Do Not Sell at Any Price By Amanda Petrusich, $25.
I clearly remember the first records I purchased. Or, to be more precise, the first 13 records my sister Linda and I purchased for a dollar, under an assumed name, from Columbia House. I can still see them spread out on the floor: Sweet … Billy Joel … Bread … Journey … Poco. That initial foray dovetailed into decades of music collecting, moving from record, to cassette, to CD, to external hard drives and Spotify. I still don’t like Poco and have no idea why I ordered that record. Anyone want it for a buck?
But liking a record often has very little to do with collecting them, as Amanda Petrusich details in the highly enjoyable Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. In the realm of rare 78s, the men (they are almost all men) who spend their lives diving into dusty bins and Dumpsters (or, as Petrusich herself does, the murky depths of a river), the hunt itself is part of the lure. Like John Tefteller, the don of the 78 game, a man willing to spend top dollar for the rarities, a man who once sent postcards to every person in a city looking for original pressings from Paramount Records, his pursuit of the white whale—an ever-changing white whale—is dogged to the point of obsession. “Tefteller was pursuing his prey with the kind of vehemence typically employed by a PI stalking a client’s ex-wife, or a cop chasing a kingpin. It felt calculated and thorough. It also felt thankless … How can you solve a murder without a body?”
The bodies here are almost all arcane country-blues records—prior to reading this book, I’d never heard of the most searched-for items, like Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” or most of Charley Patton’s songs—but that’s what makes Petrusich such a fine music critic: She can explain her own experience listening to the songs in such a way that you want to start digging through your Nana’s basement, hoping to find such incredible woe carved into shellac. Better is to read the book with a service like Spotify open, so that you can immediately hear the past come alive in your ears.
Of course, the digital age is the very thing that has made this obsessive need to find these original 78s so important, the ability to hold the disc in your hand, to hear the imperfections, to be transported into an actual place, a recording studio outside of Milwaukee, with its horrible sound quality, with the haunted voices collected in the grooves. But short of having an impressive 78 collection of your own, the Internet is the best companion to this wholly entertaining and compelling look into both the history of collecting music and the odd players who’ve spent their lives archiving our past.