Joe Bussard



excerpt from article by Burkhard Bilger

Joe Bussard lived in a plain brick ranch house on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. Its rooms were mostly shuttered and dusty with disuse, the yard overgrown. To find him, Ledbetter had to go underground, to a special listening room in the basement where Bussard spent most of his waking hours. It was a long, low-ceilinged space with pine panelling and bright banks of fluorescent lights—part bunker and part shrine. A mahogany Victrola stood on one side, an Edison cylinder player on another, a modern turntable across from it. The rest of the wall space was given over to records: some twenty-five thousand rare 78s and wax cylinders, stacked in wooden cases six rows high.

Bussard was born in 1936 and wished that he’d been born half a century earlier. His was the collector’s mind-set taken to an extreme. He had never lived outside of Frederick, apart from a stint in the National Guard, and hadn’t had a full-time job since sacking groceries in high school. He lived off a small inheritance, occasional radio work, and shrewd buying and selling. “Collecting, to Joe, is like a predator-prey relationship,” Ledbetter told me. “And if you’re a fellow-predator the claws can come out.”

Bussard bought no folk or jazz recorded after 1933—“The Depression killed everything”—no country made after 1953, when Hank Williams died. Popular music had been homogenized by mass media, he said, coarsened by drums and drugs, made meretricious by multi-tracking and other studio gimmicks. (On Duke Ellington’s big-band period: “Dullsville. Like watchin’ paint dry.” On Johnny Cash: “You mean Johnny Crack?” On the Beatles: “Oh, geez, please. Yuck.”) The records in his basement, he once said, were the “sound of American music before the modern world fucked it up.”

“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” he told me when I visited. He plucked a tobacco-colored sleeve from the wall and spindled its shiny shellac on the turntable. Bussard’s collection was unmarked and unalphabetized—the better to thwart potential thieves—but he knew the location and exact condition of every record. This one was a mint copy of “Revenue Man Blues,” by Charley Patton, one of perhaps three or four in the world. “Try and get that on eBay!” Bussard said. His gray eyes were bulging beneath bushy white brows, his gaunt features twisted into a happy leer. “Haw! Haw!” Then the music came on and he was quiet.

Patton may be the greatest bluesman ever recorded and one of the hardest to listen to. The few records he made were pressed out of too soft shellac and worn down by constant playing. (Victrola needles were made of steel, easily dulled, and designed to be discarded after a single use, though they rarely were.) Not this one. Bussard had found it in a drugstore in Georgia, in the early sixties, in a stack of 78s that had lain untouched for thirty years. There was no crackle, hardly any hiss. You could hear the hoarseness in Patton’s voice—the growling authority of it—and the stutter and snap of the strings. You could hear the hollow thump of his palm against the guitar and the sharp intake of his breath. Bussard shook his head: “This is as close as you’ll ever get to him, kid.”

When Bussard started collecting, such finds weren’t uncommon. The music he liked was out of fashion, its format obsolete. (“Do not throw away your old gramophone records,” one magazine article urged in the thirties. “Instead, turn them into decorative wall vases, bulb bowls or miniature garden containers.”) “I guarantee you, eighty per cent of these records would have been destroyed if I hadn’t got them,” he said. “I went into Richmond when they had them big riots. Went into the black section and hunted house to house and alley to alley. I’d beat the backwoods. Look for houses without much paint on ’em—lace curtains, old rusted coffee can on the front porch. In Virginia in the sixties, the houses looked terrible, but inside they were like mansions. I could just smell the records.”

Then things got harder. By the late nineties, a mint Charley Patton could fetch several thousand dollars, and most houses had been picked clean—as had pawnshops, flea markets, record warehouses, and jukebox factories. The metal masters from which 78s were pressed had mostly been sold for scrap (or, in Patton’s case, tossed into a river), and the best surviving copies often didn’t make it to CD—they were squirrelled away by collectors. By the time Ledbetter found Bussard, in 1999, he was semi-retired, content to sit in his basement with his rare 78s, now worth more than a million dollars. (When he needed a new car, not long ago, he paid for it with a single Gene Autry record.)

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