Thirteen thousand 78s in a dumpster

by

images

from pitchfork.com:

excerpt from Amanda Petrusich’s forthcoming book “Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records”:

Even otherwise-reasonable authors go a little loopy when writing about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Muisc  inexplicable allure. In When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell’s treatise on the folk revival, he describes it as “strange, even sinister: a closet-like enclosure from which the world is shut out, spangled with occult symbols whose meaning we have not yet learned, fitted to an obscure design or purpose and harboring a vague threat, like the gypsy’s tent or the funhouse, that by some unknown force will subject us to an ordeal over which we have no control and which will leave us permanently marked.”

Greil Marcus, meanwhile, conjures a place called Smithville, and in describing the first side of Songs, writes: “The streets of Smithville have been rolled up, and the town now offers that quintessential American experience, the ultimate, permanent test of the unfinished American, Puritan, or pioneer, loose in a land of pitfalls and surprises: Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen! Enter the New Sensorium of Old-Time Music, and feel the ground pulled right out from under your feet!”

I understand—deeply—the impulse toward hyperbole, the desire to speak of the Anthology as a contained spiritual experience that incites certain epiphanies. It is, after all, a thing you can inhabit if you want to: there are alehouses to drink in and Stetson hats to bicker over and corn to hoe and people to marry and love and betray and maybe murder.

The story of what actually happened to Harry Smith’s 78s still gets muttered between collectors as a warning, an illuminating parable with a worrying end. The collector and producer Chris King was the first to tell it to me. “By the time [Smith] had basically exhausted his mental faculties or his ability to manage his collection, he had amassed over thirteen thousand 78s, which would be a lot of hillbilly, a lot of blues, and a lot of ethnic music,” King explained. At some point, well after Smith had submitted the bulk of his records to the library for safekeeping, the collector Richard Nevins had received a call to purchase a few Fiddlin’ John Carson records plucked directly from Smith’s collection and marked as such. But how had they become separated from everything else? King heard that the library had junked most of Smith’s donation. “Deacquisitioned. It was all put in a Dumpster and destroyed.” He shrugged. “So basically thirteen thousand 78s and a man’s life—just snuffed away, just like that, in a dumpster.”

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Thirteen thousand 78s in a dumpster”

  1. Seb Says:

    The Anthology of American Folk Music is a masterpiece of this nation. I understand, deeply, why myths and legends are made of it.

  2. REED MARTIN Says:

    As a retired Smithsonian employee – it is sad but true that most folks just do not have any idea that saving things just might be more important than destroying them. For example…..In Silver Hill, Maryland is an armed & guarded storage facility for the Smithsonian. A huge collection of antique firearms were stored there. Some years back a new fella came in charge of all the artifacts stored behind the barbed wire & armed guard fences. Being a very educated and undersupervised individual he ordered trenches to be dug and all firearms to be buried in the ground. His reasoning was “guns hurt people.”

    Isn’t it reassuring to find out that we have folks like that protecting us ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s