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Texter av Do Not Sell At Any Price
by Amanda Petrusich

I first met the collector Christopher King on the same afternoon Hurricane Irene came whipping through central Virginia. I spent most of the drive to his home dodging cracked branches and other tree-borne detritus, eventually parking my rental car in a giant puddle and booking it to his doorstep. King, then forty-one, had short dark hair that he combed back and to the side, and a pale, round face that suggested a certain kind of old-fashioned innocence, although in actuality he was sharp and acerbic, quick with an eye roll and unlikely to let anyone get away with saying anything stupid. He had a tattoo of Betty Boop on his right bicep, which he acquired while working as a janitor, in an everlasting bid at solidarity with his colleagues. He smoked stubby cigarettes he rolled himself from a baggie of tobacco he kept in his front pants pocket. King was precise but open-minded, which was good, because he would eventually end up spending a terrifying amount of time walking me through the nuances of various recorded phenomena. I was grateful for that. If I wanted to learn about records—where they were, how they
Got there, why it mattered—I knew I would need a tolerant sensei, a
Patient guide
King worked as a production coordinator at Rebel Records, a bluegrass
Label, and County Records, an old-time label, both based in Charlottesville;
He was also the owner of Long Gone Sound Productions, a
Sound-engineering and historical music production company. On his
Office desk, alongside a supplementary-seeming desktop computer—in
My memory it was an archaic, Commodore 64–looking behemoth, although
In actuality it was likely a contemporary PC—sat a green Remington
Typewriter. His eyeglasses were of another era. He didn’t own
A mobile phone, and referred to mine as a “smart-thing.” His house in
Rural Faber, which he shares with his wife, Charmagne, his daughter
Riley, and a bug-eyed Boston terrier named Betty, was outfitted with
An assortment of carefully vetted antiques and oddities. Like many
Collectors, King had insulated himself from the facets of modernity
He found most distasteful. At one point he asked me if Lady Gaga was
Indeed, “a lady.” He was not being coy or funny
King was flummoxed by my interest in collecting, which he insisted
Was a mundane if not static hobby, and he answered my questions
With barely contained bemusement. What he was compelled by was
Listening, and the myriad ways people required and employed sound:
“The question that never gets answered, or maybe that doesn’t even
Get asked, is what is it about being human that makes us desire this
Thing that is so ephemeral?”
Music, he pointed out, was a universally recognized salve, and it
Was worth considering the mechanics of that exchange, because understanding
It was the only way anyone could ever begin to explain
Why he collected 78s. “There’s some sound or some group of sounds
Or some line of sounds that evokes something cathartic. I think every
Single human being has that, from one end of the spectrum to the
Other,” he said
Accordingly, King insisted he wasn’t collecting records so much as
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Performances. He liked the things, but he needed the songs, the catharsis—
The records were a vehicle. I would eventually hear a version of this
Speech get recited by dozens of different collectors, and it usually felt
Like bullshit, but I believed King when he insisted that listening to a 78
proffered him a more thorough
And transformative experience. He didn’t try to define it any further
“It’s a fidelity thing and it’s also an aura, an intangible. I’m one of those
People who don’t think there’s much that is inexplicable, but this is one
Of the things that I would say is inexplicable,” he said
King was born and raised in Bath County, Virginia, and he’s never
Lived outside the state, save a brief, errant stint in Steubenville, Ohio
During which he completed three days of a PhD program in philosophy
At Franciscan University. He’d previously studied philosophy
And religion as an undergraduate at Radford University and learned
The practice of collecting from his dad, Les King, a local teacher and
Musician who steadily accrued upright music boxes, antique books
Victrolas, 16-millimeter films, records, and other curiosities. His
Who passed away in the winter of 2001, remained a considerable
Presence in his life, and King mentioned him frequently, with a
Mix of devastation and approbation
As a kid, King was often toted along to yard sales and flea markets
But his own collecting began when he serendipitously encountered a
Stack of 78s in an abandoned shack on his grandparents’ land. It’s a
Good story, cinematic: “My grandmother had died, so my grandfather
Wanted me to come there and help clean out the sharecropper’s shed
I remember opening the door to this tar-paper shack, and there was
A dilapidated Victrola in the room. I knew what a 78 was and I knew
How to play them, but I had never had a profound attraction to them
Maybe what Dad was playing didn’t tug at the strings in the right way
So I opened the lid and I’m going through records and there’s Blind
Willie Johnson, ‘God Don’t Never Change.’ Then there’s Washington
Phillips’s ‘Denomination Blues.’ Then there’s ‘Aimer et Perdre’
By Joe and Cleoma Falcon, a Cajun lost-love song. Dad helped me
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Wash them. I was in eighth grade and became obsessed with going in
People’s basements and looking under their porches. I can’t tell you
The stacks of 78s people would put under their porches back then.”
King started out looking for hillbilly records, which bled into blues
Which splintered into a profound affinity for the raw and rural sounding
“If there’s any one continuous thread through everything that I
Have, it’s deeply, deeply rural and backwoodsy. It’s almost like it turns
Its back to the city. There’s something about that,” he admitted. King
Was also preternaturally drawn to narratives of longing and discontent
To performances that sounded unhinged and uncontrollable. It was a
Preference, unfortunately, that I recognized in myself—a base, possibly
Shameful desire to hear someone so overcome by emotion that they
Could no longer maintain any guise of dignity or restraint. I suppose the
Idea was that it made us feel less alone, hearing someone else unravel
Or maybe it was a yardstick by which we could measure our relative
Damage. Or maybe it just sounded good and liberating—a kind of proxy
Wilding. King was listening for it, constantly
He was also a guy who thought frequently about dying (he worked
Briefly, as an undertaker) and was prone to saying things like “I prepare
For death every day. I’m obsessed with it.” It made sense that King, a
Collector, would be fixated on the passage of time, and his preoccupation
With his legacy—as a curator, a producer, a father—fueled much
Of his work. “Look at all the blatantly transient things that, ultimately
Are never going to last, like Facebook postings,” he complained to me
One day on the telephone. “I’m definitely obsessed with the notion that
It could end just like that. What’s going to be left behind?”
In actuality, the question of what will endure has never been more
Complicated to answer. Although King would have scoffed at the notion
It’s possible to argue that our digital legacies (all those dopey Facebook
Posts) will ultimately prove infinitely more enduring than our material
Legacies. They are, after all, replicated and indissoluble—such is
The way of the Web. These days, there are even services to help with
The posthumous management of a digital legacy; now, when people
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Draft wills and name executors, they can also make arrangements with
Companies like Legacy Locker, “a safe, secure repository for your vital
Digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends
And loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.” It’s hard not
To assume that this is how future generations will engage with and be
Edified by the past—that this is the way they’ll come to understand
How humans used to live
But I knew what King meant about endurance, about capturing
Something true. Maybe what he was actually looking for on all those
Records—what I was actually looking for—were songs that somehow
Captured the tenuousness of even being alive in the first place. Songs
That recognized, either explicitly or implicitly, the threat of swift and
Complete termination that all living creatures are forced to contend
With. And it’s not just that our existence is friable. Our happiness is
Too. Anything can fall apart
King had been involved, in one way or another, in many of my favorite
Reissue collections, but the one that seemed closest to his heart
is Aimer et Perdre:
To Love andamp; to Lose, Songs, 1917–1934, which was released in 2012 on the
Tompkins Square label. King produced and remastered and fussed it
Into being; all the 78s were sourced from his private collection, and
His introductory essay is an earnest paean to what he refers to as “our
Inexplicable mulishness in seeking out relationships that we know will
Ultimately both enrich us and devastate us, more often at the same
Time.” I think King found solace in the idea that bad love was an ancient
Human pastime, and that our desperate search for (and epic bungling
Of) intimate relationships was somehow hardwired into our DNA—
That heartache was a kind of biological inevitability. In any case, he
Had assembled a record collection that seemed to very clearly say as
Much. Or, as he wrote in the same notes: “Many of the songs in this
Collection convey the deep despair of abandonment and loss as if the
Only precondition of our being is our ability to suffer, to hold multitudes
Of contradictions such as regretting having done and not done the same
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Thing at different times and under different conditions.” It was dark
But it was true: we suffer, therefore we sing
King’s records are neatly contained on squat, custom-built shelves
Lining the north wall of his music room, itself a dark and mystical
Spot—a small, cooled space packed with vintage audio equipment
Instruments, artwork, and books. (If you are prone to romanticizing
Such things, a gasp upon entry is inevitable.) King controlled one of
The best assortments of prewar Cajun 78s (his friend, the collector Ron
Brown, had the other), and his stock of Albanian folk records, a newer
Preoccupation, was inimitable. Now that most of the coveted prewar
Blues records had been discovered or at least named, many collectors
Had moved on to more “exotic” fare, although the musical through line
Running through all of it remained clear: these were outlier records
Frenzied and raw
More important—to me, at least—was that King is also the keeper
Of one of three known copies of Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words
Blues” and one of three known copies of Blind Uncle Gaspard’s “Sur
Le Borde de l’Eau,” arguably two of the saddest, strangest songs ever
Recorded, a fact he summarized thusly: “So, I have two of the world’s
Most rare and most depressing 78s ever . . . if I were to be swallowed
Up, would all the sadness disappear with me?”
King was joking, and I had not yet sunk so far as to believe that
The whole well of human despair—that eternally flush reservoir—was
Somehow being sustained or directed by two old records, but they did
Feel imbued with a certain otherworldly import. I first heard “Last Kind
Words Blues” on a 2005 Revenant Records compilation called American
Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (King, incidentally
Had remastered that collection). By then, collectors and researchers
Had figured out the song was recorded in Paramount Records’ Grafton
Studio in March 1930, but nobody knew how its creator, Geeshie
Wiley, had gotten to Wisconsin, or where she came from (she might
Have spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, or at a medicine show farther
North in Jackson, or—as King suggested after noting the particular way
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She pronounced “depot”—been born and reared somewhere along the
Texas-Louisiana border), or even what her real name was (“Geeshie”
Was likely a nickname, indicating she had Gullah roots, or was a descendant
Of West African slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia via
Charleston and Savannah). Wiley played with a guitarist named Elvie
Thomas, and they recorded six sides for Paramount between 1930 and
1931. Beyond that, there wasn’t even significant conjecture about her
Life—who she loved, what she looked like, how she died. Wiley was
A specter, fiercely incorporeal, a spirit suggested if not contained by
Shellac. King thought that was part of her appeal—that we could project
Whatever we needed onto her—but “Last Kind Words Blues” is also so
Odd and chilling an accomplishment that it effectively transcends its
Own mythology. Or at least renders it mostly subordinate
Wiley’s lyrics and phrasing aren’t idiosyncratic, exactly, but they’re
Rhythmically baffling in a way that makes her performance feel singular
If not entirely unreproducible—to the extent that it almost makes
Sense that the record itself is so rare. In his essay “Unknown Bards,”
John Jeremiah Sullivan called the song “an essential work of American
Art, sans qualifiers, a blues that isn’t a blues, that is something other
But is at the same time a perfect blues, a pinnacle,” and the confusion
Sullivan references—the psychic disorientation stirred up by Wiley’s
Is maybe the only quantifiable thing about it. King
Chided me about my inability to articulate precisely what it was about
“Last Kind Words Blues” that I found so undeniable—why it worked on
Me; why, by the time she arrived at the “What you do to me, baby / It
Never gets out of me” bit, I was half-breathing and glassy-eyed—but that
Mystery was a fundamental part of its allure. In “O Black and Unknown
Bards,” the James Weldon Johnson poem that gave Sullivan’s piece its
Title, Johnson wrote of his own bewilderment regarding the composition
Of certain spirituals, presenting the only useful question one can
Really ask of Wiley: “How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?”
“Last Kind Words Blues” was the first record I ever asked King
To play for me, and I suspect it’s the one most people request if they
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Ever make it past his front door and get a chance to start demanding
Things. There’s even an online video—shot by the 78 Project, a pair of
Filmmakers who traveled around recording new artists
To blank lacquer discs on a 1930s Presto Direct-to-Disc recorder—titled
“Christopher King Plays Geeshie Wiley,” which is, incredibly, just that:
Three and a half minutes of King spinning “Last Kind Words Blues”
On a turntable and looking uncomfortable. At one point he scratches
His nose
If Wiley is an enigma, Blind Uncle Gaspard is a wisp. The guitarist
And curator Nathan Salsburg sent me an MP3 of “Sur le Borde de
L’Eau” one October, after I told him I’d never heard it; to his credit
He included fair warning (“The end of side sounds completely
Like he’s choking up and can’t go on and thank God the record’s over
He’s probably just got a frog in his throat . . . But it sure as shit doesn’t
Sound like it, reaching through the years and kicking you in the face.”)
Gaspard was born in 1880 in Avoyelles Parish in Dupont, Louisiana
Recorded a handful of Cajun ballads and string-band songs for Vocalion
Records in two sessions in the winter of 1929 (one in Chicago, one in
New Orleans), and died in 1937. I’d heard “La Danseuse,” the Gaspard
And Delma Lachney track the collector and producer Harry Smith included
On The Anthology of American Folk Music, and I thought it was a
Very sweet guitar and fiddle tune, but “Sur le Borde de l’Eau” is something
Else entirely. I don’t know what Gaspard is going on about (I
Don’t speak enough French), but I’m certain the payoff isn’t narrative
His voice is so saturated with longing that it seems to hover midair, a
Helium balloon that’s lost too much gas. It is tenuous and malfunctioning
And then it disintegrates entirely, like the best/worst relationship
You’ve ever had, like a ghost disappearing into the mist
King acquired a copy in a trade with a collector he will still identify
Only as “Paul” (“It sounds more Mr. Arkadin–esque that way . . . Jeez, I
Don’t want to give up all my secrets!”) in late 2012. When I visited him
In November of that year, a few days before Thanksgiving, he didn’t
Make me wait very long to hear it. We decamped to his music room
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With tall glasses of Turkish iced tea and he let me have the good chair
The one behind his desk, the one that faced the speakers. I made him
Play it for me again several hours later, right before I left, and I sat and
Stared at the turntable, watching the record spin, feeling flabbergasted
Anew that anything so alive-sounding could be carved into a slab of
Shellac. I had sipped some stronger drinks by then, but still: the entire
Experience was so disorienting that I lurched off into the icy Virginia
Night without my coat and scarf
King is well regarded as an engineer—he’d been nominated for six
Grammys and won one in 2002, which he now stores in a cardboard
Box labeled ACCOLADES—and his ability to wrangle usable sound from
Gouged and battered records was astonishing. It was so astonishing, in
Fact, that I periodically questioned both its origins and its manifestations
What did King hear when he listened to his records? What did I
Hear? Those discrepancies, when and if they existed, were they physical
Or metaphysical? Had I just blithely annihilated my eardrums via a
Catastrophic combination of punk-rock records and shitty headphones
An end-of-day blaring ritual that had eased me through several years
Of life and work in New York City? Or was it more complicated—was
It a function of need? Did King hear more because he needed more?
“I can hear stuff that’s on a different frequency than a lot of other
People,” King said. “It’s also really irritating. I can be in the living room
Reading with fans going and Betty could be in the library lying on the
Floor, but I can hear her heart beating. She’s a small dog. I have an intense
Acute sense of hearing. It’s selective; I can turn it off when people
Are talking. Is it a form of autism? I don’t know.”
What was certain was that his work required a great deal of ingenuity
The turntable in his music room was littered with oddly sized bits—
Matchsticks, tongue depressors, little plastic ice-cream spoons—that
He used to weigh down the tone arm based on assumptions he’d made
Or things he’d learned regarding certain studios or recording sessions
He accommodated for factors like ambient humidity, or a tilt in the
Floorboards, or a distraction on the part of the original engineer, who
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May have been daydreaming or hungry or new at the studio. When he
Was working on remastering records for Revenant Records’ Screamin’
And Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, an epic, seven-CD
Compendium of Patton’s work, he managed to suss out a second voice
On Patton’s “I’m Goin’ Home”—a whole other person, singing along
From a different room. “It’s definitely there,” he shrugged. “No one
Knows who the hell it is.”
What King did, in these instances, was something akin to translation
And it was useful, generous work. Sonically speaking, 78s can be
Intimidating—the music they contain is often ancient sounding, so
Obscured by years and circumstance that it becomes too distant, too
Historic, to be properly felt. Shrouded by mythology and crackle, it’s
Easy to forget that Charley Patton sang about fucking and heartbreak
And shit that pissed him off—all the same stuff people sing about now
King humanized and demystified the performance by isolating a breath
A foot stomp. Some goon waiting outside
Sometimes King’s mission had to do with how a record was played
And the shape it was in when he got it. Was the Victrola crooked, were
People dancing so vigorously that the needle kept jumping, was the
Record stored in a damp basement or a drafty attic? Mostly, though, he
Was compensating for the shortcomings of a then-nascent technology
(most records weren’t recorded precisely at 78 rpm, and some weren’t
Recorded anywhere near that speed). The same night King played me
His Gaspard we also listened to Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My
Trail,” a song I’d heard hundreds of times before, only it sounded different
Clearer, more vigorous. I asked King about it. He smirked. When
I looked at his turntable, I saw it was spinning at rpm and that
He had placed a Popsicle stick on top of the stylus. It felt like a magic
Trick. A conjuring
I’ve since consumed several of the most gluttonous meals of my adult
Life with King, a dubious gastronomical streak that began in the front
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Seat of King’s Volkswagen, then parked outside Dudes Drive-In in
Christiansburg, Virginia. The aftermath was bleak, spiritually speaking
“I feel like I just ate a small child,” King announced. The remnants
Of a hamburger steak sandwich quivered in his lap. I squirted more
Ketchup packets onto a cardboard boat of tater tots, which I’d strategically
Positioned on the dashboard for continued ease of access
A typewritten track listing for Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, a collection of
Songs recorded by the prewar accordionist Amédé Ardoin and recently
Reissued by King, was Scotch-taped to the glove box. I was careful not
To smear it. “I’m gross,” I mumbled to no one in particular. I took a long
Pull of Coke. My mouth was still crammed with cheeseburger. King had
Warned me about the culinary limitations of our destination—the way
He put it was, “If you flew over at night, the area would be illuminated
With the lights of a thousand deep fryers”—but we didn’t try especially
Hard to circumvent that proclamation. Cursory consideration was paid
To the barbecue restaurant next door, but their evening’s scheduled
Entertainment (a pair of longhairs strumming the Statler Brothers’
“Flowers on the Wall”) had functioned as an instant appetite suppressant
For King. I could see that much on his face
A few weeks earlier, I had convinced King to let me tag along on a
Junking mission—the procurement of records from people who don’t
Know or care to know their worth, financial or otherwise—to the Hillsville
VFW Flea Market and Gun Show in Hillsville, Virginia, a sleepy
Little town in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about
Twenty miles from the North Carolina border. King had been lucky
There before, although he also warned me that it might be a tremendous
Bust: “I’ve gone almost every year for fourteen years,” he wrote in an
E-mail. “Some years I’ve done quite well . . . Scored a Patton
Once, several Henry Thomas records another, a Reeves White County
Ramblers another, a large stack of Polish string bands another. Last
Year I came back with nothing . . . It’s just like that. But it is a stinky
Dusty, terribly early trek (you have to hit it, and hit it hard, early on
Friday just as the sun comes up).” This, I knew, was how good records
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Got found—not by belatedly stopping by the Jazz Record Collectors’
Bash in suburban New Jersey. And while I wanted to watch King work
I also wanted to see what sorts of things I could find for myself
On the Thursday before the market opened, I met King in his office
At County Records. Getting to Hillsville on time required driving the
Two and a half hours from Charlottesville to Christiansburg, spending
The night, and waking up before six to finish the trip. King was a good
Traveling companion, not above friendly ribbing (he immediately gave
Me shit about the size of my duffel bag—which I still contend was reasonable—
As he hoisted it into his trunk), amenable to frequent stops
, and prepared to discuss, at length, all the
Grand failings of humankind, both as they related to our individual lives
And to the whole of the species. (“It seems like I only enter into an

Abysmal depression every year and a half or so, and it’s usually because
Of having to go to Whole Foods.”)
We also talked about records. King had developed a marked disdain
For collectors who issued compilations of their finds but failed
To procure the necessary support documents—the ones who didn’t
Provide meaningful context for the music they were promoting. As far
As King was concerned, collectors should embrace research, and the
Ones who refused to were dilettantes. “They don’t feel like they need
To fill in any information, and so it creates this imaginary, artificial
Mythology,” he said. “It’s a pretense that covers up a banality that they
Don’t want to reveal to others. ‘We just like this—we don’t want to tell
You about it.’ The people who impress me are the people who become
So obsessed with the music that they do everything in their power to
Get the best-condition copies of the discs, and then find out everything
They possibly can about some really obscure, arcane musician or type
Of music. Then they provide it. They don’t withhold it.”
I still hadn’t quite worked out how I felt about most 78 collectors’
Obsessive desire to contextualize—in the worst instances, to synthesize
Spotty research into quasi-academic narratives—and I still wanted to
Believe that these records were significant on their own merits, inde-
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Pendently of any applied historical heft. It was music, after all. Why
Distance ourselves from it? Modern listeners, I insisted, didn’t have
Many chances to experience art in a vacuum, devoid of cultural currency
And freed from the constraints of time and place. Wasn’t it an
Opportunity? A thing to treasure?
He didn’t say as much, but I’m fairly certain King thought I was
Being naïve, if not willfully oblivious. There were some eye rolls. I
Brought up Wiley. Didn’t he believe “Last Kind Words Blues” was good
Enough to devastate a roomful of, say, rural Swedes who didn’t know
Anything about the country blues or Mississippi or rare 78s? Who hadn’t
Yet engaged in a spirited debate about whether she says “bolted meal”
Or “boutonniere” or “broken will” at the end of that early verse? He
Made a face at me. “There’s just too much richness to be derived from
The context of the original recording,” he said. “Reckon it makes me a
Pessimist or killjoy, even though I’m a true believer in the redemptive
Power of Geeshie.”
Ultimately, King and I would end up spending more time bickering
About this than anything else—I had taken to arguing that Wiley could
Destroy anyone, anywhere, regardless of what he or she knew or didn’t
Know—and a few months after I got back from Virginia, when I started
Up about it again, he sent me the following e-mail:
“Here’s a thought-experiment. Rather than the 78 being presented
To a bunch of rural Swedes, Albanians, or Greeks, why don’t you have
The actual Geeshie Wiley show up in Albania and [the Albanian clarinetist
Violinist, and singer] Riza Bilbyl show up in Jackson, Mississippi?
Do you think that the reaction of a bunch of rural Albanians
To Wiley’s music or a bunch of sharecroppers in Mississippi to Riza
Bilbyl in the 1930s would differ from their reaction right now? If so
Why? Now, remove Geeshie and Riza and replace them with a battered
Only-known copy of their respective 78 but retain the two different
Date spreads . . . would the reaction to their greatness be diminished
Or intensified by the introduction of this base artifact rather than the
Real thing?”
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I mean, he was right: time and circumstance shape our understanding
Of art in substantial ways. But what I still couldn’t unpack—probably
Because I often caught myself conflating the two—was whether my
Subjective context (the fact of me, where I live now and when I was
Born, my understanding of heartache and what I ate for lunch) can or
Should be trumped or augmented by a more objective context (the fact
Of the song, of how and where and why it was made). I remain a staunch
Believer in the subjective experience, but I am skeptical, sometimes, of
Objective significance. As an engineer, King was tasked with balancing
All contexts: what he wanted to hear, what he was supposed to hear
What was actually audible. John Muir’s famed assertions of interconnectedness—“
When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that
It is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken
To everything in the universe,” he wrote in his journal in 1869—felt
That Thursday night, after we’d arrived in Christiansburg and scrounged
Supper at Dudes, King and I commandeered a pair of beige-colored
-a-night beds at an Econo Lodge near the highway. The hotel was
Set up like an old motor inn, with two levels of rooms emptying onto
Concrete balconies. A fleet of cable repairmen were tailgating in the
Parking lot, slapping wads of hamburger meat onto hibachi grills and
Emptying endless cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I entertained a handful
Of cheery solicitations while wandering around with a plastic bucket
Hoping to ice the bourbon I’d brought from Charlottesville. When the
Timbre shifted from jovial to menacing, I darted back to my room, piled
All the unbolted furniture in front of the door, unwrapped a plastic cup
Poured myself a drink , and fell asleep horizontally with all of
My clothes still on
King and I had agreed to meet up in the lobby at six sharp
Before I’d left New York for Virginia, I’d asked King if I needed to
Bring anything in particular with me. He’d sent this advice, which I was
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Tempted to print out and tape to the inside of my closet door, like Joan
Didion in “The White Album”:
So, you should pack:
A) water-bottle
B) knapsack
C) comfortable shoes that you can burn afterwards (I’ve read that
Ladies in New York do this all the time, so this is more of an
D) handkerchiefs (viewed from the moon, Hillsville at noon would
Appear to be a dust storm, as if it were over the Sahara)
E) change of clothes or two (I even offend myself after three or
Four hours at the market)
F) a disbelief in what humanity can bear
It seemed comprehensive—and applicable to a variety of reporting
Scenarios. I dressed in a pair of cutoff Levi’s, a white tank top, and my
Old Converse sneakers. I filled my water bottle from the bathroom
Tap, secured it in my backpack with my cell phone, notebook, pens
And recorder. I pulled my hair into a knot on top of my head. I rubbed
My eyes. I felt like I was preparing myself for battle, or for indoctrination
Into some brotherhood of shared trauma. I dragged the furniture
Away from the door, strapped on my backpack, and walked outside and
The lobby
The moon—a blue moon, incidentally, which felt portentous even
From the Econo Lodge parking lot, typically a romance-obliterating sort
Of place—was still sunken and teeming in the sky. Despite the lack of
Sun it was already hot, or maybe just moist; every time I inhaled, I felt
Bloated, sticky from the inside out. While I waited for King to appear
I poured myself a cup of tepid coffee from the lobby pot and watched
The local news on TV. A skinny teenager named Levi Moneyhunt was
Being interviewed regarding his participation in something called the
Catawba Farm Fest, which seemed to involve him playing “old-time
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Amanda Petrusich 46
Music” on a yellow Flying V electric guitar. I was underlining the words
“Levi Moneyhunt” in my notebook when King arrived. He was dressed
In jeans and a tucked-in brown T-shirt. His leather-and-canvas rucksack
Contained an antique record-carrying case, complete with cardboard
Separators, where he could stow and protect his purchases
Following a brief consultation, we decided to take breakfast at the
Waffle House on the other side of the parking lot. I ordered a plate of
Fried eggs and smothered hash browns. The toast—wheat, a concession
That now strikes me as absurd—was so thoroughly saturated with
Butter that it could no longer ably support itself. I gobbed a tiny tub of
Grape jelly on top of it and shoved it into my mouth anyway. It seemed
Smart to renew our resources, bank some energy. While we forked our
Eggs, King outlined his plan for the day. We’d head directly to a record
Dealer he’d had luck with before—a guy named Rodger Hicks who
Trekked to Hillsville every year from Forest Hill, West Virginia, a couple
Hours north. King knew where his table was typically located, and he
Knew we needed to get there early. After that, we’d walk around for as
Long as we could stand it, looking for records concealed amid other
Relics. I asked King what I should expect, broadly speaking. “You’ll want
To take a picture,” he said. “You’ll be stunned. By how many people
How thick the people are, how thick the tents are, how big the whole
Thing is, and I guess by how disgusting it is.” I told him I’d seen some
Pretty grody displays in Brooklyn, like this one time a guy in track pants
Vacated his bowels on the sidewalk outside my apartment. I received
An eye roll. We tossed down some cash for our meal, climbed back into
The Volkswagen, and sped off
King and I approached Hillsville from the north, rolling through
Miles of bucolic countryside, up and down, smoothly, like a surfer
Straddling his board at sunrise. There is a moment in late August, in
The South, where the landscape gets nearly obscene—overfed and cognizant
Of what comes next—and unleashes a final, boasting parade of
Virility. Abundance was in the air. Just a few miles outside of town the
Yard sales started, driveways and porches crammed with junk. Out-of-
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47 Do Not Sell at Any Price
Towners were coming, with cash, in pursuit of they-ain’t-sayin’-what
And anyone lucky enough to own property along the primary artery
To the market was taking full advantage of the sudden influx, luring
Shoppers off-course with renegade wares. Entire houses appeared to
Have been turned inside out. Traffic slowed. There was some aggressive
Browsing. People were caffeinated. King, for his part, was stoic
Unswayed by the siren call of unregulated product, and by 8:40 we
Had parked at a lot in town and
Were marching, briskly, toward Rodger Hicks’s tent, past the vendors
With fanny packs of small bills, past the women tearing open packages
Of gas station donuts and unleashing tiny puffs of powdered sugar. The
Air was airless—heavy and close, like a wet sheet
Tramping through a flea market with Chris King is oddly thrilling
Like getting tied to the back of a heat-seeking missile, or being RoboCop
As we moved steadily toward our target, King scanned various tables
And booths, pointing out any vendor with a gramophone—to King, the
Most obvious signifier of a potential shellac windfall. I can’t overstate
How good he is at this; he can turn a corner and point out a Victrola in
About seconds. I, meanwhile, was distracted by nearly everything
, and for each whiskey
Decanter shaped like the Great Chicago Fire that I paused to admire
King discovered another sagging box of old media tucked inside a teak
Midcentury buffet. At this point, he was only making mental notes of
Spots to revisit. We needed to get to Hicks by nine , when the flea
Market officially opened and vendors could begin selling their goods
By the time we found Hicks’s booth, there were already a few shoppers
Milling about, including a collector King recognized—a soft-spoken
Older gentleman with a mustache and a buttoned-up shirt named Gene
Anderson. After I introduced myself, Anderson let me flip through his
Want lists, which he’d slipped into clear plastic pages and assembled
In a binder—based on the contents, he had what appeared to be a solid
Collection of prewar country and blues records on his shelves already
King, meanwhile, nodded hello to Hicks—a middle-aged man with
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Amanda Petrusich 48
Thin brown hair pulled into a ponytail and a pair of tiny, oval-shaped
Sunglasses—leaned over a box of 78s, and began thumbing away. On a
Piece of cardboard, someone had written GOOD 78S BE CAREFUL, but
Rivulets of dew had already dripped through the tarp Hicks had strung
Up, saturating the sign. King snorted and pushed it aside
Most of the tent was filled with used rock LPs, 45s, and CDs. Rodger
Hicks seemed to have some passing sense that certain old 78s were
Worth something, although he also hadn’t really bothered to follow
That thread to any logical pricing conclusions. The bulk of his 78s were
Marked at just a couple bucks, although a few in especially good condition
Were randomly priced at 0 to 0. Some negotiation was
Expected. Almost immediately, King nudged me and handed over a Paramount
Pressing of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “That Black Snake Moan,”
Which he already owned and wasn’t interested in—it was marked 0
Which was probably about 0 more than most collectors would pay
It’s a powerful, groaning song—the black snake, in this case, being
Both exactly what it sounds like and a useful metaphor for Jefferson’s
Fear of everything he couldn’t see—but was also popular, meaning an
Awful lot of copies were pressed. I was tickled by the idea of having
It in my clutches, but I wasn’t particularly seduced by the song or its
Price. I set it down
King chatted amicably with Anderson and kept on pulling out records
I stood a few feet away, jotting impressions of the crowd in my
Notebook (“A woman in a visor holding an LP and yelling, ‘Jim, look
Steve Miller!’ ”) and occasionally peeking over King’s shoulder. I felt
Acutely aware of wanting to stay out of his way, lest I complicate a
Delicate acquisition process. At some point, King faux-casually asked
Anderson what he’d picked up so far, then appeared relieved when
Anderson showed him his selections. (Watching two collectors interrogate
Each other about recent—or, in this case, ongoing—purchases is
A little like watching two high-achieving middle school students warily
Prod each other about a grade: “What’d you get?” “What? What’d you
Get?” “What?”)
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49 Do Not Sell at Any Price
Finally Anderson paid for his records and ambled off, and King
Showed me the 78s he’d pulled, which included two notable rarities:
Eddie Head and His Family’s “Down on Me” / “Lord I’m the True Vine”

And Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Blues” / “Guitar Rag” (less rare, but in
Notable condition—an E copy, which would replace King’s E-minus
Copy). After a bit of gentle bargaining, King paid Hicks 0 cash for
A total of nine 78s. He knelt down in the grass and gently tucked the
Records into his case. He was pleased. I picked up a few of King’s castoffs
Including 78s from Stick McGhee, Washboard Sam, and Blind Boy
Fuller, and a stack of Victor pressings of early Carter Family tunes. I
Paid around forty dollars for all of it. I was beaming. King was proud
Before we walked away, King stopped to ask Hicks what else he’d
Sold that morning. Although vendors weren’t technically supposed
To open for business before nine on Friday (those hours would
Change to seven the following year), many had been camped out in
Hillsville for a couple days already. With the profit margins on hocking
Old shit hovering somewhere between slight and undetectable, you
Couldn’t really blame a guy for entertaining early offers. While readjusting
His shorts, Hicks, already gloriously sweaty, unpinned a grenade:
He’d sold ,600 worth of “blues records” to “someone from Raleigh”
Earlier in the week—probably Wednesday. He’d been in the field since
Sunday. He didn’t recall the specific titles. King, I could tell, was ruffled
Not miffed, exactly, but disturbed. Hours later, when we stopped for a
Late lunch and several gallons of sweet tea at the Blue Ridge Restaurant
In Floyd, Virginia—King ordered “country ham” and I ordered “city
Ham” and we both got the brown beans and fried squash—he brought
It up again. “I won’t sleep for several weeks,” he sighed. I couldn’t tell if
He was being serious. For now, though, the information was filed away
We trudged off, once more unto the breach
In retrospect, it occurs to me that if one was interested in compiling
The world’s most comprehensive collection of sweat-soaked T-shirts
The Hillsville VFW Flea Market and Gun Show would be an unqualified
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Amanda Petrusich 50
Mecca. Here, the gradual darkening of preshrunk cotton mirrors a darkening
Of the soul. It is unconscionably hot and crowded, and attendees
Are forced to contend with several miles of gently used detritus, all
The bits and bobs—a thousand riffs on colored plastic—humans have
Designed to ease our long, slow crawl toward death. Surrender is required
Or else you will crumple under the weight. When a portly man
Sporting strained cargo shorts and an orange GUNS SAVE LIVES sticker
Unleashed an epic, undulating belch a couple inches from my face—we
Were both digging, somewhat frantically, through a mound of stateshaped
Refrigerator magnets—I found myself not only not repulsed
But almost wanting to shake his hand
Hillsville allows for sudden reinvention
And you could probably outfit an entire one-bedroom apartment
Here for 0, particularly if you subscribe to the “odd old stuff”
Aesthetic (which seized Brooklyn, at least, several years ago, and to
Which I continue to shamefully adhere). But even if you don’t, there
Is copious bounty to be ravaged: hand-carved Victorian bed frames
And kitschy Atomic Age knickknacks and gold-and-ivory pocketknives
Are plentiful, but so are dented Ikea nightstands and used Cabbage
Patch dolls and Duracell batteries of unknown origin. It is a feast of
Accumulation, presented without judgment or categorization. I was
Instantly reminded of Donovan Hohn’s “A Romance of Rust: Nostalgia
Progress, and the Meaning of Tools,” a 2005 Harper’s essay in which
The author visits the barn of an antique tool collector and is struck by
How zoological his collection appears. “Divorced from usefulness and
Subjected to morphological classification, they looked like the fossils
Of Cenozoic mollusks or the wristbones of tyrannosaurs,” Hohn wrote
Of his subject’s prizes
There is no sense of genus or species at Hillsville—everything is
Everything—but product, detached from both its intended use and
The codified retail experience, becomes ungrounded, ill defined, and
Increasingly absurd: all parts and no corresponding whole. After less
Than an hour of browsing, the merchandise at Hillsville resembled a
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51 Do Not Sell at Any Price
Word I’d said too much—as if I’d accidentally subtracted all meaning
Via blind repetition, as if it had never had any meaning at all. Particularly
Upsetting were objects of recent vintage: piles of video games
From 2011, hardcover installments of Harry Potter, an unopened Cuisinart
Panini press. Hohn, at an estate auction, remarked how an ink-jet
Printer, still in its original box, had “already passed into that limbo of
Worthlessness that exists between novelty and nostalgia,” and, looking
Across the fields, I recognized that vast and endless void—the terrain
Of the freshly outmoded, of that which is neither useful nor evocative
Obviously, none of this slowed us down. Existential duress has no
Place at Hillsville; it is softened or eradicated by the consumption of
Deep-fried foodstuffs. Available at one tent near the entrance were
Deep-fried Reese’s peanut butter cups, Oreos, Twinkies, Milky Way
Bars, Snickers bars, Three Musketeers bars, and—for dessert—“frozen
Cheesecake hand-dipped in chocolate.” Near the gun section of the
Market (an old VFW hall overloaded with every kind of assault weapon
Imaginable, some in shades of pink for the lady in your life), a scrum
Of hunters in tank tops were selling taxidermy and assorted sundries
from the back of a
Pickup truck. I paused to admire a white-tailed deer head mounted on
A slab of oak, a steal at twenty dollars, and scratched it behind its ears
Until King gave me a look that said, “Don’t do that.” Later, he did nod
Approvingly when I purchased an old puzzle, copyrighted in 1981 and
Called Feelings. It consisted of five wooden cutouts of a young girl in
Varying throes of emotion—Sad, Afraid, Angry, Happy, and Love—and
Required users to match her face with a corresponding title. Still, as I
Was paying, he couldn’t resist this: “That would be so much better if it
Had been made in 1975.”
We also looked for 78s—in Victrola cabinets, under piles of John
Denver LPs, wrapped in sheets of yellowed newspaper, in the backseats
Of vendors’ cars, shoved under tables, in blue Tupperware bins labeled
OLD RECORDS, stacked indiscriminately in the high, bleating sun—but
Despite several hours of thorough digging, little else of note emerged
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Amanda Petrusich 52
From the fields. There were good records there—commercial country
Like Hank Williams; Little Wonder discs, which are just five inches in
Diameter and contain a minute or so of novelty music—but nothing
Of immediate consequence for King. So goes junking. The Eddie Head
And Sylvester Weaver records were enough to make the trip worthwhile
For him
We began hiking the five thousand miles back to King’s car. I had
Started to register several unsettling smells. Of particular impact was
The aroma set free each time someone stumbled out of a Porta-John
Freeing its cooked contents—that vile steam—into the air. I experienced
An overwhelming urge to both wash my hands and to dry-heave
My hair had mostly loosed itself from its bun and was sticking to the
Sides of my face in new and interesting ways. The Volkswagen, when
We arrived, felt like a life raft
I collapsed inside, and we zoomed out of Hillsville and toward
Floyd, where we stopped to visit King’s coworkers at the County Records
Store, and then, several hours later, to Charlottesville, where King
Deposited me at the airport, but not before making sure my records
Were properly packed with cardboard and bubble wrap. At the security
Checkpoint, I got pulled aside for extra screening—“Miss, what’re
These?”—but eventually made it to my gate, where I sat doodling in my
Notebook and wondering if I should go back to the bathroom and toss
Another fistful of cold water on my face. Every few minutes, I unzipped
My bag and checked on my records. I got excited just looking at them
I flew back to New York City feeling intensely satisfied, if unclean
That feeling wouldn’t last
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