Objects of Desire: Creating Discourse and Constructing Canons in Blues Record Collecting

John Dougan/Middle Tennessee State University

At a more intimate level, rather than grasping objects only as cultural signs and artistic icons, we can return to them . . .not specimens of a deviant or exotic ‘fetishism’ but our own fetishes.
                            --James Clifford

Howard Odum and Guy Johnson were the first American folklore researchers to argue for the relevancy of blues recordings as textual evidence to be studied by future generations of vernacular music scholars.  “When a blues record is issued,” they wrote in 1925’s Negro Workaday Songs, “it quickly becomes the property of a million Negro workers and adventurers.” Proving this assertion was the popularity of blues recordings among African Americans in the wake of Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.”   The record’s success had validated composer Perry Bradford's claim that America's 14 million blacks would buy records if recorded by one of their own.  More importantly, “Crazy Blues,” initiated a deluge of blues recordings that sparked the expansion of the genre from a regional to a national craze and sales that, in 1926, peaked at $128 million. [1]
Despite the robust nature of this very young recording industry, 1926 was the last year sales would be this high – by 1933 sales bottomed out at a mere $6 million due mainly to the Depression, but also competition from radio and motion pictures, record labels “economizing” in the face of dwindling sales by increasing releases by established artists rather than recording new ones, and opting for a cheaper, faster (one-take only) assembly-line approach to recording. [2] However, 1926 also marked the beginning of the end of the classic blues era and the start of what Jeff Todd Titon calls “the first major period of downhome blues recording.” [3] Some of the earliest commercial recordings of folk blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, issued by Paramount, sold extremely well, and although he only recorded 75 sides for Paramount, Blind Lemon Jefferson quickly became the most successful of the early rural bluesmen and, from 1926-1929, was a star equal in status to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith [4].
Recorded blues music spectacularly announced the transition of the genre from a pre-technological oral tradition to a form of mass art.  Or, as Richard Nevins has noted, marked the development of the blues as “mostly a marketing strategy, birthed alongside the record industry.” [5] As text, the 10-inch, 78 rpm record functions on (at least) two levels, explicitly as a form of commodity culture meant for entertainment purposes, and implicitly as means of transcribing cultural history.  In this metatextual sense the 78 is linked in a cultural and cognitive process as a commodity “not only produced materially as [a] thing, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing.” [6] The fluidity between its explicit and implicit cultural function is diachronic in that it may be treated as a commodity at one time and not another.  In other words, one person's junk in 1930 becomes, thirty years later, another's cherished artifact.
This fluidity reflects the relationship of the mostly African American consumers of blues 78s in the 1920s and 30s and that of the white, male record collectors of the post-World War II era.  As self-appointed keepers of the canon, record collectors treat blues recordings as a series of secular scriptures discoverable and attainable by hard work and occasional subterfuge.  Many of them are immersed in ongoing arguments over canon formation – primarily questions of who is more/most influential and where they belong in the artistic pantheon – as well as less intellectualized, but still contentious, debates over who ripped-off whom to get a rare record.  They are organic intellectuals, cultural populists who possess a daunting amount of factual information and reject what they consider the academicization of the blues and the elitism of archival institutions that keeps the music from “the people.”  Nearly all the significant blues record collectors came of cultural age during the folk and blues revivals of the 1950s and 60s and shared a cultural aesthetic that, “[seemed] to be protesting the innocuousness of . . . ‘mass culture.’”  Blues record collectors represented “a white, middle-class love affair with the music and lifestyle of marginal blacks.”  To these record collectors, blues 78s were “exotic mysteries engendering endless theorizing.” [7]
This indefatigable group of men have contributed significantly to the creation of a blues canon by rescuing, cataloging, and re-releasing these records, and are crucial to the development of a blues ontology by providing access to the genre’s soundtrack.  Record collectors function in a manner not unlike that of the record label talent scouts of the 1920s and 1930s (men such as Ralph Peer, H.C. Speir, and Mayo Williams) who selected performers urging them to record in specific styles, thereby slowing (and virtually stopping) the recorded development of certain race record sub-genres (e.g., African American stringband music).
In their role as cultural mediators record collectors perform a second order curation by selecting from a selection, organizing, re-conceiving, and labeling “the Blues,” creating a narrower ontological framework that combines personal taste with critical historiography, culminating in the release of the blues reissue, itself a kind of condensed canon
At its core, canon formation among blues record collectors involves organizing and defending a set of selections made from several possible sets of selections.  The resulting “canon” represents the essence of the tradition, and the connection between the texts and the canon reveal the veiled logic and internal rationale of that tradition. [8] The criteria generally used in selecting appropriately canonical texts involves bringing together works considered “essential” by artists deemed “crucial” or “central” to the tradition who can also be categorized geographically (e.g., the Piedmont, the Delta, etc).  These designations, however, are not always self-evident or absolute.  The relationship between the canon and its keepers is similar to the work of academic literary critics, whose expertise was needed to decipher and discuss a “body of difficult and forbidding literature.” [9] While the imprimatur of academia granted these critics a certain expert status, within the blues tradition expertise is more diffuse, scholarly work is one aspect of canon formation that includes critical writings by journalists and record collectors – professionals without academic affiliation, some of whom distrust the work of scholars, musicologists, and institutions.  As a loosely organized community of experts, they contribute to an ongoing critical reevaluation and historical revision that simultaneously shapes canon formation and creates new canons.  And while one facet of this community cannot always claim a dominant voice in the debate, it is the record collectors who supply the most compelling aural evidence
Expert status is generally conferred upon a record collector by other record collectors, many of who covet items in the expert’s collection.  The main criterion of an expert collector is that he (and they are overwhelmingly male) place a greater value on quality than quantity – thereby turning compulsive hoarding into meaningful desire.  “The good collector,” writes James Clifford, “is tasteful and reflective.  Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner.  The collection itself – its taxonomic, aesthetic structure – is valued, and any private fixation on single objects is negatively marked as fetishism.” [10] And while this is generally true of record collectors, as a group they are not immune from fetishism and private fixation even if it damages relationships among them.  But when it comes to blues 78s, a collection’s value and canonical import are influenced by the monetary values placed upon a particular record.  “When you put a price on a record,” notes collector Dick Spottswood, “you’re assigning a certain cultural/historical status to that performance.” [11] However, in order to make this assigned value real, a transaction must take place, be it the actual sale of the record, or a buyer’s willingness to pay a seller’s asking price.
While price may be a factor in assigning cultural and historical significance to a particular artist and performance, monetary value as a contributing element to canon formation works in concert with aesthetic evaluation and organization, critical acts creating subjectively defined parameters that reinforce a collections overall quality rather than quantity.
According to jazz record collector and historian John Johnson, “[Collecting is] about classifying and categorizing, and filing everything on fiberboard shelves, in a worthy but vain hope that in doing so you could gain ownership over the thing that owned you.” [12] When it comes to record collectors like Nick Perls and Joe Bussard, their collecting embodies hierarchies of value, exclusions, and rule governed territories of the self.

This conflation of the monetary and the aesthetic creates private collections that stand as authenticating cultural representations in that, as museums do with artifacts, record collectors arrange their discs into something that represents blues.  However, in order for the collectors to have an impact on canon formation, their personal treasures must be made available to the public.  Dick Spottswood notes that the impact collectors have on canon formation occurs only when they become archival producers and use their expertise in selecting material to be reissued.  “The choices we make tend to be the choices one should make,” he notes, “whether we intend for that to be the case or not.” [13]
Collectors such as Perls, Bussard, and many others were part of the 1950s folk revival, which, by the early 1960s, had metamorphosed into the blues revival.  Jeff Todd Titon writes that as a groups these blues revivalists, many of whom grew up in what Titon refers to as the “intellectual wasteland of the Eisenhower era,” embraced the music of people who seemed unbound by the conventions of work, family, sexual propriety, and worship.  As much as this was a love affair with the lives of marginalized blacks, it was also a love affair with records and their bohemian refusal of what they saw as the egregious commerciality of rock and roll allowed them to wed the collecting of obscure blues music with their anti-consumerist ethics. [14]
In New York City, a group called the “blues mafia” met weekly to discuss their musical obsession.  “[The meetings]” were really very loose and the purpose was to play records and to really have a dialogue,” recalls mafia member Larry Cohn, “it was great fun.”  Two notable Mafiosi were Nick Perls and Stephen Calt.
Perls and Calt net as undergraduates at City University of New York in 1962.  Calt was less interested that Perls in collecting records, envisioning himself as more of an historian of vernacular music.  Perls, however, wanted records, and to fellow collectors it seemed as if he wanted to own every country blues record in existence.  Perls was the son of Klaus and Amelia Perls, owners of the Perls Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue and two of the most significant art collectors and dealers of the 20th century.  After six decades in the business the Perls’ closed their gallery in 1995 and began selling their private collection at auction.  In 1996 they donated 13 works of 20th century art to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – a collection worth between $60-$80 million.
Given his family’s business and the conspicuous wealth in which he was raised, it is not surprising that Perls sought to combine his love of delta blues and his personal wealth (left a sizeable trust fund, Perls could afford to collect records full-time), in an attempt to turn record collecting and blues reissues into another Perls family success story.  “He wanted to show his family he could make money and be successful too,” recalls collector and writer Gayle Dean Wardlow.  “Something that made him extremely difficult to trade records with.” [15]
In the beginning Wardlow’s relationship with Perls was that of teacher and student, albeit a student with a seemingly inexhaustible bank account who could buy entire collections at the drop of a hat.  Perls’s and Calt’s interest in the blues led them to Bernie Klatzko who, in 1963, had gone canvassing with Wardlow in tiny Mississippi delta towns looking for Charley Patton records and researching Patton’s life.  Klatzko told these two young, enthusiastic acolytes how he and Wardlow had knocked on doors looking for records.  Perls, especially, was caught up in the romanticism of the delta and the simplicity and directness by which one could acquire records.  There was no other way, he had to go door-knockin’ down south.
Under Wardlow’s tutelage, Perls amassed a considerable collection in a very short time and, representing James Clifford’s “good collector,” Perls’s collection unfolded in a pedagogical edifying manner, reflecting his very specific interests.  “His focus was on black blues,” notes Dick Spottswood, “He was not out to get all the early jazz or hillbilly records – just the blues.” [16] However, as is the case with many record collectors, even a “good collector” is not immune from fetishism, and for Perls this meant owning all the blues 78s he could even if it meant ending friendships.  “I fell out with Perls in 1967,” recalls Wardlow.  “I sent some records to Bernie Klatzko to carry to Perls to tape and he never paid me the money we agreed on.”  Wardlow was also angered by Perls’s arrogance.  “He never wanted to admit that anyone else knew as much or more about Mississippi blues as he did.” [17]
As he family had done with visual art, Perls wanted to exhibit his collection by starting his own version of an art gallery, a reissue label.  Started in 1967, Perls originally called the label Belzoni, a reference to the Mississippi delta town situated between the cities of Greenville and Greenwood, but after two or three releases he changed the name to honor another Mississippi city, Yazoo.  By combining his record collection with Stephen Calt’s liner notes, Yazoo records quickly became an extremely important and influential American blues reissue label.  Partly, this had to do with quantity.  While other reissue labels were taking a year or more between releases, at Yazoo, Perls averaged three releases per year.  In America, Yazoo was almost single-handedly responsible for exposing country blues to a wider audience.  And although their relationship would remain estranged until Perls’s death in 1987, Wardlow considers him to be the pivotal figure in popularizing blues in the 1960s.
As with Nick Perls, collecting rare 78s has been the only job that Joe Bussard has ever had.  Living off a fortune made by his grandfather in the farm supply business, Bussard is the most driven of all the record collectors, one who has sacrificed friendships and family in pursuit of records, a personal cost few other collectors were willing to pay.  However, Bussard’s collection, according to other envious collectors, is one of the most historically important private, collections of early 20th century American vernacular music.  So rare are some of his treasures that surviving examples of American music would not longer exist were it not for him.  
Bussard, as was true of Perls, and many others collecting rare blues 78s, occupies a cultural insider/outsider status.  His collection represents a public display of power and knowledge and a private refuge from the corrupting influences of contemporary popular culture.  (Although he does not own his own reissue label Bussard’s treasures make it possible for practically all other reissue labels to exist.  And the records not reissued are available to the public through Bussard’s home taping service.)
John Sheppard goes so far as to suggest that male hegemony in music (and by extension, music collecting) is created “through strategies whereby men render silent and inert, a social world that is bubbling, evanescent and constantly rubbing up against us.” [18] Willful obscurantism on the part of many blues collectors represents a refusal and repudiation of mainstream popular culture.  It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Bussard’s loathing of post-World War II popular culture borders on the pathological – a fact that does not marginalize him within the ranks of blues collectors, but places him squarely within the aesthetic parameters of a group that, for the most part, came of age in the 1950s and 1960s rejecting what they regarded as mass-merchandized dreck.  To Bussard and his ilk, the blues, jazz, and hillbilly music of the 1920s was, in Bussard’s own words, “the sound of America before the modern world fucked it up.” [19]
To collectors like Bussard and Perls, canonicity is temporally circumscribed and, in their construction of vernacular music authenticity, is a spontaneous, emotional creation, virtually unmediated by the forces of commerce and the function of the marketplace.  To these moldy fig collectors, the blues was not an evolutionary style of music; it existed briefly in its original form and then vanished from the face of the earth.  Similarly their record collections are hardened skeletons resistant to the evolutionary forces of popular culture.  As long as they have their records and their cultural havens, collectors like Joe Bussard have the power to stop time and reconstruct the world, effectively shutting out the one in which they live.  The space allocated to house his collection is a masculine refuge from the noise or interruptions that come from married or family life.  (Bussard’s wife recently passed away and he has an estranged relationship with his adult daughter)
Joe Bussard’s record-filled basement-cum-shrine is a private haven of cultural power an knowledge intentionally situated away from the sexual and social world, and as such re-emphasizes the “masulinist politics” of record collecting in that it provides the raw materials around which the rituals of homosocial interaction take place.
There is a sense of belonging radiating from the shared world of collectors, one that reinforces exclusionary engagement among those fluent in the lingua franca of record collecting.  The goal of the collector (beyond having the most coveted collection) is to keep this imagined community small and rooted in shared understanding of the collection as both private haven and cultural monument.  “Just as ongoing conversation between men shapes the composition and extension of each man’s collection,” writes Will Straw, “so each man finds, in the similarity of his points of reference to those of his peers, confirmation of a shared universe or critical judgment.” [20] This insider discourse (revealed to outsiders in the form of blues reissues) is how collecting becomes connoisseurship, through a mastery of a domain of knowledge – generally speaking a corpus of factual information – which exclude outsiders, and represents the systematicity and organization which typically grounds the masculinist inclination to collect.  
Whether employed consciously or unconsciously, the ground rules of connoisseurship preserve the homosocial character of the record collector’s world by blocking female entrance or valuing information that, for women is of little use in navigating the terrains of social intercourse.  It is within this shared, male universe of critical judgment that discourse is formed and canons are, often contentiously, created.



1.    Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, Negro Workaday Songs (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926), 25.  William Barlow, Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of a Blues Culture (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1989), 115.

2.    Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 210.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Barlow, Looking Up at Down, 67.

5.    Richard Nevins, quoted in Grant Alden,

6.    Igor Kopytoff, The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization and Process,” Consumption and Identity ed., Johnathan Friedman (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994), 101.

7.    Jeff Todd Titon, “Reconstructing the Blues: Reflections into the 1960s Blues Revival,” from Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Festivals Examined, ed., Neil Rosenberg (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 225.

8.    David Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 81

9.    I am paraphrasing Henry Louis Gates, Jr., see Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

10.     James Clifford, “On Collecting Art and Culture,” from The Cultural Studies Reader, ed., Simon During (London: Routledge, 1993) 53.

11.    Dick Spottswood, interview with author, 6 June 2000

12.    Lee Jeske, “The Dead, The Living, and The Near-Mint,” Jazziz, March 1999, 41.

13.    Spottswood interview.

14.    Titon, “Reconstructing the Blues,” 225.

15.    Gayle Dean Wardlow, The Bluesworld Interview,

16.    Spottswood interview.

17.    Wardlow, Bluesworld interview.

18.    John Shepard, “Music and Male Hegemony,” from Music and Society: The Politics of Consumption, Performance, and Reception (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 155.

19.    Eddie Dean, “Desperate Man Blues,” Washington City Paper, 12-18 February 1998.

20.     Will Straw, “Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture,” from Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender ed., Sheila Whiteley (New York: Routledge, 1007), 10.