From the Washington City Paper online
DESPERATE MAN BLUES
Record collector Joe Bussard parties like it's 1929Somewhere deep in the heart of the boonies, Joe Bussard, the self-proclaimed king of record collectors, was lost. A few miles back, he had made a wrong turn, and now he didn't know where in the hell he was. All he knew for sure was that he was in 78 rpm country.
A native Marylander, Bussard was not a complete stranger to these parts. He had traveled many times to southwest Virginia to hunt for old records. It was the late '60s, and once again he was canvassing the coal region, a long, bumpy, gizzard-neck stretch that belongs more to Appalachia than to the rest of the Old Dominion. The cradle of country music, this area was then the best place in the world to find the 78 rpm records made in the '20s and '30s, the golden age of early American recorded music. Even during the Depression, the people here—whether white miners earning steady wages or blacks who owned farms—had money for records, and they bought plenty of them, from local string-band music to blues from the Mississippi Delta.
In a little town called Tazewell, Bussard had launched the day's search as he always did, asking around about where he could find old records. He'd gone door to door holding a 78 so folks could see that he meant music discs and not dog-eared heating bills. He hadn't had much luck until somebody told him about a flea market out on the edge of town. In no time, Bussard had managed to lose his way—not a difficult thing to do in these mountains, where, as the late West Virginia writer Breece D'J Pancake once wrote, "road maps resembled a barrel of worms with St. Vitus Dance."
The places that Bussard usually staked out don't appear on any maps, so he had to let the rugged terrain take him where it might: One minute he'd be driving along some cheery stretch of green hills right out of a postcard, and the next he would find himself plunged down in some dark hollow where the sun refused to shine. All the better. The more remote the place, Bussard had long ago discovered, the better the chances of finding a stash of old 78s. So getting lost was all part of the endless quest.
Up ahead, Bussard saw an old man trudging along the road, so he pulled over to ask for directions. The man said he was headed to the flea market himself and would be happy to show Bussard the way. On the drive, a cassette of vintage string-band music (custom-taped from Bussard's vast collection) purred on the car stereo, and the geezer piped up, "Boy, I like that music." Bussard replied, "Yeah, I'm looking for records like that." The old man looked out the window at the hills rolling by: "Oh, I got a gang of them back at the house, a couple hundred or so."
The man's casual aside, spoken as if he were mentioning the weather, gripped Bussard to the very core of his being. The affable coot didn't know it, but he'd spoken the magic words that ruled the life of any hard-core 78 fiend. Somehow, Bussard managed to retain his composure: "Can I go look at 'em?"
Sure, said the old man; he'd let Bussard see the records after they visited the flea market, which was held every weekend in the empty parking lot of an abandoned drive-in movie theater. That was just fine with Bussard. He had all the time in the world. A trust-fund baby, he spent most of his waking hours in pursuit of old 78s. To call it a hobby would be an insult: It was his life.
At the flea market, there wasn't much in the way of records, and the only sign of old-time music was next to a dilapidated concession stand and projection booth, where an elderly blind man sat picking a banjo. Bussard listened to the bony grayhead pluck in an archaic style reminiscent of local legend Dock Boggs, who hailed from these music-rich hills. Before his death, Boggs was fortunately enshrined for posterity on those sturdy old 78s. All Bussard could think about was that he should have brought his reel-to-reel tape recorder. The banjo player droned on, and Bussard got back into his car, feeling those familiar pangs: another snippet of music history lost forever.
Twenty miles later and deeper into the mountains, Bussard pulled up to the old man's house, and from the first glance he knew he'd hit pay dirt. It was a little shotgun shack, no paint on the faded wood, junk scattered all over the yard, with a broken-toothed fence that remained standing through sheer stubbornness. A little ramshackle, but not too. Lived in. Perfect. He could almost smell the old records waiting for him inside.
In his years of canvassing for 78s, Bussard had learned the myriad signs—old lace curtains, flowerpots on the porch, smoke snaking from the chimney—that meant a home's current residents had been there for decades. These were the people who had long ago bought the records that Bussard was now after. And they would still have them, because mountain folks never throw anything away, whether it be a broken refrigerator, a tin coffee can, or old Victrola records they haven't played in years.
Long before the advent of vinyl, records were made of shellac. During World War II, millions of 78s were melted down for raw materials needed in the war effort. In those early days of the recording industry, there were no master tapes stored in record-label vaults, only metal discs, most of which were likewise destroyed during the war years—which made the 78s craved by Bussard all the more rare. Sometimes, only a single copy survived, a lone slab of shellac to prevent a song from disappearing into the black hole of silence.
Inside the sparsely furnished house, the old man shuffled to the bed and dropped on his knees as if preparing to pray. Instead, he pulled out a cardboard box, along with a cloud of dust—"as thick as whipped cream"—that filled the cramped, closed-off room. Bussard leapt on the box like some drug-sniffing dog on the scent, only to initial disappointment: On top of the pile were some typical records for this area: the Carter Family on Victor, Uncle Dave Macon on Vocalion, Charlie Poole on Columbia, and other old-time hillbilly 78s. Good—even some great—stuff, but for the most part as common as cabbage. Bussard had already amassed one of the world's most formidable collections of this genre. Sure, there was always room for more, but this find seemed like nothing spectacular.
Bussard had moved beyond old-time country. What he was really on the lookout for were the old jazz and blues sides that had lately captured his fancy. Bussard had begun to realize that it was all good, from jug band stomps to sacred-harp hymns, as long as it came from the '20s and '30s—that magical era. That was his philosophy, anyway.
Then, a few records down, something caught his eye: the lavish outspread tail of a peacock, its burnished-gold feathers resplendent—almost glowing—in a field of deepest purple. It was a Black Patti, one of the most obscure and coveted labels of the '20s. There had been only 55 records, mostly blues, jazz, and gospel, released on the black-owned label in its brief seven-month existence.
Like so many indies of the era, Black Patti (named for a turn-of-the-century African-American opera singer) was a fly-by-night operation that offered a modest output of its "race" records to a black audience before retreating into silence, shrouded in mystery. Little was known about the ultra-obscure musicians whose enticing names (Half-Pint Jackson, Blind Richard Yates, and so on) were emblazoned under the sheltering canopy of the peacock's tail. These were mostly limited pressings, sometimes just a few hundred per record, and their extreme scarcity had made Black Pattis dream finds for devout 78 collectors. Bussard had only glimpsed a few battered copies, until now.
Above all, a record canvasser must mask his emotions, but Bussard could barely contain himself. "'O my God,'" he recalls whispering to himself. "I was pissing and shitting little apples." The peacock seemed to be strutting, as if it were alive. The room felt oppressive. The dust hung in the air like some hallucinatory fog. Regaining his composure, he said rather coolly, "Oh, man, this is a nice label. I like that." His host chuckled, "You do? Well, there's a bunch more."
Indeed, there were many more, all the way to the bottom of the box: pristine and gleaming, black as coal and as shiny as store stock. Fourteen Black Pattis, the most ever found in a single place, now sat in a neat stack in front of Joe Bussard. "Some man gave 'em to my sister back in 1927," the old man was explaining. "We played 'em once, but we don't care much for blues and such, so we packed 'em away and they've been there ever since."
Black Pattis, damn near mint. Jesus H. Christ. So taken was he by the sight of the golden peacocks, Bussard had nearly lapsed into a trance. But he knew it was time to make a deal fast, before the geezer had a sudden conversion to the blues, or before some unseen harpy started shrieking from somewhere in the bowels of the house, as had happened so many times before: "Daddy, don't you dare get rid of them—those are Mama's records!"
Not this time, said Bussard to himself. He would have called on the Lord for help, but he wasn't a religious man. He was that most desperate of lost souls—a 78 collector face to face with his quarry—and he would do anything short of violence to get those records safely into the trunk of the car parked outside. Mustering all the nonchalance he could, Bussard slipped the 78s into their sleeves—copies so new they slid in as if they were greased—and put them into the box. "What do I owe you?" he asked. "Oh, give me 10 dollars," the old man replied, delighted to unload the junk for some cash.
Three decades later, one of those prize Black Pattis is now considered among the rarest blues records in the world. "Original Stack O' Lee Blues" by the Down Home Boys—Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull—is a strange, haunting, almost mournful take on the Stagger Lee tale, which has been covered by hundreds of musicians, from Mississippi John Hurt to Nick Cave. Recorded in 1927, this guitar-and-vocal duet version is something else altogether, harking back to the murky 19th-century origins of the blues: pre-Delta, racially mongrel, profound, and seemingly not of this world.
While its aesthetic merits are indisputable, it is its uniqueness as an artifact that makes it a treasure: Bussard's near-mint copy is the only one that has ever been found. He says he has turned down offers of $30,000 for the record; in fact, he laughs in the faces of prospective buyers. Now listen up, he says, and listen good: When it comes to those old 78s, nobody gets the better of Joe Bussard.
His narrative finished for now, Bussard puffs triumphantly on a $2 cigar in the basement of his modest brick rambler on a hill outside Frederick, Md. Through its telling, he can once again relish one of his greatest finds. The ritual begins when he pulls the record from the shelf and shows off its pristine surface to a visitor; it ends when he nestles it back among the other 78s—more than 25,000 at last count—that line the walls from floor to ceiling. Most come with their very own war stories, starring Joe Bussard, record hunter. It's no accident that Bussard has failed to mention that he had a traveling companion on this trip; there's little room for accomplices in Bussard's record-canvassing adventures, always starring Joe Bussard.
In reciting the Black Patti saga, for example, he provides all the sound effects, including the good-natured bellow of the old man, the high-pitched screech of the archetypal harpy, and even the thumb-picking technique of the blind banjoist, all expertly rendered. It is a compelling performance, one that he has given countless times to those who make the pilgrimage here. They come to see (and hear) firsthand what many consider to be the most vital, historically important privately owned collection of early-20th-century American music.
"Bussard's got shit that God don't have," says collector and musician Tom Hoskins, an authority on pre-World War II Delta blues. "It is one of the great glory holds, probably the finest in the world. He was canvassing earlier than most, and he's been at it longer, and he took everything: He recognized stuff that he really didn't even like at the time, but he recognized it as being good, and he kept it."
"Joe, as a private person engaged on a practically full-time basis, has built up a really important private archive," says author, collector, and WAMU-FM DJ Dick Spottswood. "There are surviving examples of American music there that would not exist today had Joe not gone out and scoured for them."
Record dealer Mike Stewart of North Carolina regards Bussard's hallowed hoard as an intimate reflection of its maker. "All those records are an extension of his personality," says Stewart, who has amassed his own respected stash of 78s. "I'd rather have Bussard's collection than anybody's. He's got four or five of the best Charlie Pattons, and a couple of Skip Jameses, and endless fascinating blues and country. He's got all the best early country music, basically."
Still, there are plenty of formidable collections out there. What makes Bussard such an undeniable force in old-time music circles isn't simply his collection but what he has done with it over the years. It is a bizarre fusion of obsessive, almost pathological hoarding and an equally strong impulse for rampant dissemination. He's got to have this stuff, yes, but he wants the whole world to hear it, too.
North Carolina archivist Marshall Wyatt paid a visit last spring to Bussard's basement in preparation for a compilation of black fiddlers, Violin, Sing the Blues for Me. Bussard had a dozen 78s Wyatt desperately needed, and he welcomed him into his home on short notice: "A lot of collectors, even if they're cooperative, tend to drag things out, but not Joe," says Wyatt. "If anything, he was rushing me. His collection is a great resource, because he makes it so readily available."
For 35 years, Bussard has taped a radio show that broadcasts on various AM stations throughout the South (locally on WTHU, 1450 AM out of Thurmont); and his house has been a hive of activity and a gathering place for musicians. In his makeshift basement studio, all sorts of future legends recorded their first songs. In the late '50s and early '60s, guitarist John Fahey, now toasted as a hero by alt-rockers like Thurston Moore, recorded under the blues nom de guitarre "Blind Thomas" on Bussard's Fonotone Records label, which featured custom-made 78s that Bussard traded on his canvassing expeditions. In the same era, Washington bluegrass pioneers John Duffey and Buzz Busby launched their careers singing into a $50 mike that hung from the ceiling. These 78s are now collector's items in their own right. Bussard himself made an album of old-time music, Jolly Joe and His Jug Band, that was released on the local Piedmont label.
A Johnny Appleseed spreading the old-time sounds far and wide, Bussard has seen his influence reach well beyond the D.C. area. For 50 cents a side, he makes cassettes of his rarities for a world-wide audience, ranging from Japanese businessmen to European archivists. It is the clean-sounding copies from his collection that form the cornerstones of two recent compilations that have helped launch a so-called new folk revival: The Smithsonian Institute's reissued Anthology of American Folk Music from '97 and this year's Dock Boggs retrospective on Revenant have been embraced and endlessly celebrated, not only as essential documents of bedrock American music, but as trendy CDs to show off to friends. Both are now critical darlings, appearing on rock critics' Top 10 lists from Newsweek to Spin. Wilco, Son Volt, Beck, and other hipsters worship this archaic racket, much the same way Bob Dylan and Fahey did back in the '50s.
Bussard himself remains willfully oblivious to most of these developments. The very term "folk music" rankles him: The music he worships was made by professionals—backwoods or no—and released on commercial records that were revolutionary in their day. He dismisses Dylan as "shit," but then again he despises all forms of rock 'n' roll, which to him is no more than the cuss-word verb of its original meaning, a blues double-entendre for fucking. He similarly rejects all country music made after '53, saying it was finished when Hank Williams croaked in the back of that Cadillac in West Virginia. As for jazz, well, that died out around '33, murdered in cold blood by the Depression and the arrival of the big bands. When told about the so-called swing revival, he nearly chokes on his cigar, incredulous that anyone would bother resurrecting the brassy dreck of the Dorseys and their ilk.
In his absolute negation of postwar American mass culture, Bussard is very much in line with his fellow 78 collectors. This rabid brotherhood is almost invariably made up of eccentrics who came of age in the '50s and '60s, rejecting everything around them. More than just hippie-haters, though, these men loathe the very idea of popular music, right back to the time of fox trots and Al Jolson, the Jazz Age clichŽs often mistaken for the soundtrack for their beloved era. They've got their own names for such million sellers as Vernon Dalhart: Vermin Dogshit and Vernon Stalefart. These are the enemies, the pop crooners on the crapola 78s that they've had to muck through to find the gems that never made it in mainstream America. Their Jazz Age is strictly the music of poor whites and blacks: wild-ass jazz and string-band hillbilly, surreal yodels and king-snake moans, lightning-bolt blues and whorehouse romps and orgasmic gospel.
It's all anti-pop, anti-sentimental: the raw sounds of the city gutter and the roadside ditch. Most important, it was captured on disc for all time at a crucial historical juncture. "What gives the '20s interest to 78 nuts like me and Joe and Fahey is you have the industrial process meeting a vernacular music, and initially meeting it purely on its own terms," says Spottswood, who has written extensively on the subject. Spottswood says the early record companies' objective was "to seek out the music, to record it, to disseminate it on phonograph records, primarily to the area from which it originates; secondarily, across the national spectrum to whatever extent the market will bear. But they're doing it in a way that doesn't really tamper with the music." As Bussard puts it, more succinctly: "the sound of American music before the modern world fucked it up."
The group's bible is a publication called 78 Quarterly, an elaborate scrapbook of shared obsession featuring exhaustive articles on the old records and the musicians who made them—the more obscure and primitive, the better. Delta bluesman Charlie Patton is a particular hero, especially in the wake of Robert Johnson's unprecedented popularity in the '90s—a former god usurped by rock geeks. Above all, though, are the 78 records themselves—festooned with their hieroglyphic labels, secret talismans from the underground world: "My saliva thickens, my heart pounds, and my blood rises when I see some of the records pictured in 78 Quarterly," confesses a disciple in a typical letter to the editor.
The philosophy of this underground cult is best summed up in a scene from the '94 documentary Crumb, about the misanthropic cartoonist Robert Crumb. Most of the movie details Crumb's twisted dysfunctional family, featuring his pair of tortured-genius brothers, cursed by their inherited artistic gifts. Only Crumb has been able to forge a livable existence (and a comfortable living) from his talents. In one scene, the irascible Crumb, brooding in his record room, puts a Black Patti 78 on the turntable and sits back on a mattress in reverie.
As he rhapsodizes about the power of this music, he vents his spleen in a nakedly revealing moment, and it becomes clear that behind the thick glasses and savage cynicism lies a hopeless romantic lamenting his own paradise lost: "When I listen to old music, that's one of the few times that I actually have a kind of love for humanity," he says, for once forsaking the trademark smirk that punctuates his conversation. "You hear the best part of the soul of the common people, you know—their way of expressing their connection to eternity or whatever you want to call it. Modern music doesn't have that calamitous loss—people can't express themselves that way anymore."
Among this pack of cranks, where nuts are not only tolerated, but a welcome part of the social landscape, Bussard is the odd man out of the oddballs: an unschooled and profane "pure cracker" (in the words of a fellow collector) among a bunch of mostly urbane Northerners. A horse trader and hustler besting the former frat boys at their own game, sprung from the very culture that he's hellbent on memorializing. "Out of all these city collectors, Joe was one of the only country boys out there canvassing," says Fahey, who hunted for records in his native Takoma Park and the District as well as throughout the South. "But behind all that, he is a brilliant intellectual. You just have to listen closely to him, because he speaks in parables."
Bussard is universally acknowledged as a breed apart, someone who has literally dedicated his life to his pursuit, family and friends be damned. "Joe is a bit overenthusiastic, sort of the extreme expression of the collecting mentality," says Spottswood, who has known Bussard for four decades. "It's when the collecting instinct overrides any other instinct of social equity or decency....He has not led an unproductive life—I take my hat off to him. I just think that the personal cost is more than I would have cared to pay."
Fellow collectors talk about a man so driven by his passion that they have had to distance themselves from Bussard, lest they too be completely consumed. Bussard's wife, Esther, admits that the toll has been more than she reckoned on. A music lover herself, she long ago resigned herself to playing second fiddle to the 78s always beckoning from her husband's basement. "If I wasn't a born-again, spirit-filled Christian, who the day I married him made a commitment to God, I would have left long ago," she says somberly. "He's a very, very difficult person to live with. Our only daughter sometimes doesn't think too much of him either, because he was always so busy with his music, that he hardly had time for anything else."
"Let me play you this."
Joe Bussard has a record in his hands as he sprints across the carpeted floor of his basement shrine. He's never had a steady job, and he doesn't have to worry about deadlines. He's in a frenzied rush because that's the way he does everything.
Despite his hyperactive verve, he looks as if he just got out of bed, and he did. It's mid-morning, and he's got on his usual working clothes: a flannel shirt, jeans, and worn-out slippers, white socks poking through the holes. His gray hair sticks out like a scarecrow's, and a cross hangs from his neck. He found it metal-detecting years ago—treasure hunting, as always—put it on, and has worn it ever since—not for any spiritual significance but because he likes the looks of it. He says he gets all the religion he needs from his old gospel 78s, heavenly quartets and crazed country preachers who shame the slick TV evangelists of today.
Despite his haste, he's careful to handle the record on its rim, so as not to soil the grooves. He crams the 78 right into a visitor's face, and then draws it away defensively just as fast. Don't even think about trying to hold it yourself. The only person allowed to handle the records in Joe Bussard's basement is Joe Bussard. There are warnings, pecked out on his manual Smith-Corona Galaxie typewriter, stickered all over the shelves of his collection: "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH RECORDS."
Throughout their 35-year marriage, Esther Bussard has honored this request. "I've never touched one of his records, or anything in his room, because I respect it—that's his room," she says. "Even though I sometimes feel resentful and bitter, I still respect him for what he has done. He has a fantastic collection, and I realize this because I appreciate music, and I appreciate his saving it for history."
Despite his fanatical protection of his records, Bussard usually has a lit cigar smoldering on his lips, and the ash end often droops dangerously close to the discs. Just before it drops onto some priceless 78, Bussard manages to react instinctively and put it in a nearby ashtray.
"Lemme play you one of the last real jazz bands, Joseph Robechaux and his New Orleans Rhythm Boys, recorded in New York City in 1933," he says of the record, "King Kong Stomp" on Vocalion. "You can hear it slip into the swing [he slurs this word as a ready-made profanity], but it's still good, one of the last really hot jazz songs. But that beautiful tone, that perfection, is starting to slide."
Then Bussard puts the record on a huge RCA turntable unit that he got from a radio station; it's as bulky as a bank safe, with an oversize tone arm as big as a fly swatter. "See, most collectors, they'll have a nice pile of records, but their turntable's a piece of shit, and they'll have Mickey Mouse speakers." He points to a massive wooden Altech speaker cabinet in the far corner of the basement. "I bought that speaker system in 1959 in Baltimore for $800," he says in a near-shout. "You could have bought a car for that! That was the sort of hi-fi that doctors and lawyers had. It weighs 300 pounds, and it'll run your ass out of here. This gives you an idea of what was really on these old records."
He dips the diamond stylus ("That's $90 worth of needle!") on the record. The volume is cranked almost to max, and the combo's tight rhythms fill the room, in a blast loud enough to knock RCA Victor mascot Nipper's furry little head right off. The sound is splendid, a resounding rebuttal to anyone who claims that 78s are scratched-up slabs meant to be played only through a wind-up in an antique shop. ("Steel railroad spikes," says Bussard of the Victrola styluses of old.) Throughout the song, Bussard dances his lanky-limbed jig, wielding his wet cigar like a trombone, and then taking it out to wag his tongue lasciviously. With his long, wolfish face contorted in exaggerated expressions of glee, he resembles some Tex Avery cartoon character come to life, complete with the original soundtrack. During the song, at least, he's 62 going on 16.
Like his stories of canvassing, this is another Bussard ritual, one that has astonished even the most jaded collectors who've made the rounds. Tom Hoskins visited the basement more than two decades ago, and he remembers the impression it made on him. "He's definitely certifiable," says Hoskins, who adds that this remark is meant as a compliment. "He'd go over to those shelves and pull a record from out of the green sleeve, and he'd hold the record with his fingers on the edge, and he'd shove it right into your face—'Look at the surface, look at that condition!'—and then he'd plop it on that turntable and drop the old fang of the cobra tone arm into the groove and—bingo!"
Spending time in Bussard's windowless, smoke-filled lair can be an exhausting experience. As he rushes around his immaculate archive, whose only index is in his head, he might as well be on an unmapped island. When the outside world intrudes by way of a phone call for his wife, he won't be distracted for more than a moment: He's rigged up a system to relay such messages without having to leave the basement, barking through a microphone hooked to an upstairs speaker.
Indeed, the records seem to have a narcotic effect on Bussard, a lifelong teetotaler. And for the visitor, the barrage of one Bussard fave after another—kazoos and cornets and tubas as deafening as techno dance music—blasting from the speakers is akin to being imprisoned with the guy in high school who played record after record for listeners whether they wanted to hear them or not. Marshall Wyatt's recent visit turned into a two-day marathon as Bussard played records for him both nights into the wee hours. "It's hard to get away," says Wyatt, who relished the experience. "He's always saying, 'Lemme play you one more—you gotta hear this one.' It's definitely like this adrenaline that keeps pouring out. It's very entertaining."
Just when it seems that Bussard has played every 78 ever recorded—from Tennessee string band Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters to a jazz combo called the New Orleans Feet Warmers—he flashes a maniacal grin, and he cackles through his cigar: "Now, you wanna hear some way-out weird shit?" Joe Bussard's always got one more you have to, have to, hear.
Back in the late '50s, Pete Whelan dropped by the Bussard basement archive for the first and only time. The publisher of 78 Quarterly, Whelan is a Penn State alum and author whose collection rivals Bussard's. At the time, Whelan was returning from a canvassing trip down South, headed back up to New York; he was dog-tired and struck by his host's boundless enthusiasm. Most collectors play it cool, letting the records speak for themselves. Not Bussard. "He had sort of a brush crew cut; he reminded me of someone who belonged to the National Rifle Association," recalls Whelan. "He seemed to have this incredible energy, like it was sort of overwhelming."
What Whelan remembers most from that long-ago visit is that Bussard got the best of him on their first and only record trade. "I traded an E-condition record—it turned out to be the only copy of a white Cajun group on Paramount, Leo Soileau, doing a blues, 'East Rider Blues.' This guy was the best of the Cajuns," says Whelan. "I got an Irene Scruggs on Champion and a Tommy Bradley on Champion—16,000 series—at that time the only copy that had showed up. Then one popped up later in the same shape....In retrospect, I made a bad trade."
Whelan says he and Bussard still keep in touch, and he plans to feature a color slide of Bussard's lone copy of the Black Patti "Stack O' Lee" on the cover of an upcoming issue of 78 Quarterly. "That's a great record," says Whelan. "But I've got the only known copy of Skip James' 'Drunken Spree' on Paramount. And that's a great record, too." These are the sort of one-of-a-kinds that make Robert Johnson records—which are plentiful by comparison—seem run-of-the-mill stuff for moneybag dupes like Eric Clapton to invest in.
Bussard's basement walls are covered not only with record shelves but with the art deco sleeves of the era, which doubled as brilliantly designed ads for legendary labels like Champion and Gennett and Black Swan and Melotone and Paramount. On the wall above his turntable are some of his favorite collectibles: a Blind Lemon Jefferson Birthday edition of "Piney Woods Money Mama," Ma Rainey's "Lost Wandering Blues" on Paramount; in between the hallowed pair—Rainey is Bussard's favorite female blues singer—is a 78 from the KKK Record Company ("Best in Klan Music") out of Indianapolis. Titled "Mystic City," it's a Klan anthem, featuring the vocals of "100% Americans with orchestral accompaniment," according to the blood-red label, which boasts a burning cross. Bussard says the music is awful, but it's a historical artifact nonetheless, and he's got a bunch more; he's made cassette copies for various Klan chapters willing to pay.
There is a small row of books, mostly jazz discographies and record-label ledgers, as well as a biography of Jimmie Rodgers, but in general Bussard distrusts scholars and musicologists. Vintage photos of old-time musicians gaze sternly at the collection from the opposite wall. It's startling how many of these hillbillies are dressed in formal suits; in fact, there's barely a pair of overalls in the bunch. A different world, and not squat to do with Hee Haw: Charlie Poole, the Delmore Brothers, A.P. Carter, as serious as an undertaker. About the only smiling face on this wall of honor is a rail-thin, sharp-dressed Jimmy Rodgers before he died of tuberculosis in '33 ("Yodelingly Yours," the photo is autographed, supposedly by the Singing Brakeman himself).
The raucous "King Kong Stomp" rocks to a close, and Bussard bleats through his wet cigar. "All that in three minutes! Can you believe it? That's jazz, man, not this swing shit! How in the hell can anybody listen to anything else? That's what I want to know!"
It was swing that Buzzard had to listen to while growing up in the '40s. His parents played big-band records on a Victrola that Bussard keeps in a corner of the room, exiled in eternal punishment. The experience left him with an undying hatred for this genre, especially now that he's hooked on the "real" jazz records of the '20s: early Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Johnny Dodds. "That's the hot jazz," he says. "Not like that shit that guy plays on WAMU [referring to Rob Bamburger's popular Hot Jazz Saturday Night program]. He doesn't know crap. Did you hear what he said about Dodds' playing? Said he didn't have any range—the greatest clarinet player ever! Cold-jazz Saturday Night, I call it."
The first singer to capture Bussard's fancy was Gene Autry, who starred in the cowboy movies that Bussard loved. But then, one day, the 10-year-old heard a Jimmie Rodgers song on the radio, and there was no turning back. "His voice just grabbed me," he says. Smitten by the Blue Yodeler, he went to a Frederick record store to buy a Jimmie Rodgers record; the clerk told him they'd all been out of print for years, but some of the old-timers in town might still have copies.
It is fortunate for him that Bussard was successful on those early canvassing expeditions around his hometown; he acquired his first 78s knocking door to door, and he caught the bug. By the time he got his driver's license in the early '50s, he was ready to branch out, and he began traveling in his Chevy all over the South in search of records.
Unlike many big-time collectors, Bussard acquired the bulk of his precious finds himself, through his own record hunting. Many of the Northern 78 addicts acquired their cargo through estate sales, auctions, large-scale trades, and buyouts. Bussard harvested most of his now-hallowed crop the hard way, and in fact, canvassing and collecting has always been his main occupation. (His grandfather ran a farm-supply store, and after its sale in the '60s, Bussard subsisted on family money.)
Bussard was most active during the late '50s and '60s, the salad days of canvassing. By then, he had some competition, not only from the Northern blues posse but from locals like Spottswood, Fahey, and Hoskins, who were keen on the Delta blues. As it turned out, the best place to find old 78s wasn't the Delta or the Deep South at all, but the Southeastern states, especially the mountain regions of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. This was Bussard territory.
Most canvassers were interlopers in an exotic realm, but Bussard was working familiar turf, not much different from his own area, which at the time was still strictly rural. He would simply ratchet up his Frederick drawl a notch or two and gab to the old-timers as if he were trying to wheedle some allowance money out of his granddad.
Mostly, Bussard just followed his instincts and whatever luck came his way. Once he was pumping gas in a small coal town in southwest Virginia, refueling for the long ride back up Interstate 81 to Maryland. He asked the attendant about old records, and the man told him there was a hardware store with racks of them: Store stock, thought Bussard to himself, as he roared across the mountain. "So we go into this little coal town which the highway had bypassed. It was dead. And we walk into the store, and it was like going back into the 1920s—old metal tile ceilings with designs and big ol' round bulb lights hanging down. I went in back and found the owner, this short little guy, and he said, 'Yeah, they're upstairs,' and we got on this freight elevator that moved about a tenth of a tenth of tenth of a mile per hour. I thought we'd never get up to the second floor—a snail crawling up the wall could have beaten us up there. Well, we got finally got up there, and there was a balcony that ran the whole length of the store. You could walk out along there, and halfway out was a shelf of records—5,000 records in the shelf—store stock, never been played. I just about shit. The sleeves were all black and dirty from coal soot, sticking out. So I reached up in the far left-hand top row, six rows high. The first one I pulled out was 'Sobbin' Blues' by King Oliver on Okeh—absolutely new—at least a $400 record. The next one I pulled out was 'Jack Ass Blues' on Vocalion by the Dixie Syncopators. New. 'Dead Man Blues' by Oliver. Mint. It was heavy on jazz, some blues; most of the country had been sold. I went through there—I was so nervous I had to pinch myself. O my God. There were Paramounts, Ma Rainey Bluebirds, Brunswick 7000s, Kansas City Stompers, and Jabbo Smith, you name it! I picked 'em out, four big stacks, each about 4-and-a-half feet tall, and carried 'em downstairs—it took me about a half-hour—and put 'em on a table, which is leaning from all the weight. 'What do you want for 'em?' I said. 'How bout $100 for the whole works?' The old guy takes his hands out of his pockets, and the coal dust goes flying. He says, 'Take 'em out of here!' I was so high when I went out of that store I could have floated."
Such big scores were not uncommon, and Bussard even found his wife while he was hunting records in the early '60s. In those days, he often got on the CB radio to inquire about old 78s. He developed a cordial on-air relationship with a man from nearby Damascus: "One time he mentioned that his daughter had a bunch of records, so I went down there and met her, and she came up here, and we went back and forth for about a year, and then we decided to get hitched. I got her records that way, see? Her dad was a real nice man."
A bluegrass and hillbilly music fanatic, Esther helped make their home a gathering place for musicians and collectors. But after the birth of their daughter, Esther had a religious awakening and decided "to put God over bluegrass." Her husband continued down the music road. She still listens to her own records upstairs, but it's more likely to be John Denver than Dock Boggs. Joe Bussard, of course, despises John Denver's music, but he says he and his wife have a truce of sorts. "She plays her records, and I play mine," he says simply.
During the '60s and '70s, Bussard spent a great deal of time canvassing in the mountains, where some of the cabins didn't even have floors, much less electricity. Some people just didn't want to sell, for whatever reason. Not one to take no for an answer, Bussard found these refusals grating. What really infuriated him was the mountain folk who beat around the bush: "Down in North Carolina, some of the people acted funny. When you ask people down there about records, if they have 'em and they don't want to sell 'em or don't want to tell you that, they'll say, 'I reckon not,' or 'Not today.' They don't want to say they ain't got 'em, because that's lying. See, they're very religious. That's Bible Belt."
Bussard has a particular dislike for Seventh Day Adventists, who often had the records but refused to sell, depending on the day. One family told him they were in mourning for a dead relative, but they had some nice 78s, so Bussard kept returning. Each time, they told him that someone else had died, so he finally gave up. One woman told him she couldn't make a deal because it was the Lord's Day—Saturday—until Bussard made her an offer for her records she couldn't refuse: He put the money in her mailbox, so she wouldn't have to complete the transaction until Sunday.
Sometimes, Bussard veered close to outright robbery: "This one lady let me look through her records, but then she started hemming and hawing, and I couldn't stand it. These were beautiful records, so I finally just shoved $50 in her hands and grabbed the box and ran out the screen door down to my car and gone. I didn't even wait for her to say yes or no."
One of Bussard's record-hunting companions in the '60s and '70s was Leon Kagarise. The pair had met back in the late '50s, when Bussard bought his stereo speakers. Kagarise worked at the hi-fi store in Baltimore, and the two started talking 78s: A friendship was formed.
Kagarise accompanied Bussard on several expeditions all over the South; they usually split expenses, staying in separate motel rooms. After a few trips, he began to be wary of Bussard, whose volatile canvassing technique bothered him. One time in West Virginia, Kagarise sat in the car outside some mountain shack, waiting for Bussard to make a deal: "He's in there for maybe 15 minutes—a good while—and then I hear yelling, and they come to the door. Joe's yelling at her and she's yelling at Joe, and he shouts, 'I hope they put those 78s in your casket and bury you with them!' She was probably in her 70s or 80s. He could have given that poor lady a heart attack."
Still, the two remained friends; after all, Kagarise had been in Bussard's wedding. But in the early '80s, Kargarise struck out on his own. He says he was tired of Bussard's hogging most of the pickings on their many trips, including the Black Patti bonanza (Kagarise got none of the 14 Bussard bought); he claims that they'd agreed on a 50-50 split on everything, including records. Bussard says they had an agreement that he got first dibs on everything. The two men haven't spoken for nearly 15 years.
Bussard remains undecided as to what will become of his collection upon his demise. He definitely won't give it to the Library of Congress or any other public institution. Library officials say that Bussard's hoard has a reputation that precedes it. "We would love to have such a collection," says Sam Brylawski, head of the library's Recorded Sound Section. "It would fill a lot of gaps here, especially because of its emphasis on country music. It would fit in very well."
Bussard has heard horror stories about how entire collections given to institutions remain in boxes for years, unopened, forgotten, doomed to oblivion. That can't happen to Joe Bussard's records. Never. "I'm not giving it to any of those places," he says. "If you give it to them, they shove it back in some hole, and there it sits." Instead, he says he may leave it to his wife or his daughter and her husband; he's in no hurry, because he plans on staying around for a while. "It ain't no worry of mine. I don't expect to kick off that quick. I expect to be around another 20 years to enjoy it."
One thing is for sure: Bussard won't be parting with his records while he's alive, whether the whole hoard or even one single 78 (unless in a swap for another). "Before he would sell his records, he would literally live in a pigsty," says Esther. "He would have to be to the point of starvation and no way out before he would sell a record from that room. And I'm not even sure then whether he would sell any or whether he would lay down beside them and die."
It's odd seeing Joe Bussard in someone else's basement, but here he is, and he's not at all comfortable. He has driven 60 miles southeast to Ashton, a Silver Spring exurb not far outside Washington, and it's as close to D.C. as he ever cares to get. Bussard has brought over a box of 78s to the house of Jack Towers, one of the most respected sound-restoration engineers in the music industry.
They have gathered to make some digital transfers of Bussard's 78s for a Time-Life Music project on prewar blues. Since the advent of CDs, Bussard has been in great demand as companies such as Time-Life have reissued the old music. His collection has been tapped as much as any, especially by the Yazoo label (featuring the famous Black Pattie peacock), which has put out such acclaimed sets as The Roots of Rap and Jazz the World Forgot. Thanks to these sorts of reissue projects, the sounds of the '20s and '30s have never been more accessible to the average record buyer.
"The important thing about Joe Bussard is that he has disseminated the music more than anybody else on earth," says Richard Nevins, head of Yazoo and its New Jersey-based parent company, Shanachie. "He has preserved and popularized the music more than anyone, and he's done more for the music than anyone—all the institutions are bogus nonsense. They don't do any good at all....The asshole Library of Congress refuses to tape 78s for people, not that they have anything worth taping anyway, but here's Bussard: If the UPS driver comes to his house to deliver a package, he won't let him out of there 'til he plays 78s for an hour for the guy. There are people in Australia who have tapes of his entire collection."
Nevins, who also boasts a world-class 78 collection, is the only person whom Bussard will mail his records to. He has a custom-made reinforced wooden-planked box with special screws that he uses on these occasions. Usually, though, he accompanies his records wherever they go, as when he drives over a pile of booty on his frequent trips to Towers' studio.
During the session, Bussard is all over the place, doing jigs and getting into the music just as he always does. Towers, a dapper, silver-haired 84-year-old, mans the turntable and mostly remains quiet, intent on the task at hand. Towers is no fan of hillbilly and country-blues records, but he is polite and reserved about this judgment. He will only say he doesn't much care for it. He's strictly big-band, an authority on Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Ben Webster. Portraits of the jazz icons hang on a wall nearby, more like family photos than museum pieces. He once counted them, especially Webster, as dear friends.
Clearly, though, Towers enjoys Bussard's volatile presence. "Joe's music doesn't hit me so much, but when I'm around and he's playing it, I get a kick out seeing his response," he says. "He's valuable to have in the system because he saves a lot of discs that probably otherwise wouldn't even be around."
Following the session, Towers decides to pick a choice item from his own collection, a sort of post-work treat for himself and his guests. In a sense, the gesture seems to imply, "Now let's listen to some real music," but he would never be so brazen as to actually say so. The shelves of jazz 78s—he has only a few hundred—are bound up in Towers' own life; he bought them as he grew up, went to college, and then moved on to work and marriage. This is the soundtrack of his life. He courted his wife to these big-band sounds, and now she's busy upstairs in the kitchen making sandwiches.
He puts on a test pressing of an Ellington 78 "Blue Goose" from the early '40s, the glory years of the Ellington big-band era. As the music plays, he nods his head to the arrangements, murmuring the names of the soloists as they take their turns in the spotlight.
Listening, Bussard looks as if he's about to climb the walls. The song ends, and Bussard can stand it no longer: "Duke went to hell in '33!" he growls. "This big-band stuff is Dullsville, Dullsville!"
Later, at a diner outside Frederick, Bussard settles into a favorite booth. The diner has been around about as long as Bussard; it features a 50-foot-tall candy cane outside in the parking lot. It's the sort of place where nearly every customer is of retirement age and mashed potatoes come with nearly every dish. He comes here almost every day, and not just for the food. He likes it because it's one of the few public places left without piped-in music. He comes here to eat and drink in the silence.
The coffee isn't too bad, either: "They've got the best coffee in the state of Maryland or anywhere," he says. "As long as you get a fresh pot."
He's in a fouler mood than usual today—a potential deal has stalled, and it's driving Bussard nuts. He found out through a collector buddy that a local woman—just a couple miles away!—has a decent copy of a rare Robert Johnson record, "Crossroads" on Vocalion. He's been haggling with this woman since last fall, always on the phone—cajoling, pleading, everything except outright begging. It's a long way from the glory days of canvassing.
"I told her I'd pay her book-value price, if it's in good condition. It lists for $300." Then he grimaces. "There are a lot of weird people. The hardest thing to do is deal with these people who have some records, but they're not collectors. I keep telling her I want to go there and look at it, but she keeps putting it off. I'm going to call her one last time. I think the best thing to do is to show up on her doorstep. A lot of these people say they want to sell, and they keep putting you off. If it had been anything else, if it was her kitchen table, her bed, her washing machine, I'd have had it a long time ago. But let it be a record, and it's a whole different world. I'm close to saying the hell with it. I've got plenty of records to play if I never get another one. But there's never enough."
A Jeep packed with teenagers swings past the window on a shortcut through the parking lot, blaring bass-heavy rap that resonates for blocks around. "Listen to that shit," hisses Bussard. "Boom! Boom! Boom!" He begins to rail against the contemporary world anew, once again comparing it with the '20s, "the zenith of Western civilization." For architecture, movies, and especially music, he says, it was a shimmering decade of American excellence that will never be topped. That was back when musicians knew how to play their instruments, when the bands played together like families (and, in fact, many of them were families), when records were works of art from the performance right down to the calligraphy on the labels, when there were still regional styles, before modern communications—including the very 78s that Bussard treasures—began to destroy the "pockets of eccentricity," as one collector describes the long-lost American sounds.
Listening to Bussard rhapsodize about this lost age and its enduring artistry, you finally see a glimpse of the idiosyncratic intellectual that Fahey recognizes beneath Buzzard's gruff manner. There is a whole philosophy underlying Bussard's love of old 78s, a worldview that leaves little room for faith in the future.
A waitress finally stops by the table, and he takes a break from his tirade to place his order. "Can we get some fresh coffee?" he asks. Then his gaze follows the waitress, who promptly goes to the coffee station and starts to pour from a pot that's been sitting there. "That ain't fresh, little girl," he murmurs to himself. "I'm watching you—I know what's goin' on—that pot's half-empty."
As she returns, Bussard doesn't complain and instead asks her about music: "Do you like the blues?"
The waitress, maybe 25, ponders his query for a moment and then says cheerfully, Sure, she likes the blues: Big Bopper and Chuck Berry and all that music her parents listened to. Her face brightens, as if she's just answered a difficult question rather well.
"That ain't the goddam blues," says Bussard, disgusted. "You ever hear of Charlie Patton?"