In mid-April, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story that might have been taken as a sign of a leap in interest in pre-World War II acoustic blues. It concerned the utterly obscure Depression-era singers Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. In fact, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” presented sensational aspects of the two women’s stories (a murder; closeted lesbian lives on the run), it had, at its heart, something else entirely. The unpublished information about the duo was tracked down in the early 1960s by the fabled, troubled blues researcher and record collector Mack McCormick and then clandestinely poached from his files by a research assistant. Constructed to maximize suspense, that story—and the peculiarities of white, educated blues obsessives—was the element that justified the article’s prominence in a publication not otherwise known for introducing forgotten music by minor artists of earlier eras.
The magazine’s editors are not alone. In the weeks since then, four new books have been published that take up related themes: stories of middlemen blues researchers and record collectors, often, of guys who’ve been both. What’s going on here?
Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, Elion Paz’s lavish new volume of photographs depicts obsessive record collectors and their shelves upon shelves of immensely prized possessions. The book offers colorful photos of fanatic young collectors—standing in front of LPs with covers of certain colors, of all the David Bowie recordings, of private pressings with covers that are pure kitsch. And yet, articles about the book at Slate and Esquire have focused on the only pre-war singles collector in the 416-page volume, the jocular but cranky blues, early jazz and hillbilly specialist, Joe Bussard, age 76, possessor and caretaker of one of the largest private collections of 78 rpm records in those fields.
What drives collectors of old 78s like Joe to organize so much of their lives around relentless searching for and organizing of coveted rarities? Those questions are central in the latest book by journalist Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which looks in on the obsessive collector subculture, and blues 78 collectors in particular. To see what manic searching for rare records feels like, Petrusich goes hunting with the Grammy-winning engineer Chris King and brings us along. While more interested in the music than in collecting, King shows her where unaccounted-for blues sides might still be lurking. (Inside old Victrola cabinets for sale in the South, is one place.)
Like many of the hardcore blues collectors—and collectors of anything—Petrusich has idiosyncratic opinions and strong responses to the music on those venerable, scratchy original 78s. She’s graphic when she describes her own intense, agitated physical reactions: “I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus … I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it,” she says of hearing an original pressing of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time. She also describes her strong predilection for blues records that are unremittingly bleak. That’s not an unusual preference for a member of a generation raised on the notion that caressing the texture of devastation and disconnection in art is profound, for whom lighter blues is unthinkably upbeat.
In the most colorful adventure in Do Not Sell, Petrusich dons a wet suit and searches for the legendary master recordings from Paramount that were, according to some accounts, thrown into the nearby Milwaukee River when the manufacturer went out of business. She doesn’t find any. The George Plimpton-style role-taking, intended to demonstrate how strong an obsession finding a rare record can be, perhaps better illustrates the lengths a writer might go to enliven a chapter.
She also reiterates the story of the “Blues Mafia,” the tight gang of white blues collectors of the 1950s and ’60s, some of whom turned into impresarios, some into recluses, who played such an influential role in changing the idea of which blues mattered. The specialists who coveted rarely heard records came to elevate rarely heard performers. If today people so often take Mississippi delta blues (Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton) for heart of the form, it’s in no small measure because the collector-researchers of the ’50s and ’60s, and the blues rockers who followed their lead, taught us to think that way. In fact, those edgy, relatively marginalized, rural guitar players had, for the most part, been little-known artists with limited sales among the black Southern audience, which generally saw blues as dance music. But they presented challenging sounds and images irresistible to the white collector specialists.
Blues radio veteran Steve Cushing’s new 355-page anthology, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, gathers together detailed interviews with 17 of the key collector-researchers, particularly those who became constructive blues activists (Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Dick Spottswood, David Evans). These collectors founded reissue and new issue labels, created detailed discographies and blues histories, and most productively, enabled late-in-life coda careers for performers they “rediscovered,” including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. Cushing’s detailed discussions with significant blues revival researchers tell crisscrossing artist- and record-rediscovery stories, portraying a close-knit scene with its own rituals, famous incidents, lost heroes, and well-recalled ne’er-do-well connivers. One of the classic blues revival stories is the tale (recalled by multiple researchers) of how a number of leading lights of the Blues Mafia—including eventual guitar hero and label executive John Fahey—raced to be the ones to locate Skip James in Mississippi.
Crucially, all the interviewees in Cushing’s book could still meet and talk with the blues originators directly. Fifty years after 1964, we’re a lot further away from the height of the mid-century blues revival than the revival was from the era of acoustic recorded blues. This points to one reason we’re hearing a lot about the blues collector revivalists now: The gents who had direct contact with the music-makers are themselves aging and dwindling in number.
The fate of the markedly talented and decidedly peculiar, even misanthropic Fahey is told engagingly and with insight by Steve Lowenthal in a compact but potent new biography, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist. Politically and emotionally at odds with the optimistic, linked-arm vibe of the early ’60s folk revival, Fahey was ahead of his time in pointing out that African Americans were not particularly enamored of the uplifting political folk music Pete Seeger and company thought they should be; they were buying R&B from the Impressions or Drifters. For his dark personal and musical visions, Fahey would later be taken up by the punk rock generation, yet ironically, his intricate but mellow guitar instrumentation also made him a forerunner of the “New Age” music beloved by massage therapists. Lowenthal makes vivid Fahey’s disconnection from those he gathered around him—a disconnection that was mirrored in the music of the “deep” bluesmen he so admired.
The aging of the blues collecting generation does not in itself fully explain recent fascination with that scene and its constituents. That this is an era in which music readily changes hands with no physical traces may be more to the point. It is hard to imagine future generations fetishizing hard-drive MP3 collections. Is there, perhaps, nostalgia or even envy at work here for fanatics who could actually collect, and possess their prizes in tangible physical form?
Nothing has yet made the middlemen more vital or interesting than the music they organized around and collected, however—and nothing could. Attempts to find fresh stories may keep moving us, layer by layer, further away from the music itself—one more Russian stacking doll away from the music at the center.