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Back in March, a magazine called Exclaim! (which I take to be sort of a Canadian Mojo) published an article about the rising popularity among young folks of collecting 78 rpm records.

It was written by Jason Schneider, who seems to be a little like me — a turn-of-the-century convert to early 20th Century blues and country. Schneider's article is well worth the read, so I forwarded it to a Monochord reader who's a very experienced 78 collector.

He and I enjoyed picking at the article, finding various things to admire and attack in it. In particular, my correspondent would like to urgently warn new 78 collectors NOT to play their records on old "gramophones." You can, and should, buy a modern record player with a 78 rpm setting, instead of ruining your 78's with 100-year-old technology. These are not floppy disks — you don't need an out-dated playback device for this out-dated medium.

Another interesting passage in Schneider's article is this:

Robert Crumb especially has had a profound influence since the acclaimed 1994 documentary about his life fully illuminated his obsession with 78 collecting and old time music’s ongoing hold on his psyche. In fact, the best introduction to the music is still Crumb’s series of blues and country “trading cards” that provide bios of his favourite artists. [link added]
I wouldn't know where to start in confirming whether or not Crumb really has had any such profound influence ... and I wonder whether Schneider can confirm it, and how. The main difficulty of Schneider's article is his "authoritative" point of view. Instead of staying close to his experience, he wants to use an omniscient voice — and ironically, this can actually strip your writing of its most useful information.

So let me do what Schneider should have done, possibly, and ponder Terry Zwigoff's Crumb — which I saw early in my interest in the old music — as I, personally, actually experienced it.

A girlfriend suggested I see Crumb because R. Crumb and his family were so much like me and mine. Someone else suggested this was a stupid and cruel thing to say. So, I saw Crumb in a questioning frame of mind — How is this like looking into a mirror? Does it represent me? Misrepresent me? What here should I embrace? But, to an extent, maybe that's how we always go to the movies.

Over the previous year or two, I had bought a lot of CD reissues of old blues, but R. Crumb was the first 78 record collector I ever "met." There isn't much music heard in the film, the main exception being a moment with R. Crumb sitting on the floor listening to an old Geechie Wiley 78. But for me, that scene is the film's most persistent memory. When I think of Crumb, that's what I see.

Much more important, though, were his drawings of street lamps. At some point, R. Crumb says he and a photographer friend drove around taking photos of ordinary lamp posts and other municipal and commercial fixtures and structures — the only way he could later manage to draw them into his cartoons. We live in a civilization so soulless and ugly and forgettable that we can't even remember what it looks like.

And that was like looking into a mirror, so much so that I could almost feel my mind reorganizing itself to accommodate the experience of having these private thoughts so vividly projected onto the big screen. My previous experience with the old music had carried some of that sense — of these old musicians being forgotten by an ugly culture, of all the real greatness in the world collecting dust somewhere, of the lives of people like Harry Smith and the Crumb family being examples of what happens to the best minds of my generation and yours.

So it would be false, outright, to say Crumb introduced me to the old music. You might possibly say that the film made it "cool" to be into the music. It would be best to say that the film was one of several things that modeled for me a possible relationship with the music, a way of fitting the music into a worldview that mattered, a way the music could be employed in the job of making sense of things.

To make the strongest possible claim for it, maybe Crumb was the last straw — it aided and abetted, giving me permission to just go ahead and finally become that dusty old crank obsessed with old music who I'd begun to glimpse in the mirror.  


Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of my attempt to post something every damned day for a whole month ... it is not a coincidence that I chose the shortest month of the year. But is it short enough to preserve my sanity? Stay tuned!

Also, anybody know where the photo from this post is from?




You should check out Desperate Man Blues, a recent documentary on Joe Bussard, the 78 collector from Frederick, Maryland, whose record hunting exploits are legendary, and whose collection is probably the greatest repository of blues & coutnry 78'is in private hands.

The Celestial Monochord

Thank you, Charlie. It so happens that my wife gave me the DVD of Desperate Man Blues for Valentine's Day ... maybe there was a hint there ... anyway, I'll be watching it very soon.

Also, a kind reader from the Netherlands informs us that Robert Crumb recorded a song about collecting 78s with his French group "Les Primitifs du Futur." I did not know that they recorded such a song. In fact, I did not know Crumb had a French band, nor did I know what they were called.

A little Googling reveals a sound clip of the band at the NPR website

Thank you very kindly!

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