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.”