Introduction and part 1 of the series;
Collecting 78 rpm Records:
When I became motivated to move beyond LPs and seek out 78s, all I knew was the specific genres I was interested in (prewar blues, string band, jug band, old-time hillbilly, jazz etc.), but beyond that I didn’t have a clue… (e.g. where to find 78s, what to play them on, what they were (roughly) worth, how to care for them (wash them… or not?), how to store them, what the arcane numbers on the record and label meant. How to judge the record’s grade (how could a record be graded Excellent if it was cracked?) …..I had 101 questions and no one to turn to.
So… When I started this blog, one of my goals was to focus on the nuts and bolts of collecting 78 rpm records – especially for new collectors coming along. This was born out of my years of collecting in frustrating isolation… not really knowing what I was doing, especially so when I was first getting started.
Looking at the scope of the subject, I quickly realized that there would be a lot of ground to cover, and that smaller, serialized entries, focusing on various facets of collecting would be the way to go… better to stay with shorter chapters than turning the subject into an online book.
My first few blog entries were focused more on American vernacular music than on 78 collecting per se, but recently I was listening to a favorite Internet radio program, The Antique phonograph Music Program with MAC, and something his guest said has prompted me to begin my Collecting 78s series.
Mac and Nipper discuss the finer points of acoustic recordings
Mac was interviewing John Heneghan, record collector and member of the great East River String Band. They were talking about prewar vernacular music and record collecting, as well as playing records from Heneghan’s collection and discussing them. Moving well into the hour, Heneghan made some comments about record collecting that resonated with me and has inspired me to get started on the series… Collecting 78 rpm Records:
John Heneghan and Eden Brower of the River String Band Rendered by R. Crumb ERSB: http://www.eastriverstringband.com/index.html
The gist of what Heneghan said was,
“When I first started collecting 78s I didn’t know anyone else who did it – and I did it that way for years. And you know, you feel isolated, you feel weird… You have trouble, you know… you don’t know anything about the labels, you don’t know anything about anything and there’s nobody to talk to about it -so you start to feel like a little; I felt a little crazy at times. Am I the only one listening to this? This is nuts; you know? ……
Part of what you’re doing, it’s like, you’re an archeologist. Part of your job in collecting these records is, you know, you accumulate them, you absorb them and then you decide what is really worth keeping…. there’s a limit to what you can keep. Stuff turns up all the time that no one has ever heard… there is still stuff that has never turned up.”
This is a terrific, highly recommended program… please give it a listen. You can hear the entire Sept. 26, 2011 show at: http://wfmu.org/playlists/AP
For the first installment of my series on collecting 78s, I gutted, revised and updated an article I wrote a number of years ago for the Federal Cigar Jug Band website on collecting jug band 78s. It discusses how and why I first got into collecting 78s… a step we all take, and I’m betting some of this — or something like this — will resonate with you.
I will be issuing subsequent parts of “Collecting 78s” on a fairly random basis, mixed in with other postings focused on American vernacular music… please stay tuned.
If you would like to be notified by email as new blogs are posted, you can take advantage of “Email Subscription” at the bottom of the left-hand column. ~Bill Boslaugh
Collecting 78 rpm Records, Part 1:
My long, twisted road back to shellac…
As a kid growing up in a small semi-rural town in Western Oregon in the late 1940s, my listening choices were pop music on the radio, or country music on the radio (this was pre-TV by a few years). I can’t say I disliked the popular music at that time, but my fondest memories are of hovering around our floor-model Zenith radio, listening to the country music “Skipalong” show, with Skipalong Hathaway, beaming into the radio from Eugene, 20 miles to the north. This would account for my love of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and their cohorts.
Around this time I also recall that when one or more of my dad’s three brothers would visit (after a few drinks they fancied themselves as the white Mills Brothers) their friend Fred – who grew up in North Carolina – would come around with his guitar and a favorite tune they would do was “Mama Don’t Allow” – not quite a traditional blues, buy hey, Washboard Sam covered it… at least three times.
Robert “Washboard Sam” Brown, recorded for Bluebird, but in June, 1935, using the nom du disk “Ham Gravy” he put out a couple of 78’s on the Vocalion label, including “Mama Don’t Allow It, No.1 and No.2.” In April of the next year he made it up to Bluebird by releasing Bluebird B–6355 “Don’t ‘low.”
Another musical foundation stone was laid when my sister’s boyfriend gave me the first Kingston Trio album in 1958 (much later she married him and, sadly, he turned out to be, in my humble opinion, a jerk… and not very bright, well… who knew? The good news is that there’s no chance I’ll offend him with this post, he’s off somewhere having tea with his old friend Rush).
Dylan has some very complementary things to say about the Kingston Trio in his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1. Often discounted, their influence in shaping America’s taste in vernacular music was considerable.
It must have been around 1962, a girlfriend drug me to Portland to see Harry Belafonte’s well-oiled stage show. I have only vague memories of Belafonte, but what I remember most vividly is his opening act… a blind harmonica player helped on stage by a guitar player with a pronounced poliolytic limp.
It was, of course, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee; my first real taste of the blues. I was already listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and through them Bob Dylan, but seeing Sonny and Brownie was enough to seal the deal… They hooked on an earlier style of folk blues.
Then, in 1965, while living on Henry Street in New York’s Lower East Side – within walking distance of Greenwich Village – I began to seriously move toward what would be one of my life-long passions, collecting American vernacular music on 78rpm records. That movement toward collecting 78s was propelled along by a love affair with Jug Band music.
Friends in New York who knew I was into folk music (which generically included country blues, old-time music etc.) turned me on to Jim Kweskin and The Jug Band’s first Vanguard album. I was immediately captivated by the sound. This record was a stunning synthesis of jug band, country, folk, jazz, blues, medicine-show and turn of the [last] century pop. With good humor and great musicianship this album tied it all together and was a huge influence in the folk world… not to mention on me personally.
Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band… arguably, one of the most important and influential bands of the 1960s
During the mid-60’s New York City was a Mecca for what we now call roots music. A quick look at the performance roster of Greenwich Village’s blues-oriented Cafe Au-Go-Go during that time includes, among others: Big Joe Williams, Son House, Skip James, John Lee Hooker, Dave Van Ronk, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Phil Ochs, Richie Havens, Jesse ‘Lone Cat” Fuller, Howlin Wolf, T-Bone Walker, David Blue, Bukka White, The Blues Project, Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band, Jesse Colin Young and The Youngbloods, and of course, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band.
Although I saw a few of these acts perform at the Au-Go-Go… and more over the years in other settings, I kick myself for not seeing each and every one of the above when I had the chance.
80 page souvenir booklet from the 1966 Newport Folk Festival
I blame youthful folly for the fact that I spent my time seeing the current cream of the folkies, performers like; Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Carolyn Hester, rather than the elders.
Buffy, Pete, Jack and the rest were – and are – all great talents and I’m happy I was able to see them perform in their prime, but the list of those I had the opportunity to see, but didn’t, is awe inspiring! It includes some of those I missed in NYC as well as others, including: Clark Kessinger, Deford Bailey, Jimmy Driftwood, Dock Boggs, Bukka White, Joseph Spence, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Rev. Pearly Brown and Skip James. I remember assuming that I would see the others in due time. As it worked out, Son House was the only one on the list who I eventually saw perform… back in Portland in 1969.
For me, the highlight of the Newport Folk Festival was, no surprise, Kweskin’s Jug Band performance on Sunday night. Early in the evening, Kweskin and Mel Lyman (and maybe Fritz Richmond?) backed Pete Seeger on a couple of songs, then the full Jug Band was terrific as the Sunday night headliner.
Kweskin’s Jug Band at the Newport Folk Festival… (L to R) Mel Lyman, Maria and Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin, Fritz Richmond (behind Kweskin) and Bill Keith.
I moved back to Portland, Oregon in late the early fall of 1966 and took my enhanced interest in vernacular music of all types, especially jug band music, with me. In addition to numerous prewar blues and old-time hillbilly LPs, I soon had records by the Even Dozen Jug Band, Van Ronk’s Jug Stompers and the True Endeavor Jug Band, as well as, eventually, the other Kweskin Jug Band records. And… I was pleased to see that Portland had become a hot-bed of folk/blues/jug band/roots music activity (and continues to be so to this day!).
Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers
LP liner-notes were often a treasure trove of information and I’ve always been an avid reader… fortunately, my love of liner-notes on LPs gave me a whole list of names to check out… those who had recorded blues, jug band, old-time/hillbilly, jazz and string band music in the 1920s and 1930s: Gus Cannon, Charlie Patton, Tampa Red, Memphis Jug Band, Memphis Minnie, Dixieland Jug Blowers and many, many others.
This led to my purchasing the reissue LPs of the original 1920s and ’30s musicians. The collections on Origin, RBT, Arhoolie, Folkways, RCA Vintage, Blues Classics, etc. were great. I loved the reissues; those tunes, the voices, the lyrics (hard as they were for me to understand and interpret at times), and that old compressed, scratchy mono sound.
Although I had not yet begun to collect the music on 78s, I was listening to the next best thing… and, in the jug band/old-time spirit, I was plunking along on a washtub bass and huffing on a jug with Portland’s (still active) Federal Cigar Jug Band
In the early 1970s my collecting took a setback when I, like many others, moved up into the hills of Oregon to “get back to the land” and live communally. We had no electricity and we made our own music. So, thinking there was no need for records, I sold my entire collection. That was, in retrospect of course, a big, big mistake. After coming back to civilization a few years later, I began to pick up some used blues, jug band, and old-time albums, but sadly, much of what I had previously owned was no longer in print or obtainable. Many of these 1960’s reissue LPs remain elusive to the collector — try to find a decent copy of the True Endeavor Jug Band on Prestige or Jolly Joe and his Jug Band on Piedmont.
The great and underappreciated True Endeavor Jug Band
Beginning in the 1980s, with the advent of the CD and the extensive reissue programs of Document, Yazoo, RST, Origin Jazz Library and others, vintage vernacular music became available as never before. Along with availability came technologically improved clarity and fidelity (though some of my neo-Luddite friends would argue these last points).
I was, and am, very appreciative of the LP and CD reissues and I own many of them. But many years ago something happened to take me 180 degrees in the other direction, away from digital and back to analog.
I was at a local record meet, sifting through the tables of records when I spotted a pile of 78s. Of course, I knew that 78s were the pre-45 rpm and pre-LP medium for recorded music, and that most of my favorite music was originally released on 78. In fact, as a child the first records in our house had been my older sister’s pop and rock & roll 78s.
When I took those dusty 78s into my hands I was amazed at my immediate reaction: This was IT! The real thing! Not a reissue on LP or CD, but the actual record, which was purchased some 70 or 80+ years ago for as much as 75 cents or a dollar (about a day’s wage for a working person), and played on a steel-needle, wind up phonograph. It was a wonder to me that those fragile old records still existed at all. I’d not been looking for 78s… but there they were. The stack contained several 78s by “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (the highly influential synthesizer of country, pop, jazz & blues music)… and I couldn’t put them down. At that moment I became hooked on collecting 78s.
Still, I had no idea where to look for more 78s, what to pay for them (or what they were actually worth) or how to clean, protect and store them. In fact I didn’t even have a machine to play them on… but that didn’t matter, nothing was going to stop me!
A month or so later, I happened to notice an advertisement for an auction of 78s in Downhome Music’s Roots & Rhythm mail order catalog. I was soon to find out that (at that time) mail auctions were the main way collectable 78s were being bought and sold. This has, of course, changed drastically with the advent of on-line auctions via the Internet.
I sent for the Downhome auction sheet and I was excited to find that it listed hundreds of records by country and urban blues singers, gospel, classic female blues singers, country string bands, early (1920s and 30s) jazz and best of all, one 78 by the Memphis Jug Band! That was the good news. The bad news was that while the minimum bid for most of the records was $6, the minimum bid for the MJB record (Okeh 8958, “My Business Ain’t Right” b/w “Gator Wobble”, in excellent condition) was $30, which at the time sounded like a whole lot to me.
A few of my earliest 78s….
from Downhome Music’s Roots & Rhythm mail auction.
throwing good sense and the family budget to the wind, I bid $55. Within a couple of weeks I was notified that I was high bidder and that I had won the Memphis Jug Band record! I also had winning bids on records by Lead Belly, Yank Rachell, Dave Tarras, Mamie Smith, Gid Tanner and several other records…. the hunt was on!
Since that time I have learned a great deal about collecting 78’s, I’ve found some terrific records & terrific music, and in the process have greatly enhanced my knowledge of, and appreciation for American vernacular music.
Part 2 of Collecting 78 rpm Records will focus on:
- the pros and cons of collecting 78s
- finding the right phonograph
- hunting 78s – where to look: mail auctions, junking, ebay
- plus more…
~ Bill Boslaugh
The fine print:
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Other images and/or media content are deemed “open access” and will be duly credited whenever possible. Notice of copyright protection in any Vernacular::Shellac blog does not and will not apply to open access images or media. If I have used any image or content that is copyright protected, please advise and appropriate credit will be given. All Vernacular::Shellac content, excepting that excluded above, is ©2011 by Bill Boslaugh
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