From the New York Times online
Life at 78 Rpm Is Different From TodayFREDERICK, Md. (AP) -- He sits in his cellar each day, awaiting his next customer. The ride he offers is free. Anyone is welcome aboard.
The preconditions are these: A willingness to listen -- for hours, if you've got the endurance. An endorsement of his fundamental principles -- that yesterday is far better than today, that music conquers all, that modern Americans have forgotten the wisdom of generations that came before. And an appetite for his tales, his memories, which are legion.
If you think you qualify, then knock on his door. Follow him to the kitchen and turn left, down the stairs. Enter The Room, which still smells of the cigars he quit smoking months ago.
He'll run toward the big machine with all the buttons. ``Gotta fire up old Bessie here,'' he'll say. Then he'll dart to the wall and pluck a shellac disc from the library of 25,000 that line the room.
Now the moment is at hand. Gangly and abrupt and delightfully manic -- Buster Keaton via Don Knotts -- he flips a switch. His machine begins to revolve -- faster, faster, until it reaches cruising speed: 78 rpm.
Then the room crackles with the static of another age. Music begins to play -- raw music, untethered music, created not by technology but by human beings. Joe Bussard Jr. grins. And at that moment, anyone caught inside the warp bubble that is his basement will travel back in time.
Joe Bussard Jr. collects records. And not just any records. He collects records that shatter when you drop 'em. Records that spin so fast on the turntable, they'll make you feel like puking if you try to read the labels. Records that hiss yesterday's static through refrigerator-sized speakers.
Like their owner, each record opens doors from other traditions, other eras, into our own. Multiplied over four decades of accumulation, that means Joe Bussard is on a one-man crusade to let anybody within shouting distance know that American music ain't what it used to be.
``When I play records down here at night,'' he says, ``I get so high I'm up on the ceiling and it takes me hours to come down.''
Bussard is 68, a recent widower with a shock of white hair. He worked through his life, but records are his career. He moves about like a 10-year-old playing kickball -- a mass of arms and legs and proclamations going in every direction. If he likes you, he'll call you ``Doc.'' If he's annoyed with you, he'll call you ``Doc'' really loudly.
He yanks out records by artists you've never heard of. Dilly and his Dill Pickles. The Skillet Lickers. Vernon Dalhart, who in 1924 made the first recording of the classic train song ``Wreck of the Old 97.'' The Ozarkers, whose ``Second-Class Hotel'' documented the travails of a low-end boarding house (``If the butter gets a chance, it will do the Charleston dance''). The Beale Street Sheiks, whose 1927 ``It's a Good Thing'' is, Bussard asserts, the earliest rap record.
``They don't call it rap, but it is,'' Bussard enthuses, springing from his stool. ``Whaddaya think of that, kid? There's nothing new.''
For Joe Bussard, nothing new is worth much. The Day the Music Died? He'll say it was the end of Prohibition (for jazz) or the early Eisenhower administration (for old-time country and most genuine blues). ``Nashville?'' he'll spit. ``More like `Trashville.''' Rock? ``The cancer of the music world.''
He switches to a nyah-nyah voice. ``There's no difference anymore -- no difference between Itchy and the Leopards, Hank and the Hernias, Johnny Flush and the Commodes.''
Then he'll grin and spin another record -- probably something from a long-ago label like Vocalion or Gennett or the absurdly rare Black Patti or the delightfully named Okeh, which once specialized in ``race recordings'' and ``hillbilly music.'' He'll listen, then start moving and jerking. He plays air sax, air banjo, air fiddle, even air cornet.
During the week, Bussard records old-time music programs for Appalachian radio stations. On weekends, he welcomes all comers -- from amateur musicians to jazz critics, folkies to researchers. Mail him your wish list, and he'll make a cassette of anything he owns -- 50 cents a track.
``Our greatest works of American music are on these 78s,'' he says. Suddenly he's taking things personally. ``And they're ignored by just about everybody!''
Like so many of the characters his favorite music immortalizes, Joe Bussard is a rambler. That's how he got what he's got.
``It took me 47 years,'' he growls. ``I been all over the place. I've found out about so many people -- sunup to sundown, fruit pie and a bottle of gutwash at the old country stores.''
He started listening to country string bands on the radio in the 1940s, which led him to Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry and the Carter Family. He began hunting around Frederick, his hometown, and a woman gave him a box of records with ``some good stuff.''
``I started listening,'' he says, ``and one thing led to another.''
He got his driver's license and ranged around the county, stopping at old houses scoping out records. Then: excursions to Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas. More door knocking. More folks who'd unload big boxes of discs for a couple bucks. ``Take 'em,'' they'd say. Bussard was glad to oblige; he was honing his instincts.
``I usually could look at a house and tell you if it had records in it,'' he says.
He began at a perfect time -- the 1950s, when 78s weren't new enough to be trendy or old enough to be antiques. By 1960, he'd accumulated 4,000.
Today, behind each record he pulls from the shelf is a story of how it arrived.
In 1968, near Tazewell, Va., came his crowning achievement. En route to a flea market, he gave a guy a ride to the guy's house up in the hills.
``He goes into this bedroom and he pulls this box out from under the bed. There was three foot of bed dust in it. I started going down through it. Some decent stuff -- some Uncle Dave Macons, Carter Familys, some Jimmie Rodgerses. Then I hit the first Black Patti. All of a sudden I was looking at 15 of them. Mint. MINT!''
The guy had played them once, long ago. Seems he didn't much like blues.
One became the jewel of Bussard's collection -- ``Original Stack O' Lee Blues'' by the Down Home Boys (Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull), a version of the old ``Stagger Lee'' murder ballad that sounds as if it's from another epoch. It's the only known copy in existence. People have offered up to $30,000 for it; Bussard grins and sends them away.
Many who visit him want only to borrow, though he never lends; but if you're nice, and producing a compilation CD, he might well come to you. He accommodates whomever he can because they're doing what he's doing -- spreading the word. Maybe, he figures, folks will eventually wake up.
``It's great music, but not everybody hears that. Joe Bussard does,'' says Richard Nevins, who runs Shanachie Records and its subsidiary, Yazoo, which issues old-time compilations. Bussard is one of a few 78 collectors enlisted by Yazoo as musical supply lines.
``It's too foreign to people,'' Nevins says. ``They've grown up hearing formulated, mass-produced music. This is so strong that most people don't even recognize it.''
But here's what Joe Bussard obsesses about most: the records he DOESN'T have.
The time in War, W.Va., where he missed a houseful of records by four months because they'd thrown everything out? ``Ohhh.....'' The little record company in the Midwest that, upon going bankrupt, took its stock out back for a skeet shoot? ``Ouch!'' The guy in Wisconsin who lined his roof with old Paramount Masters for insulation? ``I can't even think about that.''
All that great music -- gone. And all the chaff that replaced it.
``How can anybody listen to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw when you've listened to Jelly Roll Morton? It's like coming out of a mansion and living in a chicken coop.''
A recent Saturday night, well past 10 p.m. The neighborhood is quiet. Joe Bussard's basement isn't.
He is playing old records that happen, accidentally, to have strange noises in the background. On one, recorded in the Victor studio on the top floor of the Charlotte Hotel in North Carolina, a truck rumbles by in the middle of a track. On another, a flubbed final note prompts an obscenity that made it into the record's final pressing.
This is Joe Bussard's life. Arm him with a harpoon, aim him at Britney Spears and you might well have a problem on your hands. But ask about his stacks of wax and you'll have a friend for life. ``You'll get down here again, right?'' he asks.
The phone rings. Bussard picks it up, listens a moment, than shouts into it as if it's a soup can attached to a string. ``We're still up here playin' stuff,'' he booms.
His wife is gone. By most standards, he's alone. But in his basement, folks long dead are singing -- McMichen's Melody Men, Ashley & Foster, Elder G.P. Harris, Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey. Here, yesterday is not past and gone. It's loudly, vibrantly alive. Everything's Okeh.
Joe Bussard's time machine -- fueled with his records, his memories and his unsentimental sentimentality -- is still open for business. The past is here for the taking, three minutes at a time.