The Depths of Obsession

(Pictured: Skip James, who recorded a handful of blues records in the early 30s and then slipped back into obscurity until he was rediscovered by young blues fans in the 1960s.)

Right now, you can go over to iTunes and pay 99 cents for an mp3 of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, one of the most famous performances in acoustic Delta blues. But what if you want a physical object? You could buy any one of the compilations on which “Devil Got My Woman” has appeared. (I saw it alongside “Monster Mash” on a cheap disc of “Halloween hits” at the drug store not long ago.) Or you could get it on the album of the same name that James recorded in 1967, when he was 64 years old. But what if you want an original 78 RPM copy of the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman,” recorded in the unlikely location of Grafton, Wisconsin, for the Paramount label? There are only four of those in the world, all in the hands of collectors. (That mp3 you can buy is likely to have been sourced from one of them.)

The pursuit of the physical object is the subject of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, a new book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich. She introduces readers to some of the big names in the world of 78 collecting, past and present, and tries to plumb the depths of their obsession.

Petrusich observes that 78 collectors do not preserve and chronicle a single true “history” as much as they create a particular narrative. The records they value the most are the rarest and hardest to find in the wild—which sparks interest in obscure artists who made only a handful of recordings before vanishing into the void from whence they came. Fascination with James, Robert Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, Blind Blake, and other Delta figures makes it seem like the only music from the 30s that matters is their brand of acoustic blues. A collector will dismiss a trove of non-rare recordings as unimportant—but the very fact of the recordings’ not-rare-ness is due to so many copies having survived for so long, which indicates that more of them were made in the first place, which indicates in turn that they were fairly popular in their time. Certainly more so than a recording for which only four copies have survived. (Petrusich mentions one veteran collector who has a weirdly vehement dislike for country singer Vernon Dalhart, a star of the 1920s who is credited with the first million-seller, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It’s not clear what the man has against Dalhart, although being tired of tripping over “The Prisoner’s Song” on buying excursions might have something to do with it.)

That’s not to say that the rare recordings the collectors want most aren’t good strictly as music; they are, and the fact that the collectors have saved them from oblivion is commendable. But in his excellent book Escaping the Delta, Elijah Ward observes that even in the 30s, what got recorded by Paramount and others was what would they knew they could sell—and there was a market for original Delta blues numbers. When he played juke joints, Robert Johnson probably sang hymns and pop tunes his audience would have known from the radio, but nobody wanted to record those. So the world of popular music evoked by the prewar blues collectors is only tangent to the reality of that world.

(I have a particular fascination with Paramount’s story, the odd circumstance by which a furniture company based in Wisconsin brought black blues players from the Deep South to a makeshift studio on the banks of the Milwaukee River, to record 78s to sell along with its line of record players. To me, the best part of the book involves three chapters in which Petrusich chases down the history of Paramount. The story is told that when demand for particular Paramount recordings slackened, company employees frisbeed the surplus copies into the river, and that later, even metal masters were dumped there. So Petrusich went scuba-diving in the river, but to find out what she came up with, you’ll have to read the book.)

Some of the collectors in Do Not Sell at Any Price would not make good dinner companions, but if you wanted to know everything knowable about prewar blues, you couldn’t do better. And if you’re a crate-digger yourself, you might even recognize yourself in their personalities, and their stories.

Not There

(Pictured: Johnny Cash at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1964.)

Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles continued their absence from the weekly music survey at WOKY in Milwaukee. We noted the beginning of this absence in our last monthly check of the charts; the Fabs had been off since last appearing during the week of September 26th. The drought would continue for eight weeks in all, until the week of November 28, when “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman” hit in Milwaukee. The Beatles were similarly absent from the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of November 7, 1964, unless you count the Chipmunks’ version of “All My Loving” that was bubbling way under at #134. “Matchbox” had spent its last week on the Hot 100 during the week of October 24th; the chart of October 31 was the first without a Beatles song since January 11, the week before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” debuted. Their Hot 100 absence would continue for another month.

The top of the WOKY chart dated November 7, 1964, is resolutely American (with Jay and the Americans at #1): a British act doesn’t appear until “Have I the Right” by the Honeycombs at #7. “Time Is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones is new in the top 10, and “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks moves up to #14. “She’s Not There” (#17) and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (#21) are still around, as are lesser hits by the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, and Peter and Gordon. On the Hot 100, the Nashville Teens (“Tobacco Road”) and Gerry and the Pacemakers (“I Like It”) hold in the Top 40, while Herman’s Hermits (“I’m Into Something Good”) sit at #41.

Here are five other records on WOKY 50 years ago this week that are worthy of note for one reason or another:

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Links and Notes

(Pictured: Taylor Swift at the Grammys. There’s a plausible argument that she’s about to be as transformative in her time as Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles were in theirs.)

Time for another collection of worthwhile links I’ve recently noted on the Twitter machine:

—There’s a new vintage WLS aircheck from 1973 at Airchexx.com featuring Charlie Van Dyke, Fred Winston, John Landecker, J. J. Jeffrey, and Bill Bailey. It’s a style of radio nobody does anymore and most modern listeners wouldn’t like much, I don’t think—it’s fast and frantic and often pretty silly. If your ears are sharp, you’ll hear some oldies that may surprise you.

—Jim Booth, author of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, reviews Rod Stewart’s autobiography and finds both more and less than he expected.

—”Crystal Blue Persuasion” as performed by the cast of Breaking Bad is stellar; so is Republican Bruce Springsteen.

—Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 represents a cultural earthquake of the kind that just doesn’t happen with music anymore. Saving Country Music posted an extensive review and commentary that will take you a while to get through and even longer to unpack, but it’s worth it.

—Between last week and this week, dozens of radio stations across the country have gone all-Christmas. Before this year’s blizzard began, the New York Times wrote about the phenomenon, in which stations beat the hell out of a 300-cut library for two solid months—and watch their ratings go through the roof.

—After Philadelphia’s WXPN counted down its top 885 songs of all time recently, it counted down its listeners’ picks of the 88 worst songs of all time. In Billboard, Sean Ross pondered just what “worst” means to people when the subject is music.

—In the fall of 1964, after seven months of raging Beatlemania, Playboy magazine sent author and radio host Jean Shepherd (famed now for A Christmas Story) to interview the Beatles. Why this isn’t a more famous piece of writing about the Beatles I cannot imagine.

And now, some additional notes: First, this blog has a companion Tumblr site, and I’m going to keep flogging it until you go there. I put up some fabulous pictures on it just this morning.

Second, this week marks the 10th anniversary of Funky16Corners, the funk and soul blog maintained by Larry Grogan. I am mildly surprised to learn that Larry’s site is a bit younger than mine, although he ran it as a fanzine for a while before that. Larry is a living encyclopedia of funk and soul (and of garage rock too, at Iron Leg) and he has been über-generous in sharing both music and knowledge, on his blog and in private communication, year in and year out. My bucket list doesn’t have much on it, but it includes being in the club someday when Larry is working the wheels of steel from his collection.

Third, Q106, the country station for which I toil, ranked #1 in persons 12-plus for the summer ratings period here in Madison. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, given that few people would characterize Madison as a country-music kind of town. But great things happen when a station has a clear vision and a plan for achieving it, and people with the focus and commitment to execute the plan. It’s my good fortune to be part of the team at Q106, and at Magic 98, which has also topped Madison in persons 12-plus within the last year. We’re proving that live, local radio still matters—and that it will beat the pants off the canned, out-of-market variety almost every time. Q is not touting its success on the air, however. As we frequently remind ourselves, what we do is not about us: the listener is the star.

Halloween ’66

(Pictured: the first pop-culture obsession of mine that I can remember was Batman. At Halloween 1966, there was no way I have gone as anything else.)

On Tumblr, user instereo007 has been posting remarkably evocative vintage Halloween pictures for a couple of weeks now. Many of them include the sort of costumes kids wore from the 60s into the 80s, those Ben Cooper things you could buy for three bucks featuring every pop culture character imaginable. (At Halloween in 1966, I wore a Ben Cooper Batman costume, and my brother, then four years old, went as an astronaut. Somewhere, there’s a home movie of us in those getups.) Lots of stories this week are noting how expensive Halloween costumes can be today—turn your kid into a character from Frozen for just $85—and although you get a more sophisticated look, it’s doubtful whether the wearer gets more pleasure than we did nearly 50 (!) years ago.

Because we grew up on a farm, Halloween was not quite the big deal it was for our friends who lived in town. Our costumes were mainly for the school Halloween party; our trick-or-treating was generally limited to our grandparents’ house on the other end of the farm. If we were feeling especially brave, we would occasionally visit our neighbors down the road—my mother knew they had a passel of nieces and nephews who lived nearby, so a couple more trick-or-treaters wouldn’t strain their candy budget. But the idea of going into town to trick-or-treat with our friends was never broached, and may never have occurred to us.

To bring this discussion back to the ostensible topic of this blog, and since I’ve already mentioned 1966, here are five songs from the WLS Hit Parade dated October 28, 1966:

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The Big Leagues

hard goodsI am temporarily bringing back Off-Topic Tuesday, because there’s some stuff in my archives, my journal, and other places that deserves better than an audience of one. As always, you’re not obligated to read any of it.

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Shattered, Wild, and Floating

(Pictured: Bob Seger, circa 1970, when he was making music none of us are going to live long enough to hear on official reissues, apparently.)

After writing about “Maggie’s Dream” on Monday, I went into my laptop music stash (now up to something like 26,000 songs), and sorted out the songs with “dream” in the title (202 of them). Here are 10:

“Leanin’ on My Dream”/Bob Seger System/Mongrel. The only thing I’ve yet heard from Seger’s new album Ride On is the single, “Detroit Made,” an old-school joint that he could just as easily have cut in 1978, a superb shout-out to his longtime fans. But some of us longtime fans are less excited by the prospect of a new Seger album and tour than we would be if he’d reissue those out-of-print pre-Beautiful Loser albums, including Mongrel.

“Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast”/Steve Forbert/Jackrabbit Slim. Forbert, one of the many new Dylans to come down the pike since the original, was rarely more Dylanesque than this.

“The Dreaming Road”/Mary Chapin Carpenter/Songs From the Movie. MCC is one of my favorite singers, but it she hasn’t made an album I really liked top to bottom since 2007. Songs From the Movie, released last year, features new arrangements of songs she’s previously recorded, on which she’s backed by a full orchestra—a lovely and tasteful album I listened to once and have never been moved to cue up again.

“#9 Dream (promo edit)”/John Lennon/Come On, Listen to Me. Come On, Listen to Me is a bootleg containing mostly rehearsal versions of songs that ended up on Walls and Bridges. Some of it was officially released on Menlove Avenue in 1986. It includes 33 versions of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and, for some reason, this edit of the finished version of “#9 Dream.”

“Floating Dream”/Peanut Butter Conspiracy. We are living in an era of terrible band names, and we always have been.

“Dream On”/Oak Ridge Boys/Greatest Hits. This was a #32 pop hit for the Righteous Brothers in 1974; five years later, the Oak Ridge Boys turned it into a #7 country hit—and one of the best things they ever did.

(Digression: I could go on for a bit about the Oak Ridge Boys, who charted 40 country singles—16 #1s and 17 other Top 10 hits—between 1977 and 1990. The quality of those singles was erratic, but part of that involves the necessity of releasing four singles a year, which means some are destined to be terrible. Strongly not terrible: the magnificent “I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes” and “Fancy Free,” a record that should have crossed over to pop in 1981, and about which I am totally irrational.)

“Call Me Up in Dreamland”/Van Morrison/His Band and the Street Choir. In which Van, who has much of his life repeatedly complaining about being ripped off, takes inspiration (and more than a bit of the feeling and the melody) from Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.” Not complainin’, just sayin’.

“Shattered Dreams”/Johnny Hates Jazz/Pure 80s Hits. I once owned the whole Johnny Hates Jazz album and don’t you judge me.

“Teenie’s Dream”/Willie Mitchell/Hi Times: The Hi Records R&B Years. Mabon “Teenie” Hodges was the guitarist on dozens of sessions at Hi, including all of Al Green’s classic 70s albums, and collaborated with Green to write “Take Me to the River,” among others. He died this past June at the age of 68.

“Your Wildest Dreams”/Moody Blues/Greatest Hits. An excuse to link to the video for this song, which is as straight into the wheelhouse of this blog as anything ever was.

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