Amanda Petrusich's fascination with 78 RPM records and the obsessives who collect them led her to the bottom of the Milwaukee River.
Amanda Petrusich's fascination with 78 RPM records and the obsessives who collect them led her to the bottom of the Milwaukee River. Credit: Bret Stetka

In spring 2011, New York music journalist Amanda Petrusich convinced her husband, Bret Stetka, to learn scuba diving with her. She invested hundreds of dollars in lessons and gear and trained in a local pool. Then she traveled to Beaufort, North Carolina, where Stetka’s parents have a vacation home, to complete the open-water dives required for certification. And she did it all for one reason: so she could visit Grafton, Wisconsin, and sift through the bed of the Milwaukee River looking for 78 RPM records and metal masters.

Paramount Records, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, produced some of the most important blues sides in history, and it manufactured its 78s in a building on the bank of the Milwaukee River between 1917 and 1935. Many of those records are now impossibly rare—in several cases, only a handful of copies are known to exist. One probably apocryphal story says that disgruntled employees threw records and masters into the river when the company was shutting down.

Petrusich’s underwater record hunt in July 2011 (she came up empty) arose from research she was already doing for her new book about 78 collectors, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records (Scribner). She didn’t quite turn into one of the rabid collectors she profiles, but scuba diving to look for mastering plates isn’t exactly the act of a writer maintaining a journalistic distance from her subject.

Do Not Sell at Any Price looks at what makes collectors tick, paying special attention to the service they’ve provided by researching and reissuing wonderful music that might otherwise have stayed lost forever. Petrusich, 34, interviews veterans such as Pete Whelan and Joe Bussard (who focus on jazz and blues) as well as relative newcomers such as Ian Nagoski and Christopher King (who have much broader tastes). I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Brooklyn about what motivated her to dig into 78 culture, start collecting, and dive into the Milwaukee River.

What was the inspiration for the book?

Amanda Petrusich: It was probably around 2007, when I was working on a story for Spin about what was then the commercial resurgence of the vinyl record. When I was reporting that story, I ended up meeting a guy named Mike Lupica, who at the time was a DJ at WFMU here in New York and the director of the WFMU Record Fair, which is this kind of mecca for collectors of all kinds. And I remember him saying, “Sure, these LP dudes are interesting, and I can introduce you to some guys it would be great for you to talk about in the emergence of interest in this format, but if you really want to talk to someone who’s bonkers and feels really strongly about recording formats, you need to meet a 78 collector.”

I had a sort of vague sense of what 78s were, but I certainly had never encountered collectors beyond what I’d seen in Ghost World. He ended up introducing me to John Heneghan, who appears in the beginning of my book, and I couldn’t use that for the Spin story. But I found him so interesting and I thought that the work that he was doing was so compelling. I kept him in mind, and a couple of years later I ended up writing a profile on him for the New York Times. I think it was maybe 1,700 words, and I remember thinking, “God, there is so much more of a story here.” And that was when I really started to think about it as a project.

As the book progresses, you sort of become a convert—you definitely seem to sympathize with the collectors and feel like a kindred spirit.

I have a decent collection of LPs, and there was part of me that always understood it. When I was a kid, I collected all kinds of nonsense. I understood the sort of swell of satisfaction that comes from serializing objects, whether it was lining books up on my shelf or LPs or whatever it was. And then there was something about the rarity of these records but also the fragility of what they contained—this music, which meant so much to me as a fan. There was a sense of gratitude that it had been protected, that people had found these records and saved them.

That ended up being a sort of perfect storm for me, and I would say probably halfway through the research and writing of the book, I wanted to be a part of that process—I wanted not only my own collection but I wanted some sense that I played a role in protecting this music that was so important to me. Even talking about it now I’m like, “Amanda, that sounds crazy.” I sound like a crazy person. But I got the bug a little bit.

I talk about the ways in which collecting can be a sort of toxic habit. It’s certainly a very expensive one. It can take a toll on your personal relationships. But it’s really fun! I like looking through a box of records, the sense of “who knows what I could hear today that could change my life forever.”

I’d had access to too much music, and it was too easy, and I wasn’t investing the kind of time and energy in it that I did when I was a kid or even when I was a younger writer. I was just listening to things in a very half-hearted way and moving on to the next thing really quickly. This was so different than that, and I think that appealed to me too.

I worked for six years at Jazz Record Mart back in the 80s and early 90s. I didn’t collect 78s, but the store had 78s. I didn’t have relationships with any of the collectors; to me they were all old, weird, and greasy. It seems like now there’s a new generation of collectors. I wonder if you see something different about these younger guys.

They have a harder go of it because they don’t have access to the same records as people like [Joe] Bussard or certainly Pete Whelan, who’ve been collecting since the 50s and 60s.

He’s not featured too heavily in the book, but Richard Nevis has probably one of the best collections if not the best collection of 78s in America. He’s an engineer who’s worked at Yazoo Records for many years. I remember riding in a taxi with him, going over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was trying to talk to him about newer records to find out if he was interested in any music being made now. He was adamant that it all ended with Hank Williams for him. I was like, well, this is insanity.

Guys like Nathan [Salsburg] and Ian [Nagoski], you can talk to either of them about all kinds of records, including a lot of avant-garde contemporary music that draws really heavily from some of this older vernacular stuff. They can see the ways in which it’s still relevant or the ways in which it’s become twisted or transformed. They could hear the things that were reemerging with new artists and on new records.

When you were doing the reporting, how important was the realization that just about every collector was a white male?

I went into this project thinking, “All right, here is the sort of archetype in place regarding what everybody thinks a 78 collector is.” It’s Steve Buscemi or the comic-book guy from The Simpsons. I went into the reporting thinking, well, that can’t possibly be true, and this would be great to write about, to show that lots of people like and collect 78s. But it did unfortunately turn out to be mostly true.

There’s one African-American collector, Jerron Paxton, and then there’s one female collector, Sarah Bryan, who also pops up toward the end of the book. I’m not sure Sarah self-identifies too heavily as a collector—she sort of buys what she likes, so her collection is really personal, in a lovely way.

Coming to this as a music writer, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar—it’s kind of a dude activity. It surprises me, because some of this music is so beautiful it should theoretically transcend all of that. I did have the opportunity to speak to this fantastic neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins about why this is such a male hobby. He had some interesting theories, one being that the collecting impulse is related to addiction, which also skews a little bit more male. Certain forms of OCD and autism have also been shown to trend a little more male.

Did you say, “Hmm, I’ve got a little bit of that myself”?

Yeah, absolutely. Some troubling self-examination happened for me in the process of reporting this.

I think men and women maybe experience fandom a little differently. As much as I love music and really got hooked on collecting, I’ve never had the impulse to catalog and research in the same way that these guys do. For me the emotional reaction that I have to a piece of music has been the beginning and the end. I think for some collectors those things are either reversed or maybe held in equal weight. And that to me felt like it could’ve been some kind of gender divide.

I hate to repeat these things because they seem like such corny things to say about gender, but maybe women listen to music a little bit more emotionally than men. It’s a generality that I hate to perpetuate, but it started to feel true to me for a while. I’m also a bit of a tomboy, and I’ve been in this field that is sort of male for a long time. There was part of me that was like, OK, I get this. Like, maybe I get this more than other women get this.

How would you say your relationship with music has changed? Or has it?

I am a better listener now. Prior to writing this book, there were a lot of these records I hadn’t heard before. I think of Blind Uncle Gaspard, who was a Cajun performer who recorded a handful of sides for Vocalion in 1929. Chris King was the first person who played me a Gaspard record, and I remember feeling like I was having a stroke. I always think of that Barry Hannah line in Geronimo Rex, where he hears a piece of music and it’s so unbearably beautiful to him—like the kind of thing that makes you want to take a rifle and shoot yourself in the heart because it’s too much.

You work as a critic for long enough and you start to think, “Oh, I’ve heard everything.” You get a new record, and all the record people are all excited about it, and you put it on and you’re like that cranky old person: “Oh, it sounds like the last 50 bands that sound like the prior 50 bands.” And some of this stuff, recorded in 1929, sounded so unprecedented to me that it reawakened that excitement. “Aw, there are still records out there for me. There are still things that can really make me cry and make me feel all these things that I maybe thought I was done feeling from pop music.”

I think I have a sense of prewar recordings now. I have a pretty rich understanding of how it’s so unlikely we even have them at all. I thought I was turning into an incredibly lazy listener prior, and I really feel like that’s changed for me.

And has it changed your collecting habits, or the way you’re consuming music?

I thought that maybe when the book was done, I’d take a break from this world for a while, but in fact I’m doing a story for the next issue of the Oxford American. It’s going to be a Texas-themed issue, and I was talking to my editor there and I was like, “Oh, Henry Thomas, I want to write about Henry Thomas!” An artist obviously from the 78 era. But I took a minute and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to write about DJ Screw. I want to write about Houston rap.”

I’ve been trying to force myself to do that, but I can’t help myself. I was just in Mississippi for a travel story, and the whole time I kept thinking, “I bet there are 78s here, I bet there are 78s here.” I’d be walking down the street, and I would think, I bet there are 78s in that house.

I used to listen to a lot of digital music, and now I listen almost exclusively to LPs and 78s. And again, there’s that very cliched thing of the tactile experience, and forcing me to slow down a bit. I got almost addicted to that.

The former Paramount Records pressing plant, in a photograph likely taken in the mid-1930sCredit: Courtesy Simon and Schuster

The part of the book where you do the dive—it was a little hard to swallow. Wasn’t there a previous dive? Even though someone had done it unsuccessfully, you decided, “Well, I’m going to do this.”

I think a few people had tried. Certainly there had been a PBS show called History Detectives that had gone out and found nothing. I mean, it felt ludicrous to me the entire time I was doing it, but at the same time I felt legitimately, earnestly compelled to give it a shot. I think I even talk about it in the book as being a baptism of sorts. I think maybe that was some sort of symbolic, crazy part of my journey in terms of feeling like I was allowed to count myself among these men in the sense of, like, “Well, I love this music this much.”

I certainly didn’t think I’d find a playable 78 or a playable master, but maybe I thought there was some way to find some sort of evidence. Because you go to Wisconsin now and there’s virtually nothing left of the Wisconsin Chair Company. It’s like, “Did this really happen? Did this company exist?” The recordings are so ghostly and strange and rare. And on a narrative level too, the elaborate windup and letdown almost felt necessary to me, not only for the action of the book but also because it seems to mirror the experience of looking for a rare 78—there’s all this delusional mania and all of this energy and preparation and dreaming and work. You can search like a crazy person for years, you can spend your whole life looking, and you may not find one.

I hoped it indicated something about what the chase feels like, which is sort of this desperate thing where you are sort of hurling yourself at a goal. It was a way of saying, “I’m in this. I’m trying really hard. I’m trying everything I can think of to get closer to these records.”