Record Machine: The Community College Comes A’Callin,’ Part 2

A few months ago, I wrote about how our local community college library needed assistance sorting some vinyl they’d discovered in the basement, and how enthusiastically I raised my hand. Friends, never let it be said that your obsessions cannot be handsomely rewarded, for the college officially hired me to sort and catalog all eight boxes of records.

Cliff Edwards - Oh Lovey Be Mine (red shellac record)
Cliff Edwards – “Oh Lovey Be Mine” (Perfect Records, 1925)

Being someone who is generally unemployable when it comes to “regular” jobs, having a paid gig to sort records, where I could come in whenever I wanted, wear whatever I wanted, and I only had to periodically report my progress — it’s an ideal situation for me. When friends have asked me what the job is like, I’ve said, “It’s tedious, but it’s my kind of tedious.”

For about a month, I spent a few days per week examining each record’s condition, and I wrote down its information. Most of the records were singles in either 45rpm or 10″ form, so I’d write down the song titles, the songwriter, the performer, and the record company. To better remember what I had, it made more sense to hand-write everything into a notebook, and that way my work could not be undone by technical snafus.

Right now, I’m working on finishing up the second stage of the project. Each record is put into a spreadsheet, with one spreadsheet for each box, and I research the record’s value online. Some of these singles have more information available than others, and “value” is somewhat subjective. Still, based on the condition of the vinyl and various sale listings on eBay or collectors’ sites, I can assess an approximate dollar amount.

I love this kind of thing, the accumulation of music trivia, learning about these unknown-to-me singles, and just how obsessive fans of certain genres can be. My favorites so far are the Northern Soul people. Northern Soul is a musical culture primarily based out of the North of England beginning in the 1970s that still has its dedicated listeners today. They collect soul and R&B singles mostly from the early-to-mid-1960s that focused on the Motown sound rather than the funk-leaning tracks that were becoming more popular. These song preferences led to their own sort of club culture, complete with dance moves, Mod-inspired clothing, and the yearning for that single that no one else had. There are now message boards filled with pleading: “Does anyone know where I can find [x] single from Okeh [Records]?” In near-mint condition, I saw listings that sold original pressing 45s for over $60.

I find it fascinating because I know how they feel, even if it’s not one of the genres I obsess over. One enjoys a certain band, learns about what bands inspired them, who they played with on that one single, and on and on the tributaries flow. Northern Soul was a “scene,” sure, but beneath all that was less about appearing cool (though being “cool” was a desirable byproduct). They had a sincere love for the music and the fun that could be had around it. In just the little bit of research I’ve done with some of these ’60s records, I’ve learned so much.

The 10” records are a whole other animal. For one thing, they’re not made out of vinyl, but shellac. Shellac is far more brittle than vinyl, and I found a fair number of records that looked like this:

New Orleans Rhythm Kings - San Antonio Shout (broken shellac)
New Orleans Rhythm Kings – “San Antonio Shout” (Brunswick, 1934)

The Record-Revering Weirdo inside me hates to throw stuff like this away because even if it’s not playable, shouldn’t we do something with it? Give it to an artist as material? I don’t know.

Soon I will meet with the college librarian and we will discuss what the next steps for these records will be. I don’t know how involved I will be in that process, but a large part of me wants to have a hand in finding these records a home. Yes, there are a pile of them that I want for myself, if that is possible, but what of the rest? Will they sell them? Buy a record player for the library? Narrowly avoid me saying things like, “But if you just let random students manhandle these shellac records from the ’50s you may as well break them now?”

This is why I have too much clutter among my belongings — I get attached, which is why I am both an ideal candidate for taking the project seriously, but also kind of the worst because My precioussssss…

Every fellow music obsessive with whom I’ve talked about the job has looked at me with eager eyes, all but coming right out and saying, “Gimme. Please.” None of this is necessarily about dollar value, but a sentimental need to respect these old songs.

The process carries on. Music lives on. I want to do right by these records, whatever that entails.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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