In the 2001 movie “Ghost World,” 18-year-old Enid picks up the arm on her turntable, drops the needle in the groove, and plays a song yet another time. She can’t get over the emotional power of bluesman Skip James’ 1931 recording of “Devil Got My Woman.”
If you know anything about 78 records, it only makes sense that a nerdy 40-something 78 collector named Seymour would have introduced her to this tune.
As played by Steve Buscemi, Seymour is an awkward, introverted sadsack based on the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff, who—along with his comic-artist pal, Robert Crumb—is an avid collector of 78s, a medium whose most haunting and rarest tracks are the blues songs recorded in the 1920s and ’30s.
“These guys were collecting the music that resonated with them, and then it became the document of that time, the music that endured.”
Nearly a decade later, music critic and reporter Amanda Petrusich had the same intoxicating experience Enid (Thora Birch) did, listening to very same song, although she got to hear “Devil Got My Woman” played on its original 78, courtesy of a real-life collector, who owns this prohibitively expensive shellac record pressed by Paramount.
Only three or four copies are known to exist.
The gramophone, a type of phonograph that played 10-inch shellac discs at 78 rpm, was developed in the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1910s and ’20s that the technology became more affordable and less cumbersome so that an average family could have one at home.
The records, which could only play 2 to 3 minutes of sound per side, had their heyday in the ’20s and ’30s. They lost their cachet in the ’40s, when radio became the most popular format for music lovers.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, 78 records were phased out in favour of long-playing vinyl records.