This reflection on the 78s of great price comes to us from Nick Rynerson:

91zfTehsn2LIf you’ve ever spent a Sunday afternoon moseying through the rural late-modern labyrinth that is an antique mall you’ve probably seen a 78. Hidden behind the over-priced spice racks, odd smelling jackets, and empty (“collectible”) coke bottles is usually a box or two––almost always on the ground––of 78 rpm records. Unplayable on most modern turntables, heavy as hell, and comically breakable, 78s sit untouched.

By the 1960’s 45 rpm (“singles”) and 33⅓ rpm (LP’s) had all but eradicated the bulky shellac 78. In a few short years, the once-revolutionary standard medium for musical performance for over half a century was completely obsolete. The general populace threw their old shellac away en masse or tossed them in a box in the attic and forgot about them. Today they show up at antique malls, record stores, and flea market in the peripheral; not exactly worthless (kind of like that used Pepsi can from 1964 isn’t “worthless”) but close.


But to a select few, these archaic singles (by the way, 78s only hold one song per side which also probably had something to do with their swift demise) are priceless.

Since the late 1940’s 78 rpm collectors have been turning the United States upside-down obsessively searching for these old 78s––many of which have never been transferred to a more sustainable medium, hovering on the brink of extinction. And remarkably, these collectors have changed American popular music through re-introducing the Delta Blues and early country music to musicians like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead.

Enter Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records. Petrusich is a New York City writer and music critic who set out to document the strange and obtuse subculture of 78 rpm collectors––largely ignored by pop culture and record collectors alike, despite their secondhand influence. “I understood that collecting anything was nerdy in a way that would never be fashionable,” comments Petrusich:

If cool has a single isolatable signifier, it’s the appearance of indifference. To seriously collect 78s, you have to give all that up: you have to admit that you want. Accordingly, 78 collectors, like the men who work at comic book stores, are something of a pop-cultural trope…a middle-aged, balding, socially awkward, slightly plump or disconcertingly skinny basement dwelling dude who breathes through his mouth and wears stained shorts.[1]

In this little subculture of outsiders Petrusich found something more than weird dudes haggling over antiques; she caught the vision:

78 collecting felt small, personal––an antidote to twenty-first-century deluge. The more time I spent among collectors the more a quote from the travel writer Jonathan Raban, regarding the perennial turbulent Mississippi River and the people who live on its shores, kept pinging through my brain: I have it in me to do that. I know how it feels[2]

She’s right. If you catch the itch, it’s hard to turn off. My wallet, my wife, and my records can attest to that.


The 78 collector (which I am not, really––my collection is pretty small and mediocre, and I lack the precision, budget, and dedication of a true collector. But if you’re looking to unload some old shellac shoot me an email) sees something priceless in what most people see as worthless, a music that is both otherworldly and completely “other” while somehow being perfectly relevant.

The raw, other-worldly sounds of Charley Patton, Uncle Dave Macon, Amede Ardoin, Dock Boggs, Rev JM Gates, and The Carter Family seem to possess some important secret; a code waiting to be cracked that will solve all of my first-world problems. And the 78 rpm record is the only lasting documentation of this code. It’s like the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in the American clutter.

Pressed into the grooves of these fragile discs are songs that have been lost to the unstopping march of progress: recordings which defined and chronicled the identity of people who are all dead. It’s as close as you can come to a time machine. Music recorded from 1900-1939––a critical time in the shaping of the American identity––is still out there, unheard for the last 60+ years, probably just sitting in somebody’s basement. It’s hard not to be swayed by the romance of discovery, especially when the treasure is, just maybe, right next door.

The contagious and slightly obtuse vision of the collector is an ethereal, emotionally driven vision, where the love of music, the preservation of history, the thrill of the hunt, the escape from the modern world, and the need to systematize all mix and muddle. It’s all a beautifully human thing. But what Petrusich observes as she investigates the lives of these collectors is that the records don’t love you back.

Collecting isn’t exactly designed for the faint of heart… or even for the normal, high-functioning, healthy human being. The trend of prominent collectors who have died sad, obsessive, grumpy and alone is terrifying––but it makes sense. It sort of reminds me of what the Ring does to little Smeagol in The Hobbit––a beautiful object (or collection of objects) has the remarkable power to ensnare us in our obsessions and neuroses by taking us out of reality.

In Do Not Sell, Petrusich tells the story of how collector John Tefteller discovered “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”, an old blues recording that hadn’t been heard in decades and was thought to be completely lost, by literally (maybe “insanely”) turning a Wisconsin town upside-down for a couple weeks by taking out ads in the paper, informing the media that he’d pay big bucks for old records, and thoroughly canvassing the area. Through that crazy effort, he resurrected “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon” by King Solomon Hill (Paramount 13125), a beautiful lament of the death of the legendary blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson. It was as if a resurrection had taken place.

Whenever I get frustrated by collectors––by their hostility, their exclusivity, their infuriating single-mindedness––I think about “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon” and how crazy old John Tefteller saved that wild, miraculous song from rotting away in a trunk in Wisconsin. It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to buy a man a cheeseburger, or at least tell him thanks.[3]


While it can be an emotionally and psychologically dangerous hobby, it isn’t that difficult to see why someone would devote their life to this. The resurrection of something that feels so much more beautiful, more pure than life in the mid-2010s.The longing for a forgotten paradise. All wrapped up in a 3-4 minute song on a piece of fragile shellac.

The aesthetic of 78 collecting is beautiful, if not idealistic––the smell of dusty shellac, the thrill discovery, the fuzz of the recording, the story behind it all. In a 2002 essay Greil Marcus says it better than anyone:

When you’re listening to old records, or looking at old photographs, the more beautiful, the more lifelike the sensations they give off, the more difficult it is not to realize that the people you are hearing or seeing are dead. They appeared upon the earth and left it, and it can seem as if their survival in representations is altogether an accident… But that’s not what the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers sound like on ‘Rocky Road’. Here the persons singing are getting younger and younger with every line. By the end they are just emerging from the womb. Play the song over and over, and you hear them grow up – but only so far. You hear them born again, again and again.[4]

On the last pages of Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis suggests that our memories––our nostalgia––are a transfiguration of sorts. An eschatological glorification experienced in our everyday lives:

The dullest of us knows how memory can transfigure; how often some momentary glimpse of beauty in boyhood is ‘a whisper, which memory will warehouse as a shout’… It is indeed an illusion to believe that the blue hills on the horizon would still look blue if you went to them. But the fact that they are blue five miles away, and the fact that they are green when you are on them, are equally good facts. Traherne’s “orient and immortal wheat” or Wordsworth’s landscape “apparelled in celestial light”: may not have been so radiant in the past when it was present as in the remembered past. That is the beginning of glorification. One day they will be more radiant still.[5]

According to Lewis, only in the resurrection of something imperfect––something human and mundane–can we appreciate its incorruptible state. Despite being sung from the bowels unprecedented poverty and racism, the Paramount and Okeh race records of the late 20s/early 30s have ascended to a glory that almost seems unfitting. Something like a Biblical picture of long dead saints rising from the dead, 78s sing a logically unfair resurrection. Like Greil Marcus says,

It’s impossible to imagine that these people can ever die. That’s what they’re saying, of course – that’s their text. Thousands and thousands of people, over thousands of years, have said exactly the same thing. But they haven’t done it.[6]

It’s hard for me not to see Biblical imagery in 78s. In the incorruptible music that has left a mark, a scar, on the way I see everything. “That is the beginning of the glorification.” C.S. Lewis continues: “The same, yet not the same, as this. It was sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.”

Do Not Sell at Any Price might as well be a case study of Lewis’s final letter to the spurious Malcolm. The corrupted world of pre-war America, which isn’t that much different than today in terms of sadness, dejection, brokenness, crime, death, sickness, and depression, arrives in its glorified state on the shellac of a 78. The book shows the grip that these artifacts of the past have had on a small group of people and how the vision that small group of people has almost subversively changed the world.

Maybe Lewis would call it a hunt for spiritual glorification and resurrection. I don’t know.

The Anthology

Above, around, and in the soul of 78 collecting is The Anthology of American Folk Music. Released in 1952, the Anthology of American Folk Music is a collection (essentially a bootleg) of 84 tracks recorded 1927-1933. Compiled by the eccentric and mythological Harry Smith who is, as Petrusich says, “the closest thing 78 collectors have to a cult figure”.

It’s more than a precariously-legal-at-the-time collection of tunes; it is a portal to an American Narnia that might have actually existed. If you go in, be careful. Because you’re not coming out for a while and when you do, you’ll be changed.

The Anthology asks more questions than it answers. Questions that probably don’t have a good answer:

What the hell is Clarence Ashley singing about in “The Coo Coo Bird”? Why does the coo coo bird only holler “coo coo” on the fourth day of July?

Who is Stagger Lee? John Henry? John Hardy? Why would Ol’ Stagger Lee kill over a John B. Stetson hat? Would I kill someone over a Stetson? Do I have that in me? Who told the Carter Family about John Hardy? A friend of a friend? Why couldn’t John Henry just drop the damn hammer? Walk away John Henry!

Why does Uncle Dave Macon yell “kill yourself!” before the last verse of “Way Down the Old Plank Road”, and why does it kind of sound appealing?

In his essay released with the 1997 edition of The Anthology of American Folk Music and in his book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus dubs The Anthology and the world its 84 tracks create “Smithville”. A town full of misfits, weirdos, robbers, railroad men, thieves, sinners, sailors, sword-swallowers and preachers. Smithville is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been, but it might just be where you’ve always wanted to go:

This is Smithville. Here a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sort of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable American within the American of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power. Here the cadence of Clarence Ashley’s banjo is both counterpoint and contradiction to any law; here everyone calls upon the will and everyone believes in fate.[7]

Harry Smith was really into the occult, and I kind of understand how that went right along with his obsession with 78s. There is something magical about them. You need to have some sort of supernatural framework to make sense of the resurrection you’re experiencing. That’s why Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is so moving––memories tangibly transfigured beg for us to see God behind them. It’s unexplainable, only experiential. A cosmic beauty that begs for spirituality. It’s all so Lewis-an: a “raised and incorrupt” world that seems to dance above our present mediocrity. Life viewed at a distance that is more true than life lived daily.

Maybe I’m esoteric or maybe I’m just a one-trick pony, but as I read Amanda Petrusich’s book, all I can think about is C.S. Lewis describing the sensations of the New Heaven and New Earth:

Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ. And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing and the waters flow, and lights and shadows move across the hills, and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition.

Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”[8]

Smithville is a city for the humble. Only the strange and the needy can enter. Because only the needy can want. And Smithville may not just be Smithville. It may be a cock-eyed look through an antique telescope into the New Jerusalem. A look that doesn’t quite seem like heaven because it has so many weirdos walking along, singing strange songs. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe a 78––a relic of something that is both far gone and swiftly coming––is a picture of how the forgotten will one day ascend the holy hill not because of their worthiness but because they were plucked from the margins by One who loved enough to look.

Guesses, of course. Only guesses.


[1] Petrusich, Amanda. Do Not Sell At Any Price. New York: Scribner, 2014. 4-5. Print.

[2] Ibid.,8

[3] Ibid.,103

[4] Marcus, Greil. “”American Folk” (Granta, 2002).” Harry Smith Archives / Granta Music.

[5] Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. 122-24. Print.

[6] Marcus, Greil. “”American Folk” (Granta, 2002).” Harry Smith Archives / Granta Music.

[7] Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. New York: H. Holt, 1997. 124-25. Print.

[8] Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. 122-24. Print