Knocking on Doors for 78s

by

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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.

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One Response to “Knocking on Doors for 78s”

  1. Thom Hickey Says:

    Enjoyed your treasure hunting memoir. Regards Thom.

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