September 3, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Amanda Petrusich's book Do Not Sell At Any Price is a fascinating exploration into the subculture of 78rpm record collectors.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Do Not Sell at Any Price is full of little epiphanies ... [Petrusich's] persistence pays off in the form of stories and observations that humanize the collectors and their pursuit ... [Petrusich] effectively uses the prism of her personal experience to analyze the aesthetics of collecting, consuming and enjoying music."
I've always found one of the most glorious perks of being a nonfiction writer is getting to indulge ordinary curiosities in extraordinary ways – taking your questions directly to the highest sources, and having them answered. As a longtime acolyte of prewar American music – and of the country blues in particular – researching and writing Do Not Sell At Any Price often felt like a gift. I had temporary access to some of the rarest blues records in the world – insane, knee-buckling performances – played for me by folks who knew every nuance of their creation and dissemination. (There was, of course, a concomitant sensation: total befuddlement that many of these dudes had given up on contemporary music entirely.) I sometimes felt unworthy, or cowed, or intimidated, or just devastated by what was being broadcast for me. Other times I felt something pretty close to elation. I hope that readers who pick up Do Not Sell At Any Price get a sense of the power and import of the music being gathered and preserved by 78rpm record collectors, and can see how those records have shaped, inadvertently or not, everything that's come since. I hope there's also room to be excited about what's still coming: some of the songs below are featured in the book, some are tracks that meant a whole lot to me while I was writing it, and some are wild harbingers of future sounds.
I still don't know what kind of spiritual or physiological magic music works on us – as one collector, Chris King, said to me: "The question that never gets answered, or that maybe never even gets asked, is what is it about being human that makes us desire this thing that is so ephemeral?" – but I certainly know how grateful I am to have it.
"Flume," Bon Iver
About six weeks before my manuscript was due to my editor at Scribner, I rented a tiny cabin in New Hampshire, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, and drove up from New York to finish the book. I had never spent that much time by myself before, and I wasn't sure if I'd make good company; in retrospect I'm sort of horrified by how well-suited I appear to be to relative isolation. I ate a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese and drank a lot of bourbon and did a lot of swimming and, somehow, wrote what needed writing. I still think back on that time with a funny kind of longing. Finishing a book is a weirdly emotional experience, exhilarating and terrifying and deeply exhausting. The couple who owned the cabin were so sweet and encouraging, and when I dropped off my key at the end of the week, they told me they knew I could do it – that I could finish, and it would be great – and I just sort of lost it altogether. It was one of those tiny, blind gestures of kindness – showing a stranger support in a moment of vulnerability – that still gives me hope for everyone and everything.
Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago is arguably the first and only entry in the "Cabin-Rock" genre – recorded, as it was, during one long winter in a hunting cabin in Medford, Wisconsin. Someone jokingly suggested it to me before I left, and then I ended up listening to it over and over again while I was working. There's a lyric in "Flume" – I think he says "Lapping lakes and leering loons" – that was both oddly germane to my circumstances (Lake Winnipesaukee has a thriving loon population) and also inexplicably soothing. Just the strange, careening rhythm of it. I repeated it constantly, like a koan.
"Future Blues," Willie Brown
The great blues guitarist Willie Brown recorded six sides – three double-sided 78s – for the Wisconsin-based Paramount Records in 1930, but only one of those 78s ("M&O Blues" / "Future Blues") is presently extant. The others are mystical objects, hard-sought by collectors but, as of now, still undiscovered (Brown himself is best known for getting a callout in Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues": "You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown," Johnson sings). Like many blues fans, I harbor occasional fantasies of pulling a Willie Brown 78 out of a crumbling cardboard box in some far-out junk shop; if his other songs are half as good as this one, we'll all be better for its discovery. "Future Blues" is a dark song about feeling lost – "Can't tell my future / And I can't tell my past," Brown sings, plucking out a string of ominous descending notes (they sound, to me, a little bit like a clock ticking down the remaining minutes of my life) – but there's a bit in a later verse where he offers us all some solace, some beauty in all that muck: "I got a woman, she / Lightin' when she / Lightnin' when she lightnin' smile."
"Skinny Leg Blues," Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas
The Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas song that instantly destroys everyone – myself included – is "Last Kind Word Blues" (it was recently featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, accompanying an incredible story by John Jeremiah Sullivan about its cipher-like creators). But its flip side, "Skinny Leg Blues," is nearly as intense and mesmeric. It starts off sweet enough: "And I'm a little bitty mama, baby, and I ain't built for speed," Wiley sings while her playing partner, L.V. Thomas, picks out a jaunty guitar melody. Then, a few verses later, things get unapologetically, abruptly homicidal: "I'm gonna cut your throat baby, gonna look down in your face," Wiley suddenly coos. It's the placid way she delivers this line – as if she was always capable of it, as if it's your fault for thinking otherwise – that's cause for chills.
"Sur le Borde de L'eau," Blind Uncle Gaspard
I didn't know much of anything about Blind Uncle Gaspard before Chris King played me this 78, which was recorded for Vocalion Records in New Orleans in 1929; it turns out all there really is to know is that Gaspard was born in Louisiana in 1880, and died there in 1937. Gaspard has a song (with the fiddler Delma Lachney) on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, but "Sur le Borde de L'eau" is his masterwork, and I have mostly given up on trying to explain all the things it makes me feel.
"Candy Man Blues," Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt recorded this jam for Okeh Records in New York City in 1928; shortly thereafter, he returned home to Avalon, Mississippi and resumed his work as a sharecropper (in 1963, at the beginning of the folk revival, Hurt was "rediscovered" by the collector Dick Spotswood and the musicologist Tom Hoskins, and recorded several more albums before his death in 1966). Nathan Salsburg, one of the youngest collectors featured in Do Not Sell, found a copy of this 78 in a dumpster in Louisville, KY; it came from the house of a recently deceased collector named Don Wahle, whose family had ordered the liquidation of his estate (in Wahle's case, this meant tossing all his stuff in the garbage). Salsburg later produced a beautiful collection based on Wahle's trashed records, Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time, and End Time Music, 1923-1936, which was released by Tompkins Square in 2012; "Candy Man," which had already been reissued extensively, didn't quite make sense for that set, but it's a funny, filthy song about a stick of candy (or, well, you know), and one of my favorites from Wahle's collection.
"Old English," Freddie Gibbs, Young Thug, A$AP Ferg
It took me over three years to write and research Do Not Sell At Any Price, and I spent most of that time (happily) listening to pre-war music; since the book's been done, I've been gobbling up anything that sounds aggressively new. I listened to this track about four hundred times the day it was released. With hip-hop, I tend to lean toward things that are sparsely produced, or maybe just sparse-sounding: things that echo and sound big. I like voices, and I like rapping. (Or, as Young Thug hollers here: "Let it breathe!")
"Desperate Man Blues," John Fahey
John Fahey started collecting 78s in the 1950s, when he was still a high school student in Tacoma Park, Maryland (supposedly, it was hearing Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" that got him going; there's some irony in that particular title, given Fahey's reputation as an extraordinary crank). He was later feted for his solo instrumental guitar figures, beautiful, tip-toeing songs that were inspired – both directly and indirectly – by the 78rpm records he gathered and treasured. The title of this track was eventually repurposed by the director Edward Gillen, who used it to name his documentary about the collector Joe Bussard (one of Fahey's good friends, and, incidentally, also the first person to record his guitar music).
"I Found A Reason," Cat Power
One thing I've always found beautiful about pre-war music is how non-proprietary it was (or at least that's how it all seems from here). Maybe because people hadn't quite figured out to make a lot of money selling records, there was less concern about ownership, and verses and melodies floated freely; nobody really knew who wrote what after awhile. This is Cat Power covering a Velvet Underground song, and Chan Marshall tweaks the lyrics and melody in a way that makes it both impossibly sad and also very much her own. I have to dole out my listens of this, lest I get too weepy.
Amanda Petrusich and Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records links:
Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Globe and Mail review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Under the Radar review
Wall Street Journal review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music release lists