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.