About the Author
Amanda Petrusich is the author of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music and Pink Moon, an installment in Continuum/Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 series. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, Spin, and The Oxford American, where she is a contributing editor. In 2016, she was named one of the 100 most influential people in Brooklyn culture by Brooklyn Magazine. She holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Humanities and the MacDowell Colony. An assistant professor in the writing program at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, she teaches advanced courses on criticism and musical subcultures. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Do Not Sell At Any Price / / One / /
That’s Mine Now, I Got That Before You Could Get It
John Heneghan, “Devil Got My Woman,” Dreams, Analog Playback, “Davey Crockett,” Do Not Sell at Any Price
The living room of John Heneghan’s East Village apartment is crammed with dusty American artifacts: antique wooden furniture, kitschy paperback novels, a Beverly Hills, 90210 pencil case with matching ruler and eraser. All available surfaces are littered with collectibles; all accessible closets are bursting with vintage clothes, discerningly acquired by Heneghan’s striking live-in girlfriend, Eden Brower. I sat on his couch with my hands folded in my lap and sucked in the smell: old. Two skittish housecats, both rescues, nipped in and out of cardboard boxes, eyes wary and wide.
Alongside the far wall, sixteen squat wooden cubes—each filled with about a hundred 78 rpm records, most recorded before 1935—loomed, parsed into genres like Hillbilly, Blues, Hawaiian, and Comedy and organized alphabetically by artist. Each section was blocked out with a neatly labeled cardboard divider. Individual 78s were housed in unmarked brown paper sleeves. It was an impeccable display. I asked Heneghan if he ever sat in his living room and gazed at his record collection, mesmerized by each flawless row. “All the time,” he answered.
Every last person alive right now came of age in the era of recorded sound, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for any of us to properly conceive of a time in which music was not a thing we could hear whenever we felt like it. The 78 rpm record was introduced in the 1890s, about ten years after Thomas Edison developed his phonograph machine and revolutionized the ways human beings thought about sound. Initially, Edison’s phonograph played cylinders—little tubes, smaller than a can of soup, that were crafted from metal (later wax, and then hard shellac), stored in cardboard canisters, and coated with a strip of tin foil. Sound transcriptions were pressed into the foil with a cutting stylus, and the phonograph translated the textures back into sound. After a dozen or so plays at 160 revolutions per minute, the cylinders wore down and became unlistenable.
In 1887, the German-born inventor Emile Berliner patented the gramophone, which worked similarly to Edison’s phonograph but played flat, grooved discs instead of stumpy cylinders. Berliner’s disc records—which were five to seven inches across, made of various materials (often rubber), and whirled, on hand-cranked players, at around seventy to seventy-eight revolutions per minute—were easier to produce and store than cylinders, and Edison’s tubes were nearly obsolete by 1929. Around the same time, the production of disc records became somewhat standardized, although there were still hundreds of rogue labels recording and manufacturing dozens of different kinds of records. Most were ten inches wide (which yielded about three minutes of sound per side) and crafted from a precarious jumble of shellac, a cotton compound, powdered slate, and wax lubricant. 78s would remain in relatively wide use until the 1960s, when they would be gradually replaced by seven-inch, two-song 45s and twelve-inch, long-playing 331/3 records—themselves ousted by cassettes, to be eventually supplanted by compact discs, which have now been succeeded almost entirely by digital audio files.
The first day we met, John Heneghan was careful to establish a disconnect between 78 collectors and the folks who stockpile LPs or 45s—for Heneghan, the distinction is acute, comparable to collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds. But his own collection began with an LP—a reissue of a Charley Patton record, which he acquired when he was sixteen years old. Heneghan can still describe, in remarkable detail, the subsequent epiphany: picking up the record, feeling its heft in his hands, squinting at the photograph on the cover, flipping it over to read the date printed on the back, placing it on his turntable and releasing the needle into the groove, feeling transported, feeling changed.
“I’m not even sure that I liked it at first,” he admitted. “I liked the idea of it. It was really hard to listen to. But I was a guitar player—I had played the guitar since I was a kid—and I thought, ‘What is this? What is he doing?’ It was only a matter of time before I started seeking out the original records, the 78s. I resisted it for a long time because I knew it would be nearly impossible, and I knew it would be a financial burden beyond what any rational mind would consider a wise decision.”
The price of a 78 ranges from a few cents to a fair amount of cents—in some cases, up to $40,000—depending on the cachet of the artist, the condition of the record, the rarity of the pressing, and the fervency of a collector’s desire. Because 78s are objectively worthless and because collectors are so particular about what they want, a record’s archival value often trumps its monetary value. But that archival value can still be astonishing. Because they weren’t produced in huge quantities (although a CD or MP3 player is a fairly common accessory in most American homes now, gramophones were hardly standard in the early 1920s) and because for so long, so few people were interested in salvaging them, a good portion of the world’s remaining 78s—and it’s impossible to say how many are even left—were also singular representations. Often, no metal masters of these recording sessions survived, meaning that if the records themselves were to break, or be crammed into a flood-prone basement, or tossed into a Dumpster, then that particular song is gone, forever.
Most of Heneghan’s collecting peers, including the famed illustrator Robert Crumb, are the types who went door-to-door in the 1960s, asking people if they had records in their attics and snatching up 78s for a quarter apiece. When I asked Heneghan where he scored the bulk of his collection, he looked at me as if I’d commanded him to disrobe. “You don’t expect me to answer that question, do you? I’m not sure I should answer any of these questions,” he guffawed, his voice incredulous. “Do you realize how limited . . . These aren’t LPs! All it takes is a dozen more people interested and . . .” He trailed off again. “It amazes me. It’s American musical history and it’s forgotten about, and there are only a handful of people out there preserving it.”
Heneghan wasn’t being particularly hyperbolic. He and his pals are often uncovering and heralding artists who were previously unknown, and who would have remained that way had a collector not bothered to listen and share his finds. “The amazing thing about 78s is that so much of the music is one hundred percent undiscovered,” he said. “There are still so many records out there that are so rare there are only one or two copies, or no copies—you’ve never heard it. I’m still often discovering things. You find some weird band name, you don’t know what it is, and you take a chance on it, put it on, and it’s some incredible masterpiece.”
John Heneghan was glib and, at times, aggressively self-deprecating about his fanaticism, but his collection was, independent of its personal worth, an extraordinary cultural document. Collectors of 78s, maybe more than any other curators of music or music memorabilia, are doing essential preservationist work, chasing after tiny bits of art that would otherwise be lost. Even though their pursuits are inherently selfish, fueled by the same untempered obsession that drives all collectors, without Heneghan and his peers a good slice of musical history would be absent from the contemporary canon. And while academics, anthropologists, archivists, and reissue labels all assume roles in the preservation and diffusion of early songbooks, the bulk of the material being released or reissued is still being sourced from the original 78s—which are found, almost exclusively, in the cramped basements and bedrooms of 78 collectors.
Still, the historical heft of his effort didn’t mean Heneghan was free from the neuroses that characterize so many collectors: his collection was historically significant, but it was also deeply personal, even pathological. Collectors, like everyone, get seduced by the chase.
“I have a recurring dream about finding Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman,’ ” Heneghan said, leaning in, his voice low and solemn. “It’s so vivid, so clear—the first time it happened I woke up in the middle of the night certain that I had the record. I was like, This is amazing. So I got up to check, and it wasn’t there, and I was like, Fuck. So then I have the dream again, and it’s so vivid the second time, and I think maybe the part about not having it was the dream. So I get up to check. Then I have the dream the third time, and the fourth time . . .” He shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and scratched a craggy blond goatee. Heneghan is a formidable physical presence, and his narrow, slate-gray eyes betrayed an intolerance for certain strains of bullshit; he was exceedingly pleasant but uninterested in pleasantries, and it occurred to me that I wouldn’t ever want to be standing between him and a copy of “Devil Got My Woman.”
“On a good day, you look at yourself like, I’m preserving American history: I’m an archaeologist. But the bottom line is that there’s seriously something wrong,” he continued, adjusting the black bowler hat he frequently sports. “The first time I bought a record, I remember thinking, I have to see if this band has any other records. And then when I got the other records, I thought, I need to figure out which one came first so I can put them in order. I remember going to friends’ houses and they just had their records anywhere, and it was like, ‘How can you do that? They have to be in order!’ I just spent so much time thinking about the perfect way to put everything in order.”
Heneghan finally asked me what I’d like to listen to, and we huddled around his turntable, taking turns pulling 78s from his shelves. My hands shook. Unlike vinyl records, which are forgivingly pliable, 78s are thick, brittle, and heavy. Drop one on the wrong surface at the wrong angle, and it’ll shatter like a dinner plate.
The bulk of Heneghan’s collection consists of early blues and hillbilly records, and they range in quality and tone. Up until about 1925, recordings were made acoustically, meaning the musicians would have to bellow and pluck directly into the phonograph’s diaphragm cone, where the resulting sound vibrations would nudge the cutting stylus and create a transcription, which could then be played back. There were considerable drawbacks to the technology: drums and bass were rarely recorded because the depth of their vibrations would knock the cutting stylus from its intended groove, and things like cellos, violins, and even the human voice didn’t always resonate enough to be properly rendered. By 1927, engineers had figured out how to use a carbon microphone—another Edison gadget, from 1877—which could then be amplified with vacuum tubes and used to power an electromagnetic recording head, meaning a far wider range of frequencies could be picked up and reproduced, yielding a richer, more authentic sound. Still, if you are not prone to romance and nostalgia, the process can seem silly in the face of today’s error-free digital recording, where analog sound is converted into clean streams of binary code. To a modern sound technician, things like styluses and diaphragm cones are about as clunky and outmoded as the iron lung.
But for traditional record collectors—ones who, like Heneghan, came of age in the late 1970s—the upsides of digital recording are largely irrelevant. Although he owns an iPod (he bought it for Eden, who said she rarely used it) and a few shelves of CDs (mostly from the reissue label Yazoo Records, which was founded in the late 1960s and is now run, in part, by his friend and fellow collector Richard Nevins, who works exclusively from original 78s), he was not particularly interested in consuming digitally produced music. I could see how Heneghan might find MP3s a bit unsettling (those intangible streams of zeros and ones are about as far from cumbersome shellac discs as possible), but even the CD, the MP3’s doofy, moonfaced older brother, was inherently unappealing to him. “If I find a great record, and a friend of mine says, ‘How about I keep that record and just make you a CD of it?’ it’s like, ‘Are you insane?’ ” he snorted.
Heneghan pulled Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues,” the Cannon Jug Stompers’ “Walk Right In,” and a 1920s test pressing of Frankie Franko and His Louisianans’ “Somebody Stole My Gal” from his shelves. He laid the John Hurt record on his turntable, flipped a switch on a receiver, and dropped the stylus. The room filled with crackle. I held my breath.
The thing is, I wasn’t exactly an analog rookie, even then. I owned plenty of LPs, and while my initial interest in vinyl was driven by mathematics (I could pay twenty-five cents for a Led Zeppelin III LP at my local Salvation Army, or slap down fourteen dollars for a plastic CD version at the record store), I secretly appreciated all the tender platitudes—Warmth! Texture! Authenticity!—spewed about analog sound. But because the bulk of my collection was lazily sourced from junk shops (I can still identify a three-LP set of Handel’s Messiah—that brown-and-yellow thrift-store staple—from approximately forty-five feet away), I was never captivated by rare records in particular. My expertise regarding coveted vinyl consisted mostly of ribbing my pal Clarke for his pristine copy of The Anal Staircase, a three-song, twelve-inch EP released by the British industrial band Coil in 1986 and worth around eighty dollars to the right customer. (There’s a photograph of a human anus on the cover.)
So while I possessed a working understanding of what 78s were and when they were produced, I had never purchased or played a single one. Still, I loved scrappy, prewar country blues in the same way I loved punk rock—something about the tenuousness of the entire enterprise, the threat of spontaneous dissolution, the immediacy—and had always been more than content to listen to it via digital reissue. Prior to this moment, it had never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. That I might be chasing an approximation.
Right now, there are 78 collectors working to gather and preserve all forms of prewar music—jazz, opera, classical, gospel, country, dance, pop—but there’s something particularly seductive about the way blues music played on an acoustic guitar between 1925 and 1939—the so-called country blues—sounds on shellac. While playing the country blues can require a staggering amount of technical prowess (no other genre, except maybe rap, is as routinely underestimated), the most important component of any country blues song is still the performer’s articulation of blues “feeling,” that amorphous, intangible, gut-borne thing that animates all music and gives it life.
The necessity of emotion obviously isn’t unique to the country blues, but because most prewar blues songs were assembled rather than composed (performers were often working with the same old folk songs as bases, tinkering with and rewriting verses to suit their needs), and because many performances were barely captured, let alone manipulated, it’s often the only difference between a middling blues side and a transcendent one. Critics and scholars can pontificate at length about the technical dexterity of a country blues performer like Robert Johnson—the way his long finger...
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