One evening late in March 2010, my friend Joe called. He told me that his friend Chris had been on a dumpster job that day, helping clean out the house of a recently deceased hoarder. The hoarder had had some 78-rpm records, and Chris had brought a few home. Joe was there for dinner and he put him on the phone. “What kind of records?” I asked. “Old-timey stuff,” Chris said. Visions of Harry James and Morton Downey, Sr., began swaying lugubriously in my head. I thought about lying back down on the sofa, but I went to look at the records instead.
I had never tried to collect 78s. I was young, broke, and peripatetic, and by the time I might have started, I didn’t live in a place where the getting was good. (Never mind that I had gone to college in Richmond, Indiana, the home of the late Gennett Records. The nation’s first great independent label, it had released hundreds of sides by jazz, hillbilly, and “race” artists, stars and ciphers alike, but in those days I was looking for mono Kinks LPs.) And when my shellac fantasies began, I was daunted by the many years the Great Southern Record Canvass had been over. So I contented myself with the vigorous stream of reissues from the likes of Yazoo, Arhoolie, and County Records. I had abandoned hope: thus my swoon when I opened the salvaged boxes.
Don Wahle started collecting records in the 1950s — 78s from as early as 1956; LPs from the mid-’60s. The only evidence for these dates are the postmarks on the correspondence with and shipping containers from his fellow collectors that he kept till he died. His tastes — as can best be discerned from that correspondence and the many, many yellowing want-lists that he maintained like so many diary entries — were fairly orthodox; faithful amassments of the hillbilly-recording era’s foremost stars: Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family. At their heels were the popular North Carolina banjo-man Charlie Poole, Kentucky steel-guitarist Cliff Carlisle, and Georgia’s Skillet Lickers string-band, along with a generous portion of cowboy titles. What I consider the unholy pop-country trinity of Vernon Dalhart, Carson Robison, and Frank Luther was represented in droves. Don’s favorite was without a doubt Gene Autry, and his collection ran the gamut from the rare Victor 23,800s of young Gene to four or five copies of the later mega-star’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” on that ubiquitous red-labelled Columbia disc.
But what was intermingled with these copious quantities was most unexpected, and wonderful. Wahle seems to have collected every country music record he could get his hands on, regardless of its contents — and despite getting little or no coverage in his hundreds of want lists, he managed to gather dozens upon dozens of sides by the great rural string bands, songsters and troubadours from “hill and range,” singing evangelists and sacred vocal ensembles, and one-off solo instrumentalists from Alabama to Quebec. (Though, sadly if not strangely, not a single Cajun title appears in his collection.) Some semi-popular if not blockbusting artists like North Georgia fiddler Earl Johnson; Eastern Kentucky’s banjoist-cum-theologian Buell Kazee; and the archetypal railroad bum Haywire Mac McClintock made their appearances in Don’s pantheon, but as for the Georgia Crackers, Whit Gaydon, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers, so many other unique and wonderful characters of the hillbilly recording era — there was no sign that these, past their phonographic corporeality, were worth anything to him at all.
But they arrived just the same, to a house on Keller Avenue in Louisville’s Prestonia neighborhood — a house torn down around 1992 to make room for the airport expansion. Boxes came from Jazz Man in Los Angeles; Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco; the Cut Rate Record Outlet in Queens; Manhattan’s King Karol and the Jacob S. Schneider dealership. Others came from backwater collectors in Saginaw, Michigan; Batavia, Ohio; Redondo Beach, California; Kannapolis, North Carolina; Stamford, Vermont. The box with the Big Spring, Texas postmark was full of dealer stock from the former Anderson Music Company. Don never opened it.
Wahle also never opened many dozens of LPs he had been sent from the Old Homestead, County, and Yazoo labels; a redoubtable trifecta of reissue imprints that made those early and indelible introductions of vintage rural Southern music to me and so many others. Those boxes were sent in the early ‘80s to his last address, Templewood Drive, further out Preston Highway. It was here — judging, again, by addresses on bank statements and LP mailers — where he tried to start a mail-order concern called “Vintage Vinyl.” There’s no evidence, however, that it ever got off the ground; no evidence, in fact, that he ever actually sold a record — 78 or LP — to anyone, ever.
All of these revelations came later. First I rifled, pale, through the boxes on Chris’s floor, while several friends looked on from the living room. There were eight boxes, give or take, and Chris said that they had thrown out five or six times that many that afternoon. A half hour later, six grown men were climbing into the U.S.A. Dumpster parked in Wahle’s driveway, our labors lit by a full moon. In the dumpster, which was scheduled to be emptied first thing the next day, we found 40 or so boxes of 78s, holding around 25 discs a piece, stinking of mold, filthy to touch, and a wonder to behold. (There was also a prodigious quantity of family-size ketchup bottles.) Chris said there were many, many more records inside. I was given the dumpster boss’s phone number and told to call in the morning — any help I could offer in clearing out the rest of the house would no doubt be appreciated. Just don’t tell him, Chris suggested, that we dove his dumpster. I slept fitfully, woke at dawn, and called the boss at 7:30. I was invited to Templewood Drive that afternoon.
The place was an utter shambles. I borrowed a dust mask from one of the dumpster crew working away on the upstairs rooms, and descended into the basement. There was paper everywhere — countless linear feet of bank statements, receipts, hi-fi product manuals (the products themselves were conspicuously absent), and mountains of the aforementioned record-related correspondence. While I can’t say if Wahle slept in this room, there was a steel camp-style bed frame topped with a greasy mattress, in turn topped with layer upon layer of yellowed, molding newspapers.
(I’m sorry, and a bit abashed, to admit that I failed to take pictures of the house, too caught up as I was in the excavation of the records.)
The closet was filled with boxes of 78s. I’m six feet tall and they towered precariously above my head. As I pulled them down, one by one, the stacks emitted foul clouds of dust and mold. Two boxes were so mold-eaten that they, with their contents, crumbled in my hands. I filled my pick-up truck — bed (with topper), access cab, passenger seat — to capacity with records and all the documents I could stuff in. I also brought home a Peacemaker six-shooter in the style of Gene Autry’s, loaded with rubber bullets and wrapped, as Wahle had wrapped it, in a paper towel. A friend’s cop cousin later took one look at it and had it destroyed.
We know virtually nothing about Don Wahle. He appears in the documentation he left behind only in clipped and awkward phono-specific correspondence, deposit slips, random scribbles and doodles, and his want-lists.
We don’t know what he did for a living, what he looked like, or virtually any other biographical details apart from his record-collecting. As of this writing, no family members or friends have stepped forward to speak for him, despite efforts made by myself and others. The few people to whom he was known are collectors themselves who had heard his name only in collecting circles, or seen it scrawled on aged bid sheets in the Brooklyn warehouse of Record Research.
Stepping inside his last address on Templewood Drive, as I did on March 30, 2010, you would have thought Don Wahle had been dead for weeks, if not months. But he had passed away only one week earlier, on March 23. The Jefferson County Coroner had to issue a next-of-kin request. Soon after, an obituary appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was survived by a brother, two nephews, and a niece. Cremation was chosen. There was no service. Donald Pickett Wahle was 75. This November, the Tompkins Square label will release a box-set called Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923–1936, that is drawn primarily from Wahle’s collection. Watch this space for more information. The set is dedicated to him.
Letter from pioneering hillbilly-record collector John Edwards to Don Wahle, July 4, 1960: