Round in circles: at 78 rpm

It’s not that I haven’t been reading:  I have, I have.  But it’s taken a while to reflect on this book:  Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price.  

Collectors are all around us, along with all sorts of people who concentrate so hard that they become experts, whether on rail engines, quantum physics, or vinyl records.  In this case Petrusich was fascinated by the collectors of very rare 78 rpm records, and an obsessive bunch they are.

You might think, from going to boot fairs, that there are thousands of homeless 78s, and you would be right, to some degree.  But that’s because you’re usually seeing the most mainstream, mass produced recordings of sentimental love songs, or operatic arias, or big band dance hits.  But in the USA there were also sectors of the population who bought speciality records, not least the black population who listened to the blues, or recent immigrants longing for the music of their homelands.

Record companies naturally pressed fewer copies of 78s for minority audiences, but 78s are also delicate, prone to shattering or the grooves wearing down.  What were known as ‘race records’ are pretty rare.  Yet surprising finds still turn up, where earlier generations were loath to throw anything away.  So unusual 78s might be found under wooden porches, or up in attics.  Not to the same degree that they were in the 1960s, when so much American folk music was resurrected, but still – even now – there is a chance that songs still might turn up, unheard for 70 or 80 years.

Petrusich shadowed a few collectors and became great friends with one or two, and even went to the extraordinary length of learning to scuba dive in the hopes that she might recover discarded 78s from a murky river bed (don’t hold your breath).  The book is fascinating, if a little uneven, and it led me down some musical paths I hadn’t expected.  In particular, it led me to hunt down a link to hear this:  Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words, a haunting blues recorded in Wisconsin sometime in 1930 but harking back to the First World War.  There are maybe only 3 copies known, but it’s been covered by more modern artists.

The search for Geeshie Wiley was also covered in greater depth in the New York Times by the superb essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan.  Geeshie recorded a few other known sides, and evidently toured around Texas, but her background is obscure.  Nor do we know what became of her.

But the recording is amazing, well worth your attention, a marker of how much extraordinary music may have been lost over time.  Happily, the collectors discussed in this book seem to be prone to leaving their collections to university archives, so their 78s are being catalogued, digitised, and preserved for the future.


Little Red Books

Housing Works, 2nd Ave., NY

Housing Works, 2nd Ave., NY

Books do furnish a room, it seems. There’s been a certain amount of discussion recently on how people organise those very furnishings: by size? by subject? by how much you love them? And some organise their books by colour, including a charity shop I visited in New York. (Hello, Housing Works, 2nd Ave.!)


In honour of this approach, then, here’s Love, on maybe the Dick Clark show, when they were playing edgy pop, before the psychedelia really kicked in, and oh my, Arthur Lee. Okay, they may have been miming, but still oh my.  Little Red Book.  They took a Burt Bacharach song and turned it round. 


Oh, Marseilles

I’m in the midst of a crime noir kick at the moment, centred round a book picked up from a charity shop in New York:  Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo.  Izzo was an essayist, commentator from the leftist perspective, and writer for film and television before writing a trio of novels.  They feature, like so many noir novels before them a good cop who turns private eye.  This one has great taste, in wine, whiskey, and women (of course!).  So far, so true to form.  But he’s also in love with his hometown, Marseilles.

I’ve never been to Marseilles, nor near it, but these books are so evocative that it makes me want to see the city:  the view of the glittering sea, the different types of heat, the scent of mint and oregano and garlic (and sewers, it has to be said), the rustling of dry grass, and the flavours of fresh fish.

And there’s the music, which ranges from local hip-hop in no doubt undecipherable slang to the classic sounds of the North African diaspora.  So here’s one I hadn’t know before:  Lili Boniche’s Ana Fil Houb, apparently a version of Mon histoire, c’est l’histoire d’un amour.  It seems to fit the mood of the book perfectly.  Noir all over.