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The first time I heard of Joe Bussard was in 1998 when my friend Harris Wray telephoned me at my cubicle at Washington City Paper and said he had a story idea for me. This was not long after the Smithsonian reissued an opulent six-CD box-set of the Anthology of American Folk Music, which the proto-Beatnik magus Harry Smith had originally compiled in the early 1950s. Harris told me there was a record collector up in Frederick, Maryland, who was not only as crazy as Harry Smith, but who also had a legendary stash of far more old-time 78 RPM records from the 1920s and 1930s than Smith had ever had. Twenty-five thousand and counting, in fact, along with a collecting mania and unhinged fervor for the music to make the pill-popping Harry Smith look like a dilettante poser.
I was skeptical but in dire need of good story ideas so I made the hour-long drive out to Bussard’s basement lair, which was in a nondescript suburban rancher within toxic-fume distance of Fort Detrick. In less than an hour, with Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers blasting at ear-shattering volume and Bussard dancing with sheer animal glee as cheap cigar smoke billowed from his nostrils, I knew that Harris wasn’t exaggerating.
Here was one of the great collections of prewar, old-time American music—many of these records in pristine condition and some of them the only known copies—curated with the utmost discernment and presented as a one-man epic re-telling of lost American vernacular music history. Bussard made that old cliche new: Each time the diamond stylus hit the shellac, he became the music, an ecstatic gaggle of gyrating limbs in a cloud of stogie smoke. Even so, he never entirely lost his head: He knew the lyrics by heart and could sing along to Poole’s every mumbled line about “Going up to Shooting Creek, going in a run/ Take my razor and a Gatling gun” like he’d lived it all firsthand. It was the same with every other record he put on the turntable. On return visits, I realized this Frederick farm-supplier’s wayward son had internalized the whole stash, with a story to go along with every record.
At the time, Bussard was unknown outside of record-collector circles. The City Paper cover feature “Desperate Man Blues” profiled a lone-wolf hunter-gatherer, still chasing down rare shellac in the wild and cursing the cultural wasteland of modern society. After the story ran in early 1999, Bussard’s folk-hero status began, and snowballed through the years, with acolytes and music celebs making the pilgrimage to Frederick to hear the best of early 20th century American blues, jazz, and country music at the foot of the master. It is a legacy of discovery and preservation and dissemination that will live on long after his death Monday at age 86.
Bussard as misanthropic folk hero probably first took hold in 2000 when a D.C. rock band called Illuminati paid tribute to the outlaw Bad Boy of Record Collectors on the indie-label release Bastards & Charlatans. (For the back of the CD, the band reproduced without attribution one of photographer Darrow Montgomery‘s typically definitive portraits that ran in the feature: a grim, haggard Bussard looking as ghoulish as Boris Karloff, clutching a favorite Uncle Dave Macon Vocalion 78, a defiant stogie in his craw.)
On the song, “Old Man Joe Buzzard [sic]” Illuminati’s singer groans in a lurching Kill-dozer-like dirge: “My name is Joe Buzzard, and I know I’m a curmudgeon/ I seek the past, scorn the future.”
Bussard reached a wider audience when the feature was included in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology chosen by music writer Peter Guralnick. In his introduction, Guralnick noted that he selected the stories because “they represent the sound of the individual human voice, they insist upon their own truth, sometimes flashy, sometimes seemingly little more than a patient accumulation of facts, but always expressed in their own quirky terms. That is what I value so much about each of these pieces, the refusal to give in to the seductive blandishments of an increasingly mass-produced age.”
This statement encapsulates much of Bussard’s own aesthetic credo about the old-time, often rural and off-the-beaten-track musicians that he championed: the sense of uniqueness and local color captured on record before commercialization and standardization stamped out swaths of local eccentricity, such as the “velvet” bowing style of Tennessee fiddler Uncle Bunt Stephens on his 1926 record of the Civil War-era tune, “Sail Away Ladies.”
Bussard got a taste of global fame in 2001 when a film crew from Australia showed up at his house in Frederick to shoot a documentary. It is a vivid depiction of Bussard in all his manic glory, still going at top speed, showing off his stash, and plying the back roads for more records. Released in 2003, it was titled Desperate Man Blues, nicked from the title of the City Paper story, which was nicked from John Fahey’s song “Desperate Man Blues,” which was nicked from the Carter Family’s 1928 classic “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man,” yet another example of the folk borrowing process.
Over the years, a parade of pilgrims made the trek to Frederick, including carpetbaggers like Jack White and scalawags ready to cash in on the Bussard legend. Joe didn’t discriminate and welcomed all. I took old friends and kindred spirits there on day trips, and nobody that went to the basement ever left disappointed. Every time was an education as well as entertainment, with equal parts carny show and music-history seminar. Eventually, candy canes replaced the dollar stogies, but his missionary zeal never left him.
On several road trips hunting for records, I got to know Bussard better, and saw glimpses of the softie behind the contrarian. He sang the praises of plain hamburgers and Sun-era Johnny Cash and the movies of Laurel & Hardy. He could rhapsodize for weeks about the splendor of the pork chops and peanut soup at the Southern Diner in New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, where back in the ’50s and ’60s he had made some of his best record finds. At the same time, he repeatedly declared that had never tasted pizza, which he compared to the disgusting, generic slop of pop music.
He was mercurial and volatile and prone to outbursts, and his life was littered with feuds and breaks with former friends and acquaintances. Unfortunately, I became a member of this group myself. Several years ago, I made the trek to Frederick to get one of his custom-made cassette tapes. There were several songs by a Black string band from the ’30s, the Mississippi Sheiks, that I hadn’t been able to find and, of course, Bussard had a complete run of their records he’d put on cassette that he had for sale.
What began as good-natured haggling over the price of the Sheiks tape escalated into an ugly shouting match. I left in a huff, with Bussard following close behind up the basement steps and out of the house and down the driveway, hollering all the way. I never saw him again.
I always meant to go back to his place and somehow try to make things right. I have a hunch that he would have been amenable, but it never happened. I’m still missing those Mississippi Sheiks songs, along with the man who preserved those records and so many others for posterity, and the world of American music will surely be missing Joe Bussard as well.