Amanda Petrusich’s research for Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records sent her to junkyards and basements across the country, as well as to scuba class—in the hopes that by learning to dive she could retrieve a lost trove of Paramount Records gems from the bottom of the Milwaukee River. Part history and part character study, the book explores the haunting power of country blues captured on 10-inch shellac discs at the start of the 20th century—and offers a thoughtful meditation on why some collectors spend their whole lives in pursuit of such elusive objects. It is also something of a conversion story: In the video above, Petrusich, a music critic and part-time Gallatin faculty member, discusses how she too came to love 78s.
(Read additional excerpts from her interview below.)
On the highs and lows of collecting:
The idea of dedicating your life to the pursuit of an object that you may never find, but if you did find might contain something revelatory or transforming—there is something sort of lonesome about that. Or sort of sad. But the flip side is that there’s this spectacular and vibrant and quirky and funny and strange and competitive and insular community of people doing the very same same thing.
As contentious as relationships between collectors can be, I think when collectors find someone who feels as strongly about this music or about this format as they do, it’s a real moment of solidarity and friendship and community. You sort of find your people, in a way. I thought there was something really beautiful about that, especially as I began to think more and more that I was finding my people among the collectors.
On why there are so few female 78 collectors:
I still wonder why! Trying to get to the bottom of that question involved so much conjecture and so many generalizations about gender that at certain point I kind of threw my hands up. But in part, 78 collectors are an established community of men, and they’re not super welcoming to outsiders—so it’s just a hard thing to break in to if you haven’t been doing it for a really long time. I also think the connection we make with music as fans—in terms of how emotional it can be—is in some ways an easier feeling for women to manage. Women are socialized in a way that we’re allowed to feel our feelings, and express them and manage them. That’s maybe less possible for men, so they circumvent it by doing this other thing by—by managing the feeling through the collection and serialization of objects.
And then there’s the history of the practice: 78 collecting really got going in the late ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, right as the format was beginning to become extinct. A lot of the first collectors of 78s would go door-to-door—they would get jobs as exterminators, census workers or anything that would allow them access to people’s homes, and they would request routes in marginalized African-American communities in the South so they could talk to the people who would have bought and saved some the records that they were interested in. It would’ve been a lot harder for a woman to do that in 1955. Women were not encouraged to take those kinds of jobs.
On the challenges of writing about music:
Music criticism is such a funny and complicated thing to teach. I’m always trying to encourage my students is to really trust their ears and trust the things that they feel or think when they listen to music. I think it’s easy, especially now, to get bogged down in the context of an artist. Songs and artists accrue cultural currency; it means a a certain thing to like a certain artist. That can distract from the song itself and how it might work on you. And it’s also a little intimidating to trust your own opinion on something, if you hear it and you think it’s no good or false in some way. There’s no right or wrong way to experience a song, and so you have to be really honest as a listener and a writer. It’s really hard.
I know people get frustrated with music critics, and there are a lot of potshots taken at the practice. But music is such an integral part of the way people live, now and in the past—and, I’m sure, in the future. I think being able to have a critical dialogue about it is so essential. Having the skill to initiate those conversations is essential and worth learning.