Joe Bussard, great collector of American roots music on 78 rpm, dies at 86


Joe Bussard, who began collecting rare American jazz, blues, country and gospel recordings as a teenager and built one of the world’s largest private collections of 78 rpm records, died September 26 at his home in Frederick, Maryland. He was 86.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said her daughter, Susannah Anderson.

Mr. Bussard, an enthusiastic conversationalist and storyteller – as long as the subject was music – started collecting records after hearing a Jimmie Rodgers song on the radio. “It was like a bombshell when I heard that,” he told The Washington Post this year. “I wanted all the Jimmie Rodgers records I could get.”

This raw, pure sound of early American music captivated him, and he spent the rest of his life researching recordings made before the mass production and increasingly homogenized culture that ruined music, he says. .

Over the decades, he took long road trips through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, sometimes even farther south, stopping at gas stations, houses hidden deep in the hollers and small town general stores, all looking for the 78s that many people were. more than happy to offload at little or no cost.

“I learned to know exactly when to go on and when to stop,” he wrote in his entry in “The Encyclopedia of Collectibles,” a 1978 volume published by Time-Life Books. “I would stop if I saw a house that wasn’t overly painted, with old-fashioned trellises, maybe a stained-glass window in the door or a lace curtain. To me, this house just screamed, ‘Old records! Between!’ ”

He remembered the adrenaline rush when he came across a particularly rare and valuable recording, some of which were worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. As he told the Post in May, “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. I had to hold my hands to keep them from shaking.

This year, Mr. Bussard said there were about 15,000 records left in his basement, although he once had more than 20,000. The records filled every square inch of the shelves he had built for them. in the 1960s. They were kept in identical green paper sleeves and arranged in an order that only he knew – and never disclosed.

But far from being a hoarder, Mr. Bussard wanted anyone interested to experience the same happiness he enjoyed listening to the records. He played the records on radio shows he hosted and made tape recordings, and eventually CDs, which he shipped – for a fee – around the country and around the world. And he invited anyone who wanted to stop by for a listen.

The quality of Mr. Bussard’s collection, which has been compared to the Library of Congress’ collections of traditional American recorded music in scope and quality, astounded those who came in contact with it.

“It’s one of the greatest treasures of fame, probably the most beautiful in the world,” the late music scholar Tom Hoskins said in a 1999 Washington City article about the records Mr. Bussard had amassed. “He was canvassing earlier than most, and he’s been at it longer, and he took it all: he recognized things that he really didn’t like at the time, but he recognized them as being good, and he kept them.”

“Almost mystical,” is how Ken Brooks, a 78-year-old collector from Indiana who has befriended Mr. Bussard over the years, described his collection to the Post this year. “It’s so deep and wide. He has blues records that no one else has. Country records that no one else has. Jazz records that no one else has.

Joseph Edward Bussard Jr. was born in Frederick, Maryland on July 11, 1936, to a family that owned a farm supply business. He dropped out of Frederick High School in his first year worked for the family business, was a supermarket clerk, and had other short-lived jobs that allowed him to spend countless hours collecting music. He also spent eight years in the National Guard before that also interfered with his fixation.

As a child, he told the Baltimore Sun, he loved Westerns and Gene Autry’s country recordings, but he felt “something was wrong, like there had to be something more.” “. He said an epiphany came around 1948, when he heard Rodgers and instantly felt a lightning connection, a sense of authenticity in a world that seemed content with the artificial.

At first he was mainly interested in country songs recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, but his tastes widened to include early jazz, blues and gospel performers who recorded for Gennett, Vocalion, OKeh and a number number of now obscure labels. In a West Virginia coal town, he found what he called “the rarest of all country blues records”. “The Original Stack O’Lee Blues” produced by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull for the short-lived Black Patti label in 1927.

A savior of abandoned American music contemplates his collection

As enthusiastic as Mr. Bussard was about the music he liked, he was even more dismissive of the music he disliked, namely everything that followed the replacement of 78s by 45s and then LP and possibly CDs. He barely tolerated big bands led by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman (“like watching the ice melt”). And forget about anything recorded after 1950, especially Elvis Presley, the Beatles and “all that rock and roll shit”. He poked fun at country stars such as Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and rolled her eyes at the mention of pop.

When rap came up, he pointed to something he felt was superior: the Beale Street Sheiks’ 1920s blues recording of ‘It’s a Good Thing’ – “They don’t call it rap, but it does. ‘is,” he insisted to an Associated Press reporter. .

In addition to collecting, he also formed a music group, Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, and for several years had his own label, Fonotone, recording musicians at home, including influential guitarist and composer John Fahey.

Featured in documentaries, books, and countless articles, the often cantankerous Mr. Bussard was never happier than when he entertained guests in his basement and could amaze them with music they never wanted. had perhaps never had the chance to hear.

His daughter estimated that at least 150 people a year spent time with Mr. Bussard at home to listen to him play songs and tell stories about how he found the records, how many (or how many) he had paid, which musicians were playing on it. and what year they were released.

A few years ago, Jack White, lead singer and guitarist of the White Stripes, spent an afternoon with Mr. Bussard listening to old records – and listening to Mr. Bussard talk about them. He remembered Mr. Bussard pulling out a jazz record, playing it on a modern turntable and pretending it would sound like the band was playing live in the basement.

“I was like, okay, whatever, roll my eyes, and then fuck it, if he wasn’t right,” White told the Post. “Thirty seconds into this song, I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What is this? Who recorded this? What speaker are we listening to this through? “What amplifier are you using? Because, damn you weren’t kidding, it looks like this band is in the room with us right now.”

“I just thought, wow, what a wonderful thing he’s done for me.”

Mr. Bussard’s wife of 34 years, the former Esther Keith, died in 1999. Their marriage was sometimes strained by Mr. Bussard’s musical obsession, she told the City Paper. His singular focus, she said, made him “very, very hard to live with.” She worked as a cosmetologist to support her husband’s family and music collection.

Survivors include her daughter, Frederick, and three granddaughters.

Anderson says she hasn’t decided what to do with the recordings yet. For now, she plans to leave them alone.

“I almost can’t even get into the room. It’s like a museum or some kind of sanctuary,” she said. “It’s a bond with him.”

For his part, Mr. Bussard was not particular about the ultimate fate of the discs, except that he did not want them to go to a university or a library where he thought they would just pick up dust.

“I like to say I’m going to enjoy them until I croak,” he said in May. “So whatever they do with them is fine.”

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