A savior of abandoned American music contemplates his collection

Joe Bussard accompanies one of his records with an "air trumpet" at his home in Frederick, Md.
Joe Bussard accompanies one of his records with an "air trumpet" at his home in Frederick, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

FREDERICK, Md. — Joe Bussard stood on the driveway of his home here near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and glared at a noisy crow perched atop a nearby pine tree. Tall and gaunt with white hair, he wore black sweatpants held up by suspenders, a blue flannel shirt, brown slippers and white socks. He looked all of his 85 years.

“Damn bird,” he muttered. Then he craned his head and hollered.

“CAWWW, CAWWW, CAWWW!”

The startled crow flew away, and Bussard cackled.

“He don’t know what to think of me,” Bussard said, laughing again.

Join the crowd, crow. People have been not knowing what to think about Bussard for decades. His singular obsession has entranced some and baffled others. If you weren’t interested in his passion, Bussard probably wasn’t much interested in you.

He turned and shuffled back inside, through his cluttered garage, past his bedroom that he heats in winter with a wood-fired stove and down the creaky steps to the basement where the treasure is stored.

Since the early 1950s, Bussard (“Everybody thinks it’s pronounced ‘buzzard,’ but it’s Boosard,” he says) has been acquiring 78 rpm recordings of the earliest and rarest examples of blues, bluegrass, jazz, country and gospel music. The collection of discs he has amassed is considered by many fellow collectors as one of the finest and most eclectic of early American roots music in the country. In the basement of his unassuming home, some 15,000 records fill the shelves.

In the world that pays attention to these things, Bussard’s treasure is legendary. Filmmakers have made documentaries about him. Writers have paid homage. Fans and musicians from all over the country have journeyed here just to see the records and listen to Bussard tell how he traveled the back roads of Appalachia and the South to find them. And they come to hear the songs.

But in recent years, as Bussard has gotten older, the fans and musicologists have had questions. Is there a plan for the collection? Has he even thought about it?

Looking for a record on the shelves in his lair, Bussard doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk right now. “Aw hell, I don’t know,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. He’d rather play some music for a visitor.

“Oh my gawd, listen to this,” he says in his thick rural Maryland accent as he gently lowers the needle on a 1929 recording of “Wolves Howling” by the Stripling Brothers. “This is the most beautiful sound of a fiddle I ever heard in my life.”

In his basement, time has stopped. There are no computers, no flat-screen televisions. Other than two newer turntables, there’s almost nothing that looks like it was made in the past 50 years. There’s a 300-pound speaker cabinet he bought in 1960, photos on the wall from the ’50s, and rows and rows of records from the ’40s, ’30s and ’20s.

Bussard’s collection “is almost mystical,” says Ken Brooks, a fellow 78 collector who first learned about Bussard when he watched “Desperate Man Blues,” a 2003 BBC documentary about him. “It’s so deep and wide. He has blues records that nobody else has. Country records that no one else has. Jazz records that no one else has.”

In the book of Bussard, the spirit and soul and depth of American music can only be heard on the oldest 78s.

Modern music, he’ll tell you often, is “awwful, just awwful.” And by modern, he means anything since Elvis Presley, and the Beatles and “all that crap” destroyed music altogether. For Bussard, real jazz ended in 1933. And the last good country song was Jimmy Murphy’s “I’m Looking for a Mustard Patch” in 1955.

Before being overwhelmed by vinyl records in the 1950s, 78s were the way most people listened to recorded music in their homes other than on the radio. Typically 10 inches in diameter, three and a half minutes a side and made of shellac, the records are called 78s because of the number of revolutions per minute the disc makes.

In his basement redoubt, Bussard walks over to his wall of records to make another selection. The records are all in identical faded green sleeves with no marking to differentiate them. They are not ordered alphabetically or by year or by label. Only he knows the system.

“If I get Alzheimer’s, I’m really in trouble,” Bussard says.

He pulls another record from the shelf — “Death May Be Your Paycheck,” by F.W. McGee, recorded in 1928 on Victor — and flashes a wicked smile. “Wait till you hear this.”

In the basement of his Frederick, Md. home, Joe Bussard, 85, plays a 78 rpm recording from 1936 of "Everybody Ought To Pray Some Time." (Video: Joe Heim/The Washington Post)

Wait till you hear this. It’s Bussard’s mantra.

What he wants, more than anything, is for people to listen to the far-flung, wild, beautiful music found in America before recordings became commonplace and swallowed up regional idiosyncrasies. He wants people to hear the music created before vinyl, before 8-tracks, before cassettes, before CDs, before one-stop shopping on Spotify.

“Wait till you hear this,” he says and puts on Jesse Stone’s “Starvation Blues” from 1927. And then it’s “Florida Rhythm” by the Ross De Luxe Syncopaters. And “It’s a Good Thing” by the Beale Street Sheiks. And “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull.

And on and on and on.

What brings him joy, Bussard says, is playing these long-lost songs for anyone who will listen. Once, it was the musician Jack White.

Bussard didn’t know White was a rock star. He thought he was just another guy who wanted to come over and listen to music. And that suited White perfectly.

He remembers Bussard pulling out a jazz record and telling White it would sound like the band was playing live in the basement with them.

“I was like, okay, whatever, eye roll, and then damn, if he wasn’t right,” White recalled in a phone interview from Nashville. “Thirty seconds into this song, l was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What is this? Who recorded this? What is the speaker we’re listening to this through? What amplifier are you using? Because, damn, you weren’t kidding me, it sounds like this band is in the room with us right now.’

“I just thought, wow, what a gorgeous thing he did for me.”

White admits to having anxiety about the fate of collections like Bussard’s. Worrying about them possibly being harmed by a fire or flood or indifference can keep him up at night. As White sees it, Bussard has preserved music that could have been lost forever.

“He doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, and he’s doing his own thing no matter what, but he’s inadvertently archiving important records, some of which he had the only copy of,” White said.

Bussard grew up not far from the home where he now lives, born in 1936 to a successful Western Maryland family that owned a farm supply company. Then, Frederick was mostly farmland and meadows and apple orchards.

Bussard’s parents played music at home, but it was nothing that he enjoyed listening to. It wasn’t until he heard Jimmie Rodgers being played on the radio in 1952 that he found what he liked.

“It was like a bomb when I heard that,” he said. “I wanted every Jimmie Rodgers record I could get.” As he found those records, he started scooping up others. The collection was beginning. It soon became the only thing he cared about.

After dropping out of high school in his junior year, Bussard worked odd jobs and did stints at a supermarket before starting at the family’s business. He served in the National Guard for eight years but left: “It got in the way of my record collecting.”

From the late 1950s on, his life was only about music. By then, he had formed a musical group, Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, and hosted shows on radio stations playing old-time country. He still has shows once a week on WDVX in Knoxville, Tenn., and, since 1983, on WPAQ in Mount Airy, NC.

Bussard also started his own label, Fonotone, and recorded musicians at his home, including the first records by the pioneering guitarist John Fahey, who grew up in Takoma Park, Md.

But whenever Bussard had free time, he jumped in his Ford sedan and went in search of shellac gold.

He bought from dealers and at estate sales, but mostly he drove on twisty back roads through the hollers of West Virginia and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and down through the Deep South of Georgia, the Carolinas and Mississippi. He asked everyone he met if they had “any of them old records,” and they’d point him up to an attic or down the road to their cousin’s house or to an abandoned five-and-dime in town.

After a while, Bussard could smell them. He found the old 78s in outhouses and spring houses, pulled them from broom closets and travel trunks. Many of the records were ordinary, dime-a-dozen discs with grooves so worn the record sounded like a slow-motion train wreck. But then, every so often, eureka!

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,” is what Bussard remembers thinking when he came across a rare, unblemished gem. “I had to hold my hands down to keep them from shaking.”

Bussard sometimes forgets what he ate for breakfast, but he can provide detailed background on his records, the year they were made, who played on them and how many are still known to exist. He can tell you how much they’re worth, too, but he likes to keep that part quiet. He says he has never spent more than $500 on a record. But he has sold a few for much more than that.

The collection grew, and so did Bussard’s obsession. He didn’t want to trade records; he wanted only to keep getting more. It took over everything.

While Bussard relentlessly chased his passion, it put a strain on others in his life.

“He was a very absent father,” says Bussard’s daughter, Susannah Anderson. “He was always here, but he didn’t really have any interest in hearing what you had to say unless it had to do with music. If it wasn’t a record, he wasn’t interested, which made it a kind of isolated, weird childhood.”

Bussard got married in the 1960s, but the year escapes him. “That’s a long time ago; how am I supposed to remember that?” he says, laughing. He’s reminded that he can remember almost every detail about the year each of the records he owns was released and all the musicians who played on them.

“Well, yeah, but that’s records,” he says, laughing again.

Anderson, 55, says she and her mother, Esther, who died in 1999, made their own world in Bussard’s world, accommodating him most of the time, but not always. She said she came to terms with her father’s obsession a long time ago.

“He has like a little slice of history down there, and he’s a walking encyclopedia, and he knows everything about his records. And that’s great,” she says. “It’s just sometimes it’s hard to deal with reality with the dreamer. And, unfortunately, that’s my job.”

Bussard’s collection is his life’s work. It is his life. He wants these records to last forever.

And as it turns out, you can rescue records and preserve them. Treat records well, protect them from fire and water, and they might last forever.

Preserving yourself is something else altogether.

Bussard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2019. The doctors told him they were able to remove the tumors, but there were complications. He was in and out of the hospital for five months. Then the pandemic hit, and Bussard was confined to his home, where he lives with Anderson, a registered nurse who has helped manage his illness. “She saved my life,” he says.

In the past two years, Bussard has lost 50 pounds. He spends most of his time at home listening to records or watching TV or occasionally visiting with his three grown granddaughters. On Thursday mornings, he’ll go out to the Masser Toll House Inn for the turkey and mashed potatoes special. If he’s feeling lucky, he’ll head over to the casino in Charles Town, W.Va., to play the slots.

But the cancer made him think about the unthinkable.

“I know I ain’t gonna be here forever. A few more years, maybe,” Bussard says. He’s sitting in a booth at the Mountain View Diner with a plate of spaghetti in front of him. He sprinkles sugar on top the way he likes it and takes a bite. “You get to an age where you know everything. Or feel you know everything. And then you croak.”

Asked what he would like to happen to the collection, Bussard again deflects.

“Oh, I don’t care much about that. I’ll be gone,” he says.

His temper rises, though, when asked whether he would donate them to the Library of Congress or a university.

“Now why in the hell would I do that?” Bussard says. “If I give ’em to a university, you know what they’d do? Throw ’em in the basement ... Nobody ever sees them again. It’s like a black hole.”

Having these records quieted is a fate worse than death. And selling the collection while he is alive has never been on the table.

“I like to say I’ll enjoy them until I croak,” Bussard says. “Then whatever they do with them is fine.”

Later, back in his basement, Bussard hammers a pantomime piano with a broad grin on his face as he listens to a rollicking Jelly Roll Morton recording from the 1920s.

“He was a genius,” he says of Morton. “He never got the recognition he deserved.”

The song ends, and he returns to the shelves and pulls out another disc, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” from 1927. “One of the greatest sides ever cut,” Bussard says.

The haunting guitar notes of a gospel blues song recorded nearly a century ago emerge from a quiet background of hiss and crackles.

Stop asking about what’s going to happen to these songs, a visitor thinks. Just listen.

“Wait till you hear this.”

Editing by Katy Burnell Evans. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Emily Morman. Video by Joe Heim and Amber Ferguson. Design by J.C. Reed.

Loading...
Loading...