When I first began pulling the book together, one of the things I found interesting was how, at the outset, people like Scarborough and John Lomax had a very enthusiastic sense about what recording machines could do, but who were also absolutely adamant about the belief that anything that was recorded commercially could not be folk music. So, while they went out with their recording machines looking for living singers, they were actually looking for black voices. I wanted to understand how the trading of old records began, and how for some of the traders, the story of their scavenging through Salvation Army record bins and record stores was really the story about their search for authentic black singers. How it became possible to hear authentic black voices within mass market recordings that had been tossed aside interested me a great deal. These recordings were recycled rubbish, really, being put to new uses.
That story really started with the rediscovery of New Orleans jazz. The three collectors you mention -- Russell, Ramsey and Smith -- began listening to old Hot Jazz recordings, particularly those made by Jelly Roll Morton during the late 1920's. These men were middle class whites -- even approaching elite status. Ramsey was a student at Princeton, Russell was a classical violinist, and Smith worked on radio. Scavenging for records meant going to Harlem, it meant going to the South side of Chicago, and it may have meant knocking on people's doors in these neighborhoods, asking people if they had old records to sell -- Russell was doing that in the late 1930's in Chicago and St. Louis. It meant they had to be like bloodhounds on the trail for recordings that black people themselves were no longer interested in -- and in some cases had never been interested in to begin with -- but which they were hearing as the sound of history and the sound of an authentic, pure voice of black music that wasn't being heard on juke boxes or on the radio.
That led to a number of things, one of which was the discovery in 1938 that one of their heroes, Jelly Roll Morton, had been abandoned by history. At the time, he was tending bar in a seedy dive in Washington D.C. called The Jungle Inn, and this group of record collectors alerted Alan Lomax, who by then was working for the Library of Congress. Lomax subsequently recorded an absolutely extraordinary interview over a period of three or four weeks, in which Jelly Roll Morton told his version of the history of jazz in the brothels and dives of New Orleans. After these interviews were completed, the trio of Ramsey, Russell and Smith decided to write their own book which would get to the heart of the story of where jazz and the blues had begun. So, they set about interviewing old jazz musicians in and around New Orleans, and the publication in 1939 of their book Jazzmen initiated a new wave of interest in old, authentic, New Orleans music. There were many things that interested me about that, the most central of which was the development of this network of record collecting in the late 1930's and 1940's that was mostly made up of men living in places like New York or Chicago, and who had the time and money to put into hunting for old recordings. By the early 1940's, specialist magazines began to appear. Record Changer, for example, was completely devoted to publishing the "want lists" of record collectors. It was an extremely convoluted network of exchange in which groups of friends and cultists would develop particular passions for certain kinds of old recordings, eventually giving rise in the 1950's and 1960's to an interest called "country blues."