Music writer and teacher at NYU’s Gallatin School, Amanda Petrusich lives in Brooklyn, NY in an apartment adorned with vintage guitars, CD box sets, anatomical posters and milk crates stuffed with vinyl records. Carl, her cat, gnawed at the lavaliere mic we’d placed on the living room table. “I’m sorry,” she said, scooping him up, “he’s in his bite everything phase.” She handed us both a beer and, after interviewing us for a time, acquiesced to the interviewee seat, ready to discuss her focus for the last few years - the world of 78-rpm record collecting.
Petrusich’s music and culture writings have appeared in a variety of publications including Spin, the Atlantic and the New York Times. She is also a contributing editor to the Oxford American and writes regularly for Pitchfork. Her style is witty and insightful and her subjects are varied ranging from obscure Cajun accordionists to cough-syrup-reeling rappers. At 25, she wrote her first book, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music (2009), which followed her on a trip through the American south as she attempted to connect early Americana music to its place of origin. Her latest book, Do Not Sell at Any Price (2014), details the history of 78-rpm collecting and the personalities that make up its zealous subculture.
Petrusich made it clear to us that she was more of a writer on collectors than a collector herself. Her collection of LPs and 78s, although compact, is tasteful and represents her ten years as a music critic and a lifetime of music appreciation. Keeping her initial claim in mind, we chose to talk half about her personal collection and half about her general thoughts on collecting. After all, who better to turn an anthropological lens on record collecting than a critic turned collector?
The question of why 78 collectors become such fervent scavengers who scour swap meets, knock on backwoods doors and monitor eBay auctions comes down to the title of her new book. At a 78 listening party with John Heneghan, she noticed a record with a handmade note pasted to the label saying, “Do not sell at any price.” She recognized it as a statement, or plea that spoke to a higher code of musical appreciation understood only by those who participate in the high stakes practice of collecting shellac.
Another question we asked concerned the gender gap among record collectors. It’s a question that Petrusich has encountered frequently and one that she investigated thoroughly for her book. An entire chapter in Do Not Sell discusses why it is that more men collect than women and how, although the studies aren’t conclusive, Asperger’s syndrome and OCPD – two male-dominated conditions – share similar characteristics to collecting as distinct from hoarding.
Petrusich summed up these points for us during our visit. But more important than what sex collects best is how the reissue - a collector’s output – is a highly subjective entity. The idea being that collectors express themselves through a compilation is fascinating. She referenced an idea that Mary Beth Hamilton presented in her book In Search of the Blues that the archetypal collector skewed our perception of American vernacular music to resemble his own tortured and alienated state. “That’s why they love Skip James, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson because those guys were also marginalized figures who were down on their luck and were lonely, itinerant and unmoored in terms of their family, community and their role in culture,” Petrusich explained. “I think a lot of collectors empathized with that.”
The idea, she acknowledged, although interesting, is partly reductive. “I hate to suggest that the reason why we love Skip James is that he sings sad songs and collectors are sad people. We love Skip James because he’s tremendous and insane and a beautiful performer, but it’s interesting to think about how all those things come together.”
A record she played us from her collection was the 1962 LP Really! The Country Blues, compiled by collectors Pete Whelan and Bill Givens. This album was, as she told us, a response to the influential 1959 compilation The Country Blues produced by Samuel Charters, a field recorder for Folkways records among other things. Whelan didn’t believe that Charters had presented an accurate portrayal of the country blues canon because of his failure to include Skip James, Son House or Henry Thomas.
“Unwavering intensity,” Petrusich said, “is the 78 collector’s other attribute.” Collectors defend their views fervently and, as a result, engage in gripes about what the real stuff is and what the commercialized crap is. For example, Do Not Sell features a chapter about the “king of 78s,” Joe Bussard, who believes that jazz altogether died after 1933.
Contrasted with the dusty intensity of the 78-rpm world, Petrusich’s other record selections had a welcoming, low-key effect. Bobby Charles, Bobby Brown, Sharon Van Etten and Salt-N-Pepa felt like unequivocally cool choices given the extensive knowledge of prewar country blues she demonstrated earlier. Although she caught the bug for 78 collecting, it seemed like she could just as easily listen to the Clash or Prince.
Petrusich tells many stories of colorful characters in Do Not Sell at Any Price. But more importantly, the book tracks her growth in understanding lost American recordings and why people hunt them. 78s are time capsules for forgotten identities, making the music precious but difficult for writers and listeners to contextualize owing to their disconnectedness from place and time. Synthesizing the perspective of collectors like Christopher King, Ian Nagoski and John Heneghan, Petrusich speaks to the beauty of early-recorded music and connects readers to an otherwise arcane field and to the eccentrics who dedicate their time and resources to its preservation.