep inside my skull. This is how it often begins for collectors: with a feeling that music is suddenly opening up to you. That you’re getting closer to it—to blues feeling—than you’ve ever gotten before.
The aesthetic superiority of analog playback has been so thoroughly and aggressively trumpeted that it feels almost silly to talk about it now, but if you’re accustomed to low-quality MP3s, and if you primarily route them through your computer’s speakers or cheap headphones, listening to a vinyl record on a proper stereo is still something of a revelation. It’s luxurious rather than serviceable—like delicately consuming a fancy French chocolate when you’ve only ever gnawed on Hershey bars in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly.
Prewar 78s, though, are not particularly easy to relish, or at least not at first. Depending on the quality of the recording and the condition of the disc, there’s often a high and persistent background hiss. The melody might be fully obscured by a staticky sizzle that feels otherworldly and distant, like the song had been buried in the backyard and was now being broadcast from beneath six solid feet of dirt.
I’d heard “Big Leg Blues” before; in 1990, Yazoo Records had released a CD of the thirteen tracks Hurt recorded for the Okeh Electric Records Company in 1928, and I’d picked up a used copy at a local record store a few years earlier. Not only was I familiar with the song, I’d experienced an expert digital rendering of an actual 78. My reaction to hearing the 78 itself played four feet in front of me felt wild and disproportionate even as it was happening. I like to think that I was reacting to the song, and that the record was just a conduit, a vehicle of presentation. But I suspect I was also seduced by the ritual—by the sense of being made privy to something exclusive, something rare.
The record ended. Clutching my notebook to my chest, I tried to think of a professional-sounding thing to say. “Wow!” I yelled. Heneghan looked at me. I stared at my list of handwritten questions for a beat or two too long before finally asking him if he thought that, given technological advancements in the way music is disseminated and stored, record collecting was a dying art.
“I think it’s funny that you even call it an art,” he answered. “I think it’s more of a disease. There has to be something really wrong with you to want to possess these objects in the first place. You have to have them, and it’s never enough, and you get that strange, tingly feeling when you get one. Anyone who collects anything is obsessive-compulsive and neurotic. The need to put things in order, to file by number, to alphabetize and label, to be constantly reassessing how you’ve ordered things—that’s neurotic behavior. I’ve always thought I was really crazy, that there was something really wrong with me. Especially when I started collecting 78s, because I didn’t know anyone else who collected them, and I felt really isolated and weird,” he continued. “But then when I met guys like Crumb and Nevins, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, we’re all crazy.’ I’ve never met [another 78 collector] who wasn’t like, ‘This is sick, we’re all sick,’ ” he said. “When I finally gave in and started buying 78s, it was a conscious decision to embrace my sickness and do what I always wanted to do. It’s probably like when someone dabbles in drugs their whole life and finally decides to shoot heroin. There has to be something in your mind that says, ‘I give up.’
“If I really wanted a big house in the suburbs, I wouldn’t be able to buy records as often, if ever,” he conceded. “But the thing is, I don’t really want a house in the suburbs. I’m happy, which is a little bit of a problem.”
Heneghan and I kept in touch, and a few months later he invited me to a 78 listening party in his living room. On a gleaming afternoon in early May, I plodded down Second Avenue toward Heneghan’s apartment, toting a warm six-pack of Brooklyn Lager.
I was the first to arrive. As Heneghan handed me back a beer, he pointed out a new acquisition: a small, weathered banjo, signed in fading pencil by the 1920s folksinger Chubby Parker. The banjo was hung above Heneghan’s computer, alongside a framed headshot of Parker. A tiny silver star, inlaid deep in the instrument’s head, shined. It reminded me of a Christmas tree.
Heneghan explained that he had recently scored an extremely rare 78 of Parker’s “Davey Crockett” on eBay. Parker was one of the first performers to be featured regularly on Chicago’s National Barn Dance, itself a precursor to The Grand Ole Opry, but his legacy was middling at best, and he is mostly known, when he is known at all, for chirping goofy folk songs like “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now.” As was often the case, Heneghan was the only serious bidder. “When I first saw it on eBay, I had a weird panicky feeling,” he said. “This was it, this was the day I’d been waiting for. But you just don’t know. All it takes is one other person. I have my archenemies on eBay—I don’t know who they are, but their monikers haunt me. When I saw ‘Davey Crockett,’ I didn’t sleep that well for a week. I knew this was it—I was never gonna see it again. All my crazy friends saw it and knew that I wanted to get it and valiantly stayed away, and then they congratulated me when I got it.” He smiled.
Until Heneghan manages to locate a copy of Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman”—his Holy Grail—he placates himself with smaller victories like “Davey Crockett.” That may be all he ever gets. There are only three or four known copies of “Devil Got My Woman” remaining, two of which are so damaged as to be inconsequential. The song was recorded in February 1931 in Grafton, Wisconsin, for a small record label called Paramount Records. James created eighteen sides (or nine double-sided 78s) in Wisconsin that winter, but they were commercial nonstarters, and soon after, he quit playing blues music and became a choir director in his father’s church. James wouldn’t record again until the 1960s, when he was “rediscovered” in a county hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, by an enterprising trio of blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to come out of retirement. (“Well, that might be a good idea. Might be. But right now Skip is awful tired,” he was quoted as saying.) In 1964, a sixty-two-year-old James appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, and he continued to perform sporadically until his death in 1969. Because his records weren’t especially popular or very widely sold, few copies were made, and now, more than eighty years later, collectors have a slim-to-improbable shot at finding one in playable condition.
Still, “Devil Got My Woman” exists in infinite quantities in a remastered digital format and can be purchased instantly on iTunes for ninety-nine cents, thanks to the collector Richard Nevins, who possesses an original copy. As Nevins explained to me in an e-mail, almost any time anyone listens to “Devil Got My Woman,” regardless of the individual source, chances are good that the recording they’re hearing originated from his personal 78: “ ‘Devil Got My Woman’ was first reissued on LP in the 60s, and, like for almost all old 78s of backcountry music, no masters have survived,” he wrote. “I’d say that all reissues of this came from my copy, which is close to new and which previously belonged to [late Yazoo founder] Nick Perls. Many of the European labels that reissued this just dubbed it off the Yazoo release [1994’s The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James].”
“Devil Got My Woman” is meandering and almost structureless, composed of little more than a three-bar vocal phrase and variations on two guitar chords, which are embellished and augmented by vocal and instrumental flourishes. That’s the technical description. I can’t really explain the rest. His falsetto careens, soaring and plummeting as if it were powered by some unseen, disreputable force. “Aw, nothin’ but the devil changed my baby’s mind,” James whimpers over a bit of nefarious-sounding guitar. My favorite part of the 2001 film Ghost World—directed and adapted by the 78 devotee Terry Zwigoff—is when Enid, a recent high school graduate played by Thora Birch, asks Seymour, a 78 collector played by Steve Buscemi, if he has any more records like “Devil Got My Woman,” and Seymour looks back at her, duly appalled: “There are no other records like that!” he yelps. When Bob Dylan featured the track on his Theme Time Radio Hour, he introduced it by declaring, “Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the rail, magic in the grooves . . . rare and unusual, mysterious and vague, you won’t believe it when you hear.” “Devil Got My Woman” is so strange, so volatile and wraithlike, I can understand why James’s biographer Stephen Calt called the song “one of the most extraordinary feats of vocalizing found in blues song.” I can see why Heneghan has been consumed by it.
While we waited for the rest of his guests to arrive, Heneghan and I dipped crackers in the small tub of hummus he’d set out on his coffee table. I admired his walls, which were covered with framed pieces of sheet music, hung just inches apart to ensure maximum capacity. Heneghan was self-effacing about his collecting habit; he recognized the practice as maniacal and his interests as outmoded. Still, he fancied himself an amateur historian of sorts—which was not entirely unreasonable—and was also convinced that, on some level, having interesting stuff around made him a more interesting person. Ironically, it was a very twenty-first-century approach to identity: broadcasting in lieu of communicating.
“When people come to my apartment, some walk in and get really silent, and I can tell they think it’s creepy,” he said. “And I think, Okay, your house is like the Ikea catalog, and so my stuff seems really strange. But I’m a little uncomfortable when I go to someone’s house and it looks like the Ikea catalog. This is the most thought you could put into the stuff you want to be around?” he asked, his voice rising. “Give me that, give me A, B, C, and D, because they’re on the same page? To me, that’s why George Bush was president. That’s why everyone eats at McDonald’s.”
Even though he rarely framed it as such, collecting had clearly become, for Heneghan, a functional way of rebelling against mainstream culture. Like getting a tattoo or jamming a titanium post through your septum, packing your apartment with old records and sheet music was a semipublic way of establishing a countercultural identity, of rejecting a society that felt homogenized and unforgiving. Heneghan frequently spoke of collecting as a form of submission, as a way of giving in to basic urges and desires that other people stifled, and when he did, it wasn’t without a certain amount of pride.
Heneghan earned his cash as a freelance video technician, setting up cameras for television shows and concerts; when pressed, he gently grumbled about the artless nature of the gig. He was particularly disgusted by the extent to which backing tracks were employed by pop stars paid mounds of cash to sing their songs live. He considered the entire enterprise an epic charade: “It sounds like the album because you’re listening to the album,” he’d spit. When he wasn’t working, Heneghan was performing with Eden; together they comprised John and Eden’s East River String Band, a beguiling old-time outfit featuring John on guitar and Eden on ukulele and vocals. When they played, they sported period-appropriate garb and strummed antique instruments. (Heneghan collected old guitars, too.) Each time I saw them perform—at bars and small clubs downtown or in Brooklyn, mostly—they enthralled the room with their charmingly antiquated odd-couple rapport. That afternoon, Heneghan told me he’d been endeavoring to get their newest self-released album, Some Cold Rainy Day, issued on 180-gram vinyl with a gatefold cover, a cardboard sleeve that opens like a book. He ran into a snag when the kid who answered the phone at the pressing plant didn’t understand what “gatefold” meant. “I finally had to ask, How old are you? I told him to find the oldest person who worked there and to ask them.”
We ate some green grapes. A few minutes later, Heneghan buzzed in Sherwin Dunner, a jazz and blues collector who worked with Richard Nevins at Yazoo. He sat in a chair. “I notice that your Starkist lamp has a different shade than mine,” he said, surveying a Starkist tuna–brand promotional lamp perched on Heneghan’s bookshelf. He and Heneghan had identical carrying cases for their 78s, each marked with a little plaque that read MUSIC APPRECIATION RECORDS. Dunner set his box of records on the floor. The handle had been reinforced with duct tape. He had been amassing 78s for years, and, like Heneghan, understood collecting as a way of insulating oneself from a culture that was not always especially welcoming. “It’s the way you cope with feeling like an outsider, feeling alienated from pop or mainstream culture, which has gotten more and more controlled and oppressive and dehumanized. So you create your own world, using whatever you think has meaning or aesthetic value. It’s a world that can save you from the modern world,” Dunner told me later.
Both Dunner and Heneghan were fervent, focused music fans with comprehensive knowledge of the various subgenres of early American music, and, accordingly, their collections were more functional than decorative. These records were not squirreled away in Plexiglas cases or sitting silent in locked boxes. They were handled with care, but they were handled—frequently and with enthusiasm, spun for friends and in private. Consequently, Heneghan had little interest in 78s that were so severely worn they no longer played properly. Both men also expressed deep vitriol for anyone who didn’t share a similar keenness for the music, like some of the more investment-minded 78 collectors who procured records because of their potential for financial appreciation. For Heneghan and Dunner, such fetishistic thinking failed to acknowledge the wealth inherent in the songs themselves.
“That’s a level of collecting that I despise,” Heneghan said. “The guys who just buy [a record] because it’s worth something and they’re speculating that it’s going to be worth more. But with something like 78s, there’s so few of them available in the first place, and if [Sherwin] gets a good record, I may be envious or whatever, but I don’t feel like, Oh, that’s so horrible. There are other people who get a record and it’s like, Well, that’ll just sit on a shelf. No one’s enjoying it, it’s out of circulation, no one can hear it. With some of these records, there are so few copies [remaining] that really, no one can hear it,” Heneghan seethed. “There’s just something really despicable about that mentality. Those people tend to be the most, you know, ‘That’s mine now, I got that before you could get it.’ ”
Heneghan, accordingly, is generous with his records. He is periodically approached about loaning songs to documentary films—he had just given Cleoma Breaux and Joseph Falcon’s “Fe Fe Ponchaux,” a Cajun song from 1929 of which he has one of the better known copies, to the BBC—and routinely posts requested tracks on his Facebook or MySpace page. If you manage to land an invitation to his home, he will play you anything you want to hear.
Three more guests arrived and settled into chairs. Dunner and Heneghan realized they owned two different 78s festooned with identical stickers foreswearing future commerce. In careful, handwritten block letters, someone had printed DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE and affixed it to each record’s label. Considering that both 78s were purchased (in separate transactions) with the stipulation already in place, only two scenarios made sense: the author had changed his mind, or—the more likely option—he was long gone, and his estate hadn’t been terribly concerned with his posthumous wishes for his precious discs.
I was subsumed by a strange gratitude, just then, for that faceless person and his little white stickers, for his vehemence, for his commitment to music as a thing to work for and revere and treasure and save, till death do you part. And even then, a desperate posthumous incantation, a plea: DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE. It felt poetic. It felt certain.
In some ways, the parameters of the collector’s search—looking for one specific, tangible thing—made for an infinitely easier passage, a more satisfying arc, than blindly stumbling through life, trying to figure out what else would make you happy. These guys knew what would make them happy. Whether that happiness actually manifested itself at the end of the quest didn’t necessarily matter—I believed in all those old, insipid chestnuts about the journey trumping the destination, about the process being more important than the product.
I realized then it was about the knowing, and the wanting.
Table of Contents
Prologue: An Air of Impoverishment and Depleted Humanity 1
1 That's Mine Now, I Got That Before You Could Get It 9
2 An Obnoxious, Bitter, Hateful Old Creep 25
3 This Is One of the Things I Would Say Is Inexplicable 31
4 A Form of Protection Against the Loss of Self 53
5 Suck All the Blossoms and He Leave You an Empty Square 65
6 We Are Not Drowning 81
7 I Like to Get into the Field and Hunt Them Down in the Wild, So to Speak 95
8 All I'm Saying Is There's No Way You Can Game This Kind of System 113
9 Now There's a Man on His Way Down 117
10 I Saw America Changed Through Music 133
11 There Will Be No Service 155
12 But There's Another Part of Me That Finds It Kind of Disgusting 173
13 Luring Me Out Here for Nothing but a Damn Bunch of LP Records! 189
14 An Obsessive Need for Things to Stay the Same and an Immersion in Arcane Knowledge 217
15 Who Wants to Hear a Story About a Boy Learning Guitar from a Book? 233
Selected Discography 247