78 Mania

As God is my witness, I saw this at a flea market some years ago: Two record collectors huddle, one holding a shiny 78-rpm disc with no grooves, no label. He hands it to his pal and, in a conspiratorial tone, says: “It’s a virgin Presto!” The collector who’s taken the precious blank disc in hand holds it up to one ear and gently but firmly thumps the edge.  His face registers bliss at the dull thunk of a vintage 78-rpm disc unsullied by music, “a virgin Presto.”

In 1933 Presto Recording Corp. introduced machines which could record and playback recordings cut on specially coated aluminum discs. They were portable enough to become the means by which Alan Lomax and others made nowlegendary field recordings, though the bulky recorder and batteries needed to power it in pre-electrified rural America could weigh in excess of 130 pounds.  No doubt the field recordists of that era would marvel at digital recorders that fit in a shirt pocket.  Still, The 78 Project celebrates the Presto and those who grappled with it, engaging current artists as diverse as Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson to make `one-take’ 78 recordings.  Its website proclaims: “With just one microphone, one authentic 1930′s Presto direct-to-acetate disk recorder, and one blank lacquer disc, musicians are given one take to cut a record anywhere they choose.”  Their experiences are captured in a 78 Project film’s been screening across the country (you can watch the trailer at the78project.com) and on a vinyl-only soundtrack album released in November.

78s have never been sexier! Amanda Petrusich’s recent book, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, has been widely ballyhooed on such unlikely platforms as public radio’s Marketplace, due to the princely sums rare 78s fetch.  Money’s no object when John Tefteller wants a pre-War blues disc, and each year he produces a calendar illustrated by vintage adverts for blues records with an accompanying CD.  2015’s Blues Images Calendar is the twelfth from Tefteller’s company, and offers (among other gems) the Tommy Johnson 78 for which Tefteller paid $37,000!

While pre-War blues bring top dollar, 78s of every stripe lure collectors.  The Dustto- Digital label prides itself on bringing vintage esoterica to light, and outdid itself with last year’s Longing for the Past: the 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia.  Lavishly illustrated, the 4-CD set offers an astonishing variety of music recorded in Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia and elsewhere.  A 272-page book annotated by authorities on Southeast Asian music and early recording in the region earned Longing for the Past and compiler David Murray the most recent `Best Historical Research in Recorded Folk or World Music’ honor from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

About Mark Humphrey

Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.

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