The Collectors

Over the years, most 78 RPM records were worn out, broken, thrown away, made into ashtrays, used as target practice for local carnival ball-throwing contests, plowed into landfills, or donated to scrap shellac drives during World War II. Today, not one household in a hundred even has an old-fashioned Victrola that can even play the discs.

Yet a handful of collectors and scholars sensed the importance of this culture, and sought to act before it was too late; they began collecting the old 78s, cleaning them, figuring out the best way to get the best sound from them, trading them with other collectors, learning what they could about the names on the labels. On a 78, the listener received no liner notes on recording information as he or she does today: you got a name (which might well be a pseudonym) and a song title (which might not be the one the artist gave to them). To establish a social and musical context for these records, you had to do painstaking research — not only in old company files, but actually beating the bushes in towns from which the musicians came.