“I Could Just Smell the Records.”

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excerpt from Burkhard Bilger (www.newyorker.com):

“Wanna see something that’ll knock your eyes out?” Joe Bussard 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.”

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