The life of the obsessive collector of old 78s isn’t exactly like that of a seeker for the Holy Grail. There is no one cup that will quench such a person—there are thousands, and he thirsts for them all. There’s no point in setting his heart on finding every one of them. Too many discs exist as single known copies, and too often, that copy belongs to somebody who won’t part with it. Of course, anyone who strives to convince the world that music went to hell sometime between the Depression and World War II has a taste for the quixotic, so he won’t easily be dissuaded.

Let’s face it, most people are made of softer stuff. If you’re a novice and you still want to be a completist, you might as well go easy on yourself: Start with Old Hat. The Raleigh, N.C.-based label doesn’t press shellac; it compiles CDs. And it doesn’t do so very often. But the four discs it has issued since 1997 are some of the finest collections of old 78s available to folks who can’t spend their every waking hour combing the hollers of Appalachia for platters left in the cabinet of somebody’s great-grandmother’s Victrola.

The titles of earlier Old Hat releases let you know what kind of aesthetic you’re dealing with: Music From the Lost Provinces: Old-Time Stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina & Vicinity, 1927-1931; Violin, Sing the Blues for Me: African-American Fiddlers, 1926-1949; “Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!” Vintage Fiddle Music, 1927-1935. The latest addition is similarly bound by era, but Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s, 1926-1937 doesn’t limit itself to fiddling, and it isn’t subject to geographical boundaries.

That is, unless you count the borders of the staunchly defended nation-state that is the basement of Bussard’s Frederick, Md., house. At the foot of the stairs is a small rack of records—puny, as any real music junkie knows, but big enough to dupe some tyros into thinking this is the mother lode. Actually, right next to it is the door to the sanctum sanctorum. Step inside and you’ll lay eyes on one of the most beautiful sights known to man: Running nearly the length of the room is a giant grid of shelves, built in when the house was constructed, containing—I’m ballparking here—about 135 linear feet of 78s, the heart of a collection of some 25,000 discs.

The Bussard experience is well-documented (see “Desperate Man Blues,” 2/12/99), but it’s remarkable how ably Down in the Basement conveys it in a portable package. The disc’s 72-page perfect-bound booklet is packed with tales from the 67-year-old’s decades as a collector: There’s the time when young Joe, a Gene Autry fan, discovered Jimmie Rodgers and, upon finding out that all the Singing Brakeman’s discs had gone out of print, first went canvassing for records. Then there’s the time Bussard got lost and ended up unearthing a cache of discs on the ultra-rare Black Patti label. Or the time that Canned Heat showed up with a Rolls and pocketfuls of cash and bought so many records from Bussard’s stash of duplicates that he could afford to buy a pool.

There are photos of Bussard: floating in the pool that shellac built, standing in front of a decrepit country house hot on the 78 scent, sitting in front of the turntables where he tapes the three radio shows he does every week. And there are photos of his records, of the thousands upon thousands of them lined up in their yellowing envelopes, of the individual discs that are on the CD, centered in their illustrated sleeves or naked for their close-up—Victor, Vocalion, Oriole, Perfect—circle after sleek black circle that has been kissed by the recording angel.

As hard as it strives to capture the fetishism of the collector, Down in the Basement is also a whiz-bang bunch of tunes. It starts like one of Bussard’s radio shows: A galloping 1928 rendition of “The Lost Child” by the West Alabama fiddle-and-guitar team of Charles and Ira Stripling sets things running. By the time the album ends, 23 tracks later, listeners have completed a tour of what Bussard sees as a golden age of American music, making stops in Chicago, New York, Memphis, Dallas, and Richmond, Ind. We get performances by Gotham jazzers, Tennessee string-banders, Texas gospel singers, and many others, including a washboard-driven outfit that may have hailed from central or western Kentucky, but then who really knows? All the cuts are killers—or “gems” as Bussard prefers—but with 50,000 sides to choose from, they ought to be.

1931’s “Old Hen Cackle” is a rip-snorting fiddle breakdown, filled with rolls and hiccups and rhythmic reversals, rejiggered for guitar and mandolin by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain. Boasting still odder instrumentation, the Weems String Band’s 1927 version of “Greenback Dollar” finds Jesse Weems’ cello holding down the bass with such deliberate lack of expression that you could mistake its shorter notes for toots on a jug—which, given the times, would have been a far less unusual choice. In Luis Russell’s 1929 OKeh recording of “The (New) Call of the Freaks,” bell-like tones burble up from the vibraphone of songwriter Paul Barbarin’s mallets like drunk bubbles in an old cartoon, as reeds and woodwinds weave recklessly around them.

A couple of songs mark some of the proudest moments in Bussard’s more than five decades as a collector. The ’60s represented the last, best time for the big score, as post-collegiate enthusiasts looking for something more meaningful than the well-meaning platitudes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger took to the hills in search of folk music that hadn’t been made in Greenwich Village. But lest you think that there are no more finds out there, let it be noted that Bussard stumbled across a pristine copy of 1930’s “Paddlin’ Blues” at an auction in 2000, not 10 miles from his home. Using the moniker Gitfiddle Jim, James “Kokomo” Arnold waxed a blues version of “Paddlin’ Madeleine Home,” the 1923 pop novelty that showcases his thrumming, quicksilver slide guitar.

One of those single-known-copy platters every collector craves, the Down Home Boys’ 1927 performance of “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” is drawn from Bussard’s stock of treasured Black Pattis. The Stagolee story has been told so many times that there’s an entire book about it. You’d think we’d be inured to the thing by now. But when Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed entwine their voices on the refrain, they tap into a hitherto undetected core of rue, and this true-crime tale becomes a moving parable of persistence in the face of evil.

Yet “Stack O’Lee” is not thoroughgoingly sad. Party music of this period gains much of its power from flickers of emotional indirection and subtle harmonic undercurrents that play against the rhythmic drive. A 1930 instrumental rendition of “Runnin’ Wild” by James Cole’s Washboard Four motors along jubilantly on the rackety-tackety strumming of an unknown percussionist. But when Cole’s violin takes a touching, gently foreboding little turn three-quarters of the way through the chorus—right where a vocalist would sing “Don’t love nobody, it’s not worthwhile”—the emptiness of this callous Jazz Age declaration of independence lies exposed, along with the heartbreak sure to follow. The Jungle Band, aka the Duke Ellington Orchestra, used the tune as a platform for bravura musicianship at a Brunswick session the same year, but that blustering showpiece can’t hold a candle to the understated poignancy of this version.

For the really unrelenting stuff, Down in the Basement turns to the reedy, restrained delivery of one of the greatest of brother-harmony duos. Known best for “Down With the Old Canoe,” an account of the sinking of the Titanic that interprets the wreck as divine comeuppance for human hubris without ever seeming the work of hateful fanatics, Howard and Dorsey Dixon were responsible for some of old time’s strangest, most moving disaster ballads. Written in 1929 by guitarist and lead vocalist Dorsey to commemorate a 1923 South Carolina blaze that killed 74 people at a children’s theatrical evening, “The School House Fire,” resonates with the fatalism of hard-hit mill workers who only too often have seen joy curtailed. As Dorsey relates the facts, Howard sustains the dramatic tension with his slide guitar and spare high-harmony vocal. Rising above the limitations of a prolix genre often underserved by melody, the Dixons (no relation that I know of, but I can dream, can’t I?) wring epic tragedy from the stuff of real life.

Old songs like this, which address themselves to good times forever departed and bad times here to stay, must be doubly appealing to someone who views all the music he loves in just that fashion. It never occurs to you while you’re actually in Bussard’s presence, largely on account of the untrammeled energy he brings to his mission, but as much as the man is a crusader for an unfashionable faith, he’s additionally the caretaker of a cemetery. His little slices of sonic heaven also contain the epitaphs of lost generations.

There are some things you can’t get without going to Frederick. You won’t learn firsthand of Bussard’s fierce, peculiar loyalties to King syrup and Yuban coffee, for example, or hear of the time he killed 582 sap-sucking monster yellow jackets in one week with a broken rubber band. You won’t get to hear the McGee Brothers’ unexpurgated “C-h-i-c-k-e-n Spells Chicken.” And you won’t see the framed letters from John Glenn and Frank Borman, thanking Bussard for the songs he and his friends cut on his own Fonotone label to commemorate the flights of Friendship 7 and Apollo 8. But if you spin Down in the Basement and don’t wish you could latch onto the comet’s tail of Joe’s calling, don’t feel rising in your heart a wanderlust for the great gone world he lives in still—don’t ponder, just for a minute, whether everything we’ve gained has been worth all we’ve lost—well, you just haven’t been listening. CP