About one-third of the way through Amanda Petrusich’s new book, I became convinced that its author was, as the British say, daft. Mildly unhinged. Charmingly irrational. I say this as a badge of honor, not an insult. It was in the middle of the chapter where Petrusich (normal-looking, quite attractive in the author’s photo) had gone through scuba training to dive into the river in Grafton, Wisconsin, near the Paramount Records factory — defunct for eighty years — in search of the rare records and Paramount ephemera that legend has it the employees had tossed into the waters.
Although no record in the world would ever entice me into a wetsuit, I thought, “This is a kind of devotion to the cause that makes great — if slightly unstable — art.”
I had already been entranced by Petrusich’s book while she was on dry land. I am not an stereotypical record collector — I prefer to encounter jazz recordings serendiptiously — but I liked Petrusich’s manner and approach from the first pages. For one thing, she steadfastly refuses to satirize, to stand back at a mocking distance from the subject or from the figures she chronicles. She does comment on the stereotype — overly pale men who spend their lives indoors and often below ground level, but Petrusich not only treats her subjects with interest and deference, but with affectionate respect . . . and becomes one of them in her own fashion. Her writing is lively, and the book rarely lingers for long on one obsession or the next (at times, it had the snap of a series of New Yorker mini-profiles).
The book is never a slow-moving history of the field (although she does touch on some of its legendary figures, such as James McKune and Big Joe Clauberg, Harry Smith and his Anthology) but its whimsical expansiveness leaves a reader feeling elated rather than deprived. I wish I could have time-traveled Petrusich back to the mid-Seventies gatherings of collectors at the Prince George Hotel in New York City, but she has been to the New Jersey Jazz Record Collectors’ Bash, so that will do. At more than one point, I thought, “I could certainly tell her stories of collectors,” but I suspect that my reaction is far from unusual.
I should alert JAZZ LIVES readers that Petrusich’s fascination has almost nothing to do with the objects of the jazz lover’s sacred quest. ZULUS BALL does not rate a mention here, nor do the Bix Old Gold broadcast acetates, or the “little silver record” of Lester Young that Jo Jones talked about.
Petrusich is captivated by rural blues — of the sort recorded by Paramount before the company folded in 1932 — and she has her first epiphany listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s BIG LEG BLUES with collector John Heneghan. But what saves this endearingly wandering narrative from being One Woman’s Descent Into The Maelstrom is both Petrusich’s light touch and her willingness to ask deeper philosophical questions about collecting, music, and our perceptions of both.
For all its amiability, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is a deeply serious book that — sometimes indirectly, other times head-on — asks hard questions about what makes an object valuable, and what drives certain people to amass such objects, both in what we see of them and what they see of themselves.
Anyone reading this book who is new to record collecting will find it impossible to look at a 78 rpm record the same way again — even the dullest one — without sensing its almost mystical electrical power to entice. (I write this, fully aware that I already knew how a blandly labeled RECORDS paper folio in a shelf at Goodwill may contain objects that would increase my pulse rate.)
A pause, so that you can hear Petrusich’s own voice, while she muses over the gap between the music and the artifact, the sound and the shellac disc with its memorized matrix number, and tried to figure out where our feverish excitement comes from:
That chasm–between a studied response and a gut-borne one–seemed even more palpable in the specific context of prewar blues music, where the hunt for (and especially the subsequent analysis of) the records appeared to run directly counter to the lawless spirit of the work. With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over? Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine–there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual details could help crystallize a bigger,richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably began in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential–as compelling–to me as the way my entire central nervous system convulsed whenever Skip James opened his mouth.
Balancing such vividly evocative meditations — which open out into lovely elusive speculations — are the concrete, often hilarious markers in Petrusich’s quest: buying records with collector Chris King at a flea market in Hillsville, Virginia; visiting Pete Whelan amidst his rare palm trees and rarer records in Florida, talking with John Tefteller over lunch in Brooklyn, being admitted to Joe Bussard’s basement shrine to hear Black Patti 8030; looking through Don Wahle’s papers with Nathan Salsburg; talking about collectors with Ian Nagoski and with Bear Family’s Richard Weize.
As the book winds down — through “ethnic music” and cowboy throat-singing, a visit to the Southern Folklife Collection, a detour into SKOKIAAN, a few pages where Petrusich muses on the relations between autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and collecting, and finally visits from two people active in the contemporary New York City world, phonograph collector / expert exhibitor Michael Cunella and musician / collector Jerron Paxton — I confess my jazz self became slightly restless. “Couldn’t you have written about just one person who collects Leon Roppolo?” I muttered to myself. But Petrusich’s many narratives are so sweetly compelling — vivid in their understated way — that I forgave her that omission. And the book ends with yet another epiphany, when Petrusich encounters the “new” set of Paramount Records issues:
I felt suddenly and fiercely protective of a subculture I had no real claim to. I wanted 78s to continue offering me–and all the people I’d met–a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world. I didn’t want them to become another part of that world. I wanted them to stay ours.
I do not know if Petrusich’s fierce protectiveness is possible or plausible, or even desirable. I understand it completely: so much of the lure of collecting these artifacts is the secret, even snobbish delight one can take in moving so far outside the mainstream as to require subtitles, a translator. But I wonder if the world would be happier if everyone could listen to Charley Patton 78s while making breakfast.
And I wonder if Petrusich will check in with us in ten years. Has she purchased a turntable on which to play her recent beloved acquisitions? I hope so. It would sadden me immensely if I learned, through whatever avenue one learns such things, that she had thrown it all over for a smartphone with a larger memory for music and a new delight in, say, swizzle sticks or first editions of Yeats. But I think this won’t happen. Among its other virtues, and they are numerous, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is the journal of a spiritual enlightenment, a finding of a series of personal truths. And that is always fascinating to read.
Much, if not all, of the music Petrusich falls in love with in this book is either outside my sphere of pleasure or I am ignorant of it. But before I had read thirty pages of this book, I was already recommending it to people who love the music and the records. I recommend it to you as a deep, elegantly quirky pleasure, whose music reverberates long after one has finished reading it.
May your happiness increase!