The rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records.
Although most collectors subspecialize by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the ’20s and ’30s is the hottest material of all,” Mr. Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.
Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads. A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.
These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.
The stakes are high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.
“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” Mr. van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumors — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006 the PBS program “The History Detectives” arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.