17. Riding the Coattails of Somebody Else’s Obsession

When we lived in Cambridge, each one of the many record shops I frequented had their own appeal. Some had the newest releases, some had more niche items and some had good prices on used records. The selection at Stereo Jack’s, half-way between Harvard Square and Porter Square, wasn’t great and the interior was kind of dumpy. However, I kept going there because they were the only place in town that had 78s, and I was starting to fancy myself a 78 collector. I was also attracted to the fact that the staff there were really the Platonic Ideal of record stores employees. For example, I remember one of them giving the other the following pop quiz – “So, it’s July 14th. What happened on this day?” The clerk being tested looked stumped and had no answer. The taskmaster, with an even mix of superiority and disappointment, reminded him that on July 14th in 1955, Cannonball Adderley recorded his debut album.[1] “Ha, ha! What nerds!” I remember thinking to myself as I squatted down and pulled out a small dusty box of 78s nearly hidden under a shelf.

Through visiting often and being somewhat patient, I was able to get my hands on some great records. This includes The Orioles In the Mission of St. Augustine, Jesus is Real to Me by the Branch Gospel Singers, Paul Gayten’s version of the Cow Cow Blues, Candy by Big Maybelle and Lover Man by Billie Holiday. I also got a few that broke when I was putting them on the turntable. The store had a no refund policy that was understandable – you know what you are getting into when you buy a 78.

IMG_20220318_174918108_HDR            One of the most interesting things that I found were a few sets of jazz recordings that were bound like books. Each had four or five records inside, often with a booklet of some sort. Several were notable because the original owner had extensively annotated them. They provided in-depth lists of who performed on each record, and in some cases went even further by making connections between recordings of different songs. For example, for Weather Bird by Louis Armstrong, they compare the ending with his recording of Ain’t Misbehaving. As another example, they compare Necessary Evil as performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Armstrong with Down by the Levee by “Punch” Miller.



Then, and now, this was way over my head – some next-level type of music appreciation. I didn’t aspire to it, but I was certainly impressed.

By comparison, I could more easily imagine engaging in the scrapbooking they also did. Here are examples of pages for Jelly Roll Morton and Red Allen.


Perhaps the most compelling clipping they added was this one about Billie Holiday being arrested on a drugs charge. Oh, to be listening to Billie Holiday while she was still alive! Oh, the heartbreak of losing her! EPSON051

Not long after I started picking 78s up, I had to replace my turntable. I was in grad school, and we were already short on funds, so I gratefully accepted an extra one that my sister had on hand. It didn’t have a 78 setting, but that didn’t stop me from still occasionally picking up 78s that seemed interesting. I figured that it was only a matter of time before I got a new turntable, and I didn’t want to regret not picking up a record that I would never see again. I also started to get hand-me downs from the attics of other people’s grandparents. These were almost invariably recordings of mid-century “Hawaiian” music, Christmas carols, lukewarm swing or showtunes. I would always thank folks when they handed this junk over, even though I knew that I was not going to even bother to store most of it for later listening. Indeed, many of these vinyl or shellac hand-me-downs soon joined the ranks of countless other unwanted records at Goodwill. I feel bad about that now. Not about getting rid of something somebody had given me – these records were always headed to Goodwill in the end and my place was a just a ceremonial stop in the endless churning of the second-hand gift economy. Rather, I feel bad about adding unnecessary and unproductive work to Goodwill’s docket. I should have just thrown them out and given Goodwill a cash donation.

Each time somebody said they had something, I still got my hopes up. Even more so than regular LPs, 78s felt like windows into a different world. This includes not only the songs themselves, but the presentation, packaging and the history of circulation. Where were the songs cut? Where did the records go? Without a 78 turntable, I scratched that itch by checking out The Great 78 Project – an online archive where people upload 78 recordings. They even have digitized recordings of Edison cylinders. I also started picking up some CDs that were specifically collections of 78s. I held my nose and bought Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World, a set of recordings from Robert Crumb’s collection, accompanied by his drawings. The title and the cover were typical skeevy Crumb, but there were some great songs on the CD, and the drawings inside were quite good. As an example, his drawing of Rita Abadzi shows off his notable technical skills and what he can deliver when his sexual obsessions don’t lead his pen around.



Araci Côrtes – Quero Sossego

Rita Abadzi – Mime Stelis Mana Anastin Ameriki

Rosina Trubia Gioiosa – Lu Fistinu Di Palermo

downloadAt some point I discovered Dust-to-Digital, a company that focuses on releasing archival music accompanied by thoughtful supporting materials. The first project I picked up was Victrola Favorites, which had two CDs of recordings from around the world and a fascinating collection of 78-related ephemera (e.g., record labels, jackets, and related items). I’m very intrigued by a record ad from Pied Piper Sales, which promises to rid the house of vermin after just a few plays.



Stella Haskil – Mis Tis Polis Ta Stena

Bismillah Khan and Party – Shenai Instrumental

Blind Boy Fuller – Step It up and Go

Guangzhou Cantonese Opera Troupe – The Crow Flies Back to the Forest

I also picked up their release, Opika Pende, which focuses on music from African in the 78 Era. For this release, there is an introductory essay and then an annotation for each song. There are more photos than ephemera, but it still has some great record jackets. Longing for the Past gives a similar treatment to 78s from Southeast Asia. Recently, Dust-to-Digital has collaborated with Johnathan Ward, who runs Excavated Shellac – a site that pairs recordings of 78s from around the world with very detailed research and commentary. Whenever I swing by there, I feel like I have accidentally stumbled into an advanced musicology course.

Dalila Rochdi – Haragli Guelbi, Pt. 1

E.K.’s Band – Suro Onipa

Tobbo Eitel – Ja Bane

Jean Bosco Mwenda – Masanga

Transvaal Rockin’ Jazz Stars – Swaziland


Gender Wajang, Koeta – Angkat-Angatan                                  

Phloen Phromdaen – Lam Khaen

The Yawt Silabin Troupe – Mon Ap Son                                   

Sak Som Peo Ensemble – Phleng Boran

Lệ Thủy, Nam Cơ, And Bảy Bá (Viễn Châu) – Chúc Anh Đài

Pinpeat Ensemble [uncredited] – Teb Bantom

Gamelan Musicians Of Yogyakarta, Java – Babarlajar Mataram

A few years ago, I finally got a turntable that could play 78s, but I wasn’t listening to them very much because it was a drag to switch the cartridge. Then I got the bright idea of buying a separate headshell just for the 78 cartridge and that changed everything. Now I can switch back and forth in seconds. Once I had that set up, I methodically went through every 78 I had, deciding which records to keep (see Scratch Ticket Radio #5 for another account of OCD listening). To be fair, I even listened to the ones that from appearance were headed out the door. In addition to the songs noted above, the following records jumped out at me:

Louis Armstrong – Chicago Breakdown

Chu Berry and His Stompy Stevedores – Chu Berry Jam       [What a name!]

Big Maybelle – That’s A Pretty Good Love

Boston Stars – Khulula   [I think this record is from South Africa, because it sounds like township jazz]

The Branch Gospel Choir – Every Day, Every Hour

The Four Blades – Church Bells May Ring [Doo-wop of perhaps sketchy provenance]

Songs like these suggest I had been hanging onto some good stuff that was just waiting for its time to shine. Unfortunately, after completing the vetting process, at least half of the 78s I currently have I am getting rid of. They are not the obvious Hawaiian-showtune-holiday-record type bad, but they are boring nonetheless. And letting go of half of what I have means I don’t have much of a collection. In fact, I hesitate to even call it one. So, yes, I’m a nerd, but a certain kind of nerd. Perhaps the worst kind. A nerd that rides the coattails of somebody else’s obsession. These rejected records are not going to Goodwill, mind you – I’ll be looking for somebody else who will take them on knowing full well they are the vinyl equivalent of a bad penny. My hope is that there is somebody out there with even less discerning taste than me who might want these things. If there isn’t, then I am the gatekeeper at the bottom of the barrel. Quelle bummer.


If you have 78s, consider uploading them to the 78 Archive: http://great78.archive.org/donate-78s/

[1] I didn’t remember the date, but I did remember the album in question, so I worked backwards. My memory is pretty good, but not that good.

Screen Shot 2022-10-28 at 11.09.12 AMScreen Shot 2022-10-28 at 11.09.18 AM

Screen Shot 2022-10-28 at 11.09.22 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s