edited from Gayle Dean Wardlow (in “Chasin’ that Devil Music”):
Beginning to collect records in Mississippi in 1961: After about ten houses on two streets, I spotted an old, decrepit shack with flowerpots on the porch. I knocked and said, “Anyone home?”
An old woman, about 80, came to the door, we talked, and she went back inside while I waited anxiously on the porch. I never asked to come into homes. I assumed that old people felt safer if stranges stayed on the porches, especially whites. I only entered if invited. Sometimes people would invite me in by saying, “You can come look at ’em. I can’t bend down that low to get ’em out of the Victrola.”
The woman brought two discs out to the porch. “I found a couple,” she said, modestly. “They ain’t no good to me.”
I concluded that here was a new and easy way to find records. I enjoyed that day what turned out to be beginner’s luck. I soon learned that one could canvas all day and find nothing.
All that spring I knocked on doors, spending from one to three hours each day looking. I refined my sales approach to these words: “I buy old Victrola records–you know, them old blues records by Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Leroy Carr. All them blues singers.” I had learned that old people used the term “Victrola records,” though sometimes they called them”Grafonola records.” They remembered Bessie and Blind Lemon better than other artists.
I usually paid a quarter for each record–sometimes less, sometimes 50 cents. Normally I mentioned my price range as I mad my initial inquiry. If I saw something especially desirable, I offered a dollar to be sure to get it. Selling records at the door to a white man must have struck some as unusual. Occasionally they asked if i was planning to reissue them–“You gonna make them over again?”
My standard reply: “I play guitar and piano. I want to learn these old blues myself. It’s illegal to put them out again.”
I learned from experience that women had the records. Men moved around more, and they did not take records when they moved. I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch, so I learned to look for flowerpots and taught other collectors to look for the same. The pots indicated that someone had laved at one location for a long time. Records were often in these homes, but they were thrown away when people moved.
I canvassed for more than ten years and occasionally into the mid-1980s. But most of the records were gone by that time, ending up in junk stores, flea markets, or trash bins. By the mid-1980s the few records that turned up were not worth the effort in finding them.