Joe Bussard, top collector of American roots music of the ’78s, dies at 86

Joe Bussard, who as a teenager began collecting rare recordings of early American jazz, blues, country and gospel music and built one of the world’s leading private collections of 78 rpm records, died September 26 at his home in Frederick , Maryland 86.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, his daughter Susannah Anderson said.

Mr. Buzzard, an avid speaker and storyteller—as long as music was concerned—began collecting records after hearing a Jimmie Rodgers song on the radio. “It was like a bomb when I heard that,” he told The Washington Post this year. “I wanted every Jimmie Rodgers record I could get my hands on.”

Fascinated by the raw, unadulterated sound of early American music, he spent the rest of his life searching for recordings that he felt were ruined by mass production and an increasingly homogenized culture.

Over the decades, he’s made long drives through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas, sometimes even further south, stopping at gas stations, homes hidden deep in hollers, and small-town general stores, all in search of ’78s that many People were more than happy to unload at little or no cost.

“I knew exactly when to continue and when to stop,” he wrote in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Collectibles, a 1978 volume published by Time-Life Books. “I’d stop if I saw a house that wasn’t too colorful, with old-fashioned latticework, maybe a stained glass window in the door, or a lace curtain. To me, this house just screamed, ‘Old records! Come in!’ ”

He recalled the adrenaline rush of coming across a particularly rare and valuable recording, some worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. As he told the Post in May: “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. I had to hold my hands to keep them from shaking.”

That year, Mr. Bussard said he still has about 15,000 records in his basement, although he used to have more than 20,000. The records filled every inch of the shelves he built for them in the 1960s. They were kept in identical green paper sleeves and arranged in an order that only he knew – and never revealed.

But far from being a hoarder, Mr. Buzzard wanted everyone who was interested to experience the same bliss they enjoyed listening to the records. He played the records on radio shows that he hosted and made recordings on tape and eventually CDs that he shipped around the country and around the world for a certain price. And he invited anyone who wanted to stop by to listen.

The quality of Mr. Bussard’s collection, compared in breadth and quality to the Library of Congress’ holdings of traditional American phonograms, amazed those who came into contact with it.

“It’s one of the greatest Halls of Fame, probably the best in the world,” said the late musicologist Tom Hoskins in a 1999 Washington City newspaper story of the records Mr. Buzzard had amassed. “He was promoting earlier than most and he’s been around longer, and he’s taken it all: he’s recognized stuff that he really didn’t even like at the time, but he recognized it as good and he’s kept it. “

“Almost mystical,” is how Ken Brooks, a ’78 collector from Indiana who became friends with Mr. Buzzard over the years, described his collection to The Post this year. “It’s so deep and wide. He has blues records that no one else has. Country records that nobody else has. Jazz records that no one else has.”

Joseph Edward Bussard Jr. was born on July 11, 1936 in Frederick, Md. to a family that owned a farm utility business. He dropped out of Frederick High School During his junior year, he worked for the family business, worked as a clerk at a supermarket, and had other short-lived jobs that left him free to spend countless hours collecting music. He also spent eight years in the National Guard before that too disrupted his fixation.

As a kid, he told the Baltimore Sun, he loved Gene Autry’s western and country recordings, but even then he felt “something wasn’t quite right, like there had to be something more.” He said an epiphany came around 1948 when he heard Rodgers and immediately felt a lightning connection, a sense of authenticity in a world that had seemingly contented itself with the artificial.

Initially he was primarily interested in country songs recorded in the 1920s and ’30s, but his tastes broadened to include early jazz, blues and gospel artists working for Gennett, Vocalion, OKeh and a slew of now-obscure labels recorded. In a coal town in West Virginia, he found what he called “the rarest of country blues records.” “The Original Stack O’Lee Blues” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull for the short-lived Black Patti label in 1927.

A savior of abandoned American music looks at his collection

As enthusiastic as Mr. Bussard was about the music he loved, he was even more dismissive of the music he didn’t like, namely everything after the 78s were replaced by 45s, then LPs and finally CDs. He hardly tolerated big bands led by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman (“like watching ice melt”). And forget everything that was recorded after 1950, especially Elvis Presley, the Beatles and “all that rock and roll crap”. He scoffed at country stars like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and rolled his eyes at the mention of pop.

When rap took off, he pointed to something he felt superior to: the 1920s blues recording of the Beale Street Sheiks’ “It’s a Good Thing” — “They don’t call it rap, but it is,” he insisted to an Associated Press reporter.

In addition to collecting, he also formed a music group, Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, and for several years ran his own label, Fonotone, recording musicians at his home, including influential guitarist and composer John Fahey.

Featured in documentaries, books and countless articles, the often argumentative Mr. Buzzard was never happier than when he could have guests in his basement and amaze them with music they might never have heard before.

His daughter estimated that each year at least 150 people spent time with Mr. Buzzard at his home, listening to him play songs and tell stories about how he found the records, how much (or how little) he paid for them, which musicians played on it and what year it was released.

A few years ago, Jack White, the lead singer and guitarist for The White Stripes, spent an afternoon with Mr. Buzzard, listening to old records – and listening to Mr. Buzzard talk about it. He recalled Mr. Bussard pulling out a jazz record, playing it on a modern turntable and claiming it would sound like the band playing live in the basement.

“I was like, okay, whatever, eye rolls and then damn if he wasn’t right,” White told the Post. “Thirty seconds into that song I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What is that? Who recorded this? What speaker are we listening to this through? What amp 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 great thing he’s done for me.”

Mr. Bussard’s wife of 34, formerly Esther Keith, died in 1999. Their marriage was at times strained by Mr. Bussard’s obsession with music, she told the City Paper. His unique focus, she said, made him “very, very difficult to live with.” She worked as a beautician to support the family and her husband’s music collecting.

Survivors include his daughter Frederick and three granddaughters.

Anderson says she hasn’t decided what to do with the footage yet. For now, she plans to leave them alone.

“I almost can’t even walk into the room. It’s like a museum or some kind of sanctuary,” she said. “It’s a connection to him.”

For his part, Mr. Bussard gave no thought to the ultimate fate of the records, other than that he did not want them to go to a university or library where he thought they would only gather dust.

“I like to say I’ll enjoy them ’till I croak,” he said in May. “Then whatever you do with it is fine.”

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