It just happened again: a few minutes ago, I dropped money I don't have on an old blues 78 on eBay. My heart soars; my bank account declines faster than a dot-com stock. The Docks Guide—the 78 collector's bible—lists this Tampa Red side (Vocalion 1418, recorded in 1929, V+ condition) as being worth between $100 and $150. My winning bid: a paltry $38.77. I may not have even that much money to spare, but who cares? I will soon be cranking up my Victrola (a 1916 tiger-oak cabinet, model VV-X, in near-mint condition, for which I recently paid $625) and listening to—no, savoring—Tampa Red belting out "It's Tight Like That, Part 3," a lovely little hokum blues ditty about vaginas.
But perhaps most important, I crushed my rivals. With the assistance of my trusty cable modem, I dropped in on eBay 10 seconds before the auction ended and placed the vanquishing bid. A second-place bidder is crying somewhere in Albuquerque this afternoon.
Someone please help me. I'm a very sick little monkey.
How did I get myself back into this trap? I gave up collecting 78s about 12 years ago when, broke and disgusted, I sold the only thing I owned of value—my rare 78s. I'd paid a few grand for those records but sold them all for a measly $500 because I needed cash desperately.
I've mourned those records as one grieves for lost children, but I consoled myself with the notion that at least I'd bottomed out. I'd been cured of an addiction every bit as pernicious as crack. I had something more for my troubles than a ruined liver and an estranged family.
Those records . . . those glorious, seductive sides . . . each a work of art—ambrosia for the ears, the eyes and the soul. I become unduly excited just by stroking the exquisitely designed and manufactured label of an old Paramount side, a Black Swan, a one-sided Victor.
Ahhhh, I'm swooning again. . . .
This most recent bout started with Napster, where I stumbled onto MP3 files of truly ancient vintage—forgotten pop stars such as Collins & Harlan, Billy Murray, Harry C. Browne, Ada Jones and Billy Golden. These people recorded at the turn of the past century and are all but lost in time today, none of their records have been rereleased on CD, and most have remained unreleased in any form since they were first available 100 or so years ago.
There are good reasons they have disappeared from memory. First, there's the technological: these hollow, creaky, nasal tones were recorded on primitive, pre-electric equipment. Bands and singers huddled around crank-driven recording machines and sang into huge brass horns. Only the loudest singers with the most piercing timbre made it onto records—such were the requirements of the day.
Then there is the otherworldly music itself. The bands played tight-assed, oddly jerky arrangements in the days before jazz was born. It's a sound so foreign to modern ears that there is no contemporary reference point. Most people can't deal with the haunting weirdness; me, I can't get enough of it. It's like listening to the voices of ghosts. Chilling. I actually get gooseflesh from these precious little slices of Americana.
Finally, there are the lyrics. You can read all the history books in the world, but there's nothing to prepare you for these echoes of a cobwebbed past coming back to life and enveloping you. These are among the most politically incorrect recordings imaginable, products of an early 20th-century genre called "coon songs." Unabashedly sentimental yet wrenchingly offensive, lyrics by turn celebrated the beloved "darkies" (as one might gush over a beloved hound dog) and lampooned them for laziness and "monkey-like" facial features.
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So forbidden is the subject matter that these records have limited commercial potential and are almost completely ignored by music historians. Yet performers both black and white once regaled crowds with songs such as "Nigger Loves His Possum," "If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon," "My Zulu Babe" and "All Coons Look Alike to Me"—the last penned by a black man named Ernest Hogan. There is no sense of shame in the songs, no rage or irony. So mainstream were these themes that such early African-American entertainment legends as Bert Williams, Ethel Waters, Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake recorded such material.
It's impossible to defend the "coon" craze on any grounds but its reality; for a brief moment, racism was recorded, and there's no denying the music's vast importance in American music history, its reflection of a particular—and peculiar—time, or its undeniable aesthetic appeal. Collins & Harlan, especially, were hugely gifted singers whose ragtime-based music is a pure pleasure despite its gleeful racism. I often feel I'm privy to some filthy little American secret, which is part of the rush in finding these records.
Still, I find myself returning to early blues with the greatest enthusiasm. While pioneering pop, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime and "coon" performers sold records in such quantity that they're still easy to find all these years later, early blues sides were available in very limited numbers; there was almost no money in them. White people were not running out to buy primal country-blues wails by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and few blacks had the money for such a luxury as a Victrola. Hence, early blues records are the scarcest and the most valuable. But it's the music rather than the investment potential that moves my consumption; the lonesome, plaintive cries of human voices moaning country blues is profoundly hypnotic. They conjure spooky, cinematic images of the singers and their milieu.
But I digress: Napster wound up making a record junkie out of me once more. I relapsed like Robert Downey Jr. in a hotel room with Courtney Love. In the past month alone, I've dropped about $1,500 on 78s and the aforementioned Victrola, which I love so tenderly that I've been known to hump the machine when inspired by the right mix of great music and liquid libation. This would all be well and good were I not a writer living paycheck to paycheck. Bills go unpaid. The dog eats generic food. They're threatening to turn off the cable, which would mean no more Tony Soprano, Sugar Shane Mosley or Bart Simpson, all of whom I love as much as Tampa Red, Peg Leg Howell or even Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon (a gay, transvestite blues singer from the early 1920s who warrants a separate study on his own). Once I passed the $1,000 mark, I vowed it had to end—the eBay bidding wars, spending all my spare time combing antique and thrift stores, pestering friends about the possibility that a box of 78s might be moldering in the garage of the house they inherited when Aunt Ludella died back in 1987—but I haven't been able to stop. I'm like a little boy who just discovered his penis: I can't leave it alone. The other night, so overcome by emotion while listening to a Ukulele Ike 78, I cried like a little girl. I'm a man possessed and obsessed, but I'll be dipped in dog doo if I'm not loving every sweet minute of it. Someone, please help me. I'm a very sick little monkey.