The first time I heard of Joe Bussard It was in 1998 when my friend Harris Wray phoned me at my office at Washington City Paper and told me he had a story idea for me. It wasn’t long after the Smithsonian reissued an opulent six-CD set of the American Folk Music Anthologythan the proto-beatnik mage Harry Smith originally compiled in the early 1950s. Harris told me there was a record collector in Frederick, Maryland who was not only as mad as Harry Smith, but also had a legendary stash of 78 records far older lathes from the 1920s and 1930s than Smith ever had. . Twenty-five thousand and counting, in fact, with a mania for collecting and an unbridled fervor for music to make Harry Smith, a pill-robber, look like a dabbler poseur.
I was skeptical but desperate for some good story ideas, so I made the hour-long drive to Bussard’s basement lair, which was in a nondescript suburban rancher at a distance from toxic fumes of Fort Detrick. In less than an hour, with Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers blasting at mind-blowing volume and Bussard dancing with pure animal glee as cheap cigar smoke billowed from his nostrils, I knew Harris wasn’t exaggerating.
Here was one of the great collections of pre-war and early American music – many of these records in pristine condition and some of them the only known copies – curated with the greatest discernment and presented as an epic tale of one man. of the lost history of American vernacular music. Bussard revived this old cliché: each time the diamond stylus touches the shellac, it became the music, an ecstatic herd of limbs swirling in a cloud of stogie smoke. Even so, he never quite lost his mind: he knew the lyrics by heart and could sing every mumbled line of Poole’s “Ride up Shooting Creek, go for a run/Get my razor and a Gatling gun” as if he was doing. everything experienced first hand. It was the same with every other record he put on the turntable. On return visits, I realized that the temperamental son of that Fredrick agricultural supplier had internalized the entire reserve, with a story to accompany each record.
At the time, Bussard was unknown outside of record-collecting circles. The city paper The cover story “Desperate Man Blues” portrayed a lone wolf hunter-gatherer, always in pursuit of rare shellac in the wild and cursing the cultural wasteland of modern society. After the story aired in early 1999, Bussard’s folk hero status began and snowballed over the years, with bandmates and music celebrities making the pilgrimage to Frederick to hear the best. blues, jazz and early 20th century American country music at the foot. of the master. It’s a legacy of discovery, preservation and dissemination that will endure long after his death on Monday at age 86.
Bussard as a misanthropic folk hero probably first gained traction in 2000 when a DC rock band called Illuminati paid tribute to outlaw Bad Boy of Record Collectors on indie label release Bastards & Charlatans. (For the back of the CD, the group has reproduced without attribution one of the photographer Darrow MontgomeryThe typically definitive portraits that featured in the feature: a brooding, haggard-looking Bussard looking as macabre as Boris Karloff, clutching a favorite Uncle Dave Macon Vocalion 78, a defiant stogie in his throat.)
On the song “Old Man Joe Buzzard [sic]The Illuminati singer moans in a Killdozer-like dirge: “My name is Joe Buzzard, and I know I’m a curmudgeon / I seek the past, despise the future.”
Bussard reached a wider audience when the feature film was included in the Da Capo Best Musical Composition 2000 anthology chosen by the author of the music Pierre Guralnick. In his introduction, Guralnick noted that he chose the stories because “they represent the sound of the individual human voice, they insist on their own truth, sometimes flashy, sometimes seemingly little more than a patient accumulation of facts. , but always expressed in their own bizarre terms.That’s what I appreciate so much about each of these pieces, the refusal to give in to the seductive flattery of an increasingly mass-produced era.
This statement encapsulates much of Bussard’s own aesthetic credo about the old, often rural, off-the-beaten-path musicians he championed: the sense of uniqueness and local color captured on record before commercialization and standardization. have eradicated whole sections of local eccentricity. , such as the Tennessee fiddler’s “velvet” bowing style Uncle Bunt Stephens on his 1926 record of the Civil War era tune, “Sail Away Ladies”.
Bussard got his first taste of world fame in 2001 when an Australian film crew showed up at his Frederick home to shoot a documentary. It’s a vivid depiction of Bussard in all his manic glory, still at full speed, showing off his reserve and hitting the back roads for more records. Released in 2003, it was called The Desperate Man’s Bluesnotched from the title of city paper story, which was taken from John Fahey’s song, “Desperate Man Blues”, which was taken from the 1928 Carter family classic, “John Hardy was a desperate little man”, yet another example of the process of folk borrowing.
Over the years a parade of pilgrims have made the journey to Frederick, including carpet baggers like Jack White and crooks ready to take advantage of the legend of Bussard. Joe did not discriminate and accommodated everyone. I’ve taken old friends and kindred spirits there on day trips, and no one who’s been to the basement has ever been disappointed. Each time was education as well as entertainment, with equal parts carny show and music history seminar. Eventually, candy canes replaced dollar stogies, but his missionary zeal never left him.
On several record-breaking road trips, I got to know Bussard better and saw glimpses of the softie behind the contrarian. He sang the praises of regular burgers and the sunshine era Johnny Cash and the movies of Laurier & Hardy. He could rave for weeks over the splendor of pork chops and peanut soup at the Southern Diner in New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, where in the 1950s and 60s he had made some of his best discoveries of discs. At the same time, he repeatedly stated that he had never tasted pizza, which he compared to the disgusting generic sauce in pop music.
He was mercurial and unstable and prone to outbursts, and his life was littered with quarrels and estrangements with old friends and acquaintances. Unfortunately, I became a member of this group myself. Several years ago I made the trip to Frederick to get one of his custom made 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 set of their records that he had put on tape that he had to sell.
What started as a good-natured haggle over the price of the Sheiks’ gang turned into an ugly shouting match. I stormed off, Bussard following me closely up the basement steps and out of the house and down the driveway, screaming the whole way. I never saw him again.
I always intended to go back to his place and somehow try to make things right. I feel like he would have been docile, but that never happened. I still miss those Mississippi Sheiks songs, and the man who saved those records and so many others for posterity, and the American music world will surely miss Joe Bussard as well.