logo Enthusiasms No 9
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

What Record Collectors do on their Holidays (if they're lucky)


One of the articles I best remember from the days of MT in hard copy format (number 7) was by Pekka Gronow, entitled 'Searching for 78s in Samarkand'.  I was absolutely riveted by his account of record supply and availability behind the Iron Curtain.

I don't like admitting this, but in June of 1996 I went to Ontario for ten days with a group of morris dancers.  After returning from Canada I prepared a kind of diary of my record collecting adventures and circulated it to a handful of like-minded friends.  Looking at it again three years on, it occurred to me that (properly edited), like the Gronow piece before it, others may find something of interest in it.  If it smacks too much of 'what we did on our holidays', well, that is deliberate, and readers are invited to ignore it completely.  More tolerant souls should now read on ...

The first store I found that had any 78s (properly a bookstore), was in Woodstock, Ontario, on the day after arrival.  It offered only a small stack and the owner's comment, 'They are difficult to get hold of here'.  A little dispirited, I nevertheless bought four at 25 cents apiece (equivalent to 13 pence), including (I discovered upon return) an issue on the Starr Gennett label featuring vaudeville blues singer Edna Hicks, with Porter Grainger on piano, which was not in the standard blues discography by Dixon and Godrich (although it takes its rightful place in the third edition, which has subsequently appeared).  If the wax data is to be believed, matrix 8437 is the plain take, whereas the US Gennett disc apparently only issued take A.  play Sound ClipThis may, then, perhaps be the only known copy of this disc, and that particular take.  Certainly Johnny Parth, who has issued on 700 CDs virtually the entire pre-war blues corpus, knew of no other copy.  (sound clip).

Later the same day, the whole English party (22 persons, in three vans) went to Lake Erie.  The weather was pretty wet, and around the close of the afternoon we drove into Port Stanley.  The others spotted a cafe, I spotted the antique shop next door.  Funny that! This was more like it: two boxfuls of 78s and fifty cylinders.  I bought a good few discs and one cylinder ($2 for 78s - then the equivalent of one pound - $4 for cylinders), and spoke to the dealer by phone at his home, from the store.  He had thousands more at home, but it simply wasn't possible to schedule a visit.

play Sound ClipBack in London (Ontario, that is) the following day, I made a haul of cheap vinyl (Don Messer and His Islanders (sound clip), Montana Slim, Winston 'Scotty' Fitzgerald) and a couple of Jimmie Rodgers CDs (at a fiver apiece English).  Things were now looking up considerably.  The weekend was spent playing for the morris dancers, play Sound Clipbut on tour in downtown London on the Saturday I found another boxful of 78s in yet another bookstore, which yielded a further dozen at $1 apiece.  These included my first Triple-A grade collectable item of the trip, fiddler Percy Scott on Starr Gennett from 1922.  (sound clip).

In Toronto a few days later I headed straight for Yonge Street and the already-spotted record shops.  Advertised as the biggest dealer in secondhand vinyl in town, one store also had a small selection of 78s, and it was here I bought two folder sets from the Bahamas and Bermuda, originally issued during the 1950s.  This was as much as I paid for a 78 the whole trip - $3 apiece - but no extra charge for the folders.  I learned the following day that not too long ago this store had a lot more Caribbean material, including British-issued Melodiscs, but these had gone by the time I got there.

Wednesday was the day appointed for a prearranged lightning tour of the Toronto junk shops.  Arriving at Jack Litchfield's apartment around mid morning I had a quick tour of his holdings.  A jazz collector, he has several thousand 78s, and about the same number of vinyl albums and other formats.  But his film collection he reckons to be about the most comprehensive in Canada for jazz.  A most knowledgeable man, he compiled the published complete Canadian Jazz Discography, and the Jazz and Hot Dance in Canada vinyl album on Bruce Bastin's Harlequin label.

And then we were off, venturing into uncharted territory which may or may not yield high returns.  The first two stores were a bust.  Then we entered a Goodwill branch.  The first thing I spotted in the record pile was a Columbia 27000-F by Ukrainian fiddler Pawla Humeniuka, then another, then another, then ...  Twenty minutes later I staggered out bearing 53 discs, mainly Ukrainian Columbias, but a few other genres also.  All at 50 cents each.  Quite an experience, and one which my host/chauffeur seemed to enjoy almost as much, vicariously feeding off my excitement.  All these discs had clearly belonged to an old Ukrainian, probably recently dead, and I had the good fortune to hit the store on the right day.

Nothing much of great import was discovered during the rest of the day (a Greek 45 on Odeon in the large Salvation Army store was perhaps most interesting), despite visiting twenty or thirty stores.  But after a wonderful Thai meal we drove off to see a couple of local collectors.  The first had put six French-Canadian discs by for me, at $2 each, but we also trawled briefly through a thousand other sale items in his basement in the limited time we had available.  Mainly these consisted of jazz and swing (some very fine - Jelly Roll Morton, etc.  - and all at either $1 or $2), and if I had had more time, more luggage allowance and more money I would have probably bought quite a few.  As it was, I added a Memphis Minnie and Son Joe, a Jazz Gillum, a Sweet Violet Boys and a rogue John Sheridan and His Boys (God knows what that was doing there - Irish jazz?) to my other half dozen.  Ten very collectable items for ten pounds!

To finish the day, on to the suburb of Pickering to meet up with Roger Misiewicz, whose name I knew from various blues reissues over the years.  We chatted about many topics, listened to a few sides, and I was impressed at his catalogue of holdings, which contained much rare blues and gospel.  At one point he handed me five 78s, and suddenly I was holding a batch of Robert Johnson Vocalions in one hand - value $7500 - and a can of beer in the other!  Apparently there is a chain of bars in the States which idolises Robert Johnson, and they are willing to pay $1500 for any Johnson 78 (even with a bite), which they then hang over the counter!

It was on this occasion that I first got confirmation of the rumour that Johnny Parth was intending to issue the complete pre-war old timey output.  Now, three years later, I have become heavily involved in the project (my article on the East Texas Serenaders on this site arose as a direct result of such involvement), and forty-three volumes have already appeared, with another dozen at the pressing plant.  Where Johnny Parth finds the energy I just don't know.

It was nearly midnight when we left the Misiewicz house, the finale to a hugely exciting day.  Jack drove me back to my hosts' home, and we spent a final few minutes with the boot open examining the day's acquisitions.  He showed me how to identify Canadian pressings on Columbia: the take block has only two digits, e.g.  '1-c-', as opposed to the US three, e.g.  '1-c-1'.  When cataloguing them back in South Leigh I discovered that there were alternate takes on a number of the Canadian pressings, which makes sense if you think about it, with a different metal mother (a technical term, not a form of abuse) despatched to Montreal - or wherever - where a more limited press run was perhaps anticipated.  I also rapidly realised that Richard Spottswood's seven volume Ethnic Music on Records (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990) is seriously deficient in Canadian Victor releases.  Although I bought quite a few bearing the same issue number as the US version - say, V-21009 - the Canadian releases are clearly marked 'His Master's Voice Victor', with the 'pressed in Montreal' legend, so ought clearly to be treated as separate issues.  It may be, in fact, that several thousand of the items in Spottswood appeared in this Canadian guise also.

When packing my bags I realised that I would be lucky to get all the records, CDs, cylinder, videos, books, etc.  already bought onto the flight home.  A junk shop only a mile from where I was staying, it's basement apparently filled with 78s, had to be passed over.  As did the Vinyl Museum, which also claims the biggest secondhand vinyl stock in Toronto.  Nor did I contact any of the major dealers in vintage records in Canada, whose addresses had been sent to me in advance.  I only managed to avoid excess baggage charges by packing all the 78s in my hand luggage.  And then I could scarcely lift the bag more than a couple of inches from the ground! Fortunately, all went well.  No customs check at Gatwick meant, too, that I kept my video of The Exorcist, a film banned here for the past fifteen years (although just granted a video certificate by the film censors within the past few weeks).

To sum up the experience, there were fewer French and Scots-Canadian instrumental 78s than I had hoped for, although realistically I knew I was really too far west for that.  Ditto for many Compo-pressed discs.  I was very surprised not to find cheap new budget CDs of such popular traditional-styled artists as Don Messer and His Islanders, or Montana Slim: apparently they simply don't exist.  I expected to buy more Messer vinyl than one single and a double, although the Toronto vinyl man assured me that they went out of the store as fast as they came in.  Some of what I did find, though, came as somewhat of a pleasing surprise: the Bahamas and Bermuda folder sets, the Ukrainian collection, the unknown Edna Hicks on Starr Gennett.

All that was left was to catalogue and listen.  Now, if only there were 96 hours in a day...

Keith Chandler - 25.5.99


It should be obvious that I collect traditional ethnic music in any format, with the emphasis on the pre-war output originally issued on 78 rpm shellac discs.  (That my interests span the entire world is, perhaps, not quite so obvious).  I would be delighted to make contact with any like-minded souls, with a view to exchanging information and perhaps tapes.

I can be contacted via e-mail at: KEITHC650@aol.com or via snail-mail at: Windrush Cottage, Station Road, South Leigh, OX8 6XN, England. (Tel: 01993 773819).

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