Another in our series of articles on record collectors, this will be the first of two articles on Joe Bussard. The second, by Ron Cole, will appear in a future OTH.ed.
Just talking on the phone with Joe Bussard can be stimulating to the point of exhaustion. His energy is boundless; he loves to talk about music and records, and his conversation is punctuated with frequent exclamations: "Jazz ended in 1934! It was all over by '34! The same with country! The real old-time country music was over by 1934!" Joe has spent more than 50 years pursuing his purpose with a single-mindedness bordering on mania. And his purpose is no less than collecting and preserving the vast wealth of American vernacular music that was recorded on fragile shellac discs during the early decades of this centurya treasure trove so vast and valuable that one might reasonably assume that a national museum or government-sponsored program would have long since taken up the challenge. Sure, the Library of Congress conducted field recordings of folk music for many years, but what about the music recorded by commercial phonograph companies, those countless songs and tunes that were aimed at the true folkthe working class buying publicand not filtered through the academic tastes of folklorists? This was music that the record companies themselves never bothered to preserve once the items were deleted from their catalogs. It was left to the initiative of a handful of private collectors to save this invaluable resource for posterity, and foremost among these collectors is Joseph E. Bussard, Jr. I doubt if Joe ever consciously formulated such high-minded goals, but his innate love of the music, his passion for collecting, and his generosity in sharing the material with others have earned him a stellar reputation among record collectors, musicians, and scholars alike.
I was calling to see if Joe would be willing to help me out with my current project, a CD anthology featuring black fiddle players who made commercial recordings in the 1920s and '30s. I needed to find clean copies of the original 78s, most of them quite rare, and get high quality transfers onto digital tape. Often such endeavors are stalled by extended negotiations, scheduling conflicts, or just plain procrastination. This is not Joe's style. When I called on a Thursday night, his response was immediate:
You're doing a CD? What records do you need? Just send me a list! I'll get everything together this weekend! Can you get me that list by Saturday? Send it Fed-Ex! Jack Towers can do the transfers, he's just 45 minutes from here. Set it up with him, then call me back. You want to come up? Come on up, you can stay at the Dan Dee Motel. We'll drive down to Jack's together. I can do it any day but FridayI put together my radio shows on Friday. Let's do it next Thursday. I'll have everything ready!
This man does not mess around. Six days after my initial phone call, I'm driving north on I-85, headed for Joe's hometown of Frederick, Maryland. Arriving around 6 pm, I find the "Dan Dee" all right, but it's booked solid, so I have to settle for Masser's Family Motel, an old style motor court that might have been a nice place to stayback in 1939! Today, well, let's just say it's conveniently located, it's cheap, and the phone works. When I call Joe, he wants me to come up to the house immediately, and gives detailed road instructions, concluding: "I'll be out in the driveway waiting for you."
And indeed he is, smoking a cigar and dressed casually in blue shorts and a 1950s-style checked shirt. Looking fit and youthful for his 62 years, Joe welcomes me with a hearty handshake, his eyes friendly yet intense, with an unmistakable glint of mischief. He quickly leads me into the house, an unpretentious split-level that gives no outward clue to its fabulous contents. The treasure in Joe's basement has achieved almost mythical status among record collectors, but this is no mythI'm about to experience it firsthand. After descending a narrow, dark stairway, we enter a doorway, and Joe flips the light switch. It is impressivethe sheer physicality of all those records, a solid wall of 78s, six feet high and spanning the length of a thirty-foot room. Above the 78s, up to the ceiling, are LPs and tapes, but these are clearly supplementary materials. Shellac is the main order of business here. At the far end of the room are more 78s, then shelves holding numerous amplifiers, receivers, turntables, tape decks and record cutters.
Posted across from the wall of records are vintage photographs, handbills, rare record sleeves, and other artifacts, including an original letter from Ernest Stoneman to fiddler Kahle Brewer dating back to the 1920s. Most of the letter involves financial matters, with Stoneman noting in great detail the "split" from recent recording sessions for Edison and Gennett. (Brewer's usual fee was five dollars per side!) There are photos of Grayson & Whitter, the Red Fox Chasers, Frank Blevins & His Southern Buccaneers, and even an 8x10 glossy of Jolly Joe's Jug Band. But the 78s themselves dominate the room, and the music contained on these discs represents a world class collection. After all, anyone can accumulate large quantities of 78s, but the rarity and consistent high quality of Joe's records is impressive. Few private collections can rival his holdings of old-time country music, and among institutional collections only the Country Music Foundation in Nashville can match it. But Joe's collection doesn't stop therecountry blues, gospel, and early jazz are other areas of concentration, as well as postwar country music and bluegrass.
Joe's sound system is superb, including a massive speaker unit that cost a grand back in 1959. I've heard 78s played in the record rooms of many collectors, but never anything like this. The sound is crisp, rich, full, every nuance audible. It jumps. And he likes to crank up the volume, too. "Recording technology in the late '20s was advanced, very advanced! But the playback technology was crap! Those old Victrolas sounded like crap! It took fifty years for the playback technology to catch up with the recording technology!"
Joe Bussard may be a suburban grandfather, but he retains the energy and enthusiasm of a spry adolescent. He doesn't just listen to his records, he actively participates. Placing a Victor record on the turntable, he carefully dusts it, then sets the needle into the groove. "You ever hear of Fess Williams' Royal Flush Orchestra? "Hot Town"! Wait'll you hear this!" This is high energy jazz, recorded in New York in 1929, and throughout its three-minute duration Joe never stops moving. He's snapping his fingers, jiving, stomping, high-stepping, keeping time with his whole body, and smoking his cigar all the while. He mimes every instrumental breakfirst pretending to blast on the trumpet, then fingering the tenor sax, hunching his shoulders, lurching forward, then rocking back. Next he picks up the record sleeve, fanning imaginary flames that leap from the turntable. "This is one hot record!" Joe's head is thrown back, eyes closed, swaying to the music, a beatific smile on his face. He is a man transported to a state of bliss.
And one record leads to another, and another. "Listen to this! Winston Holmes! I bet you never heard anything like this!" Joe puts on a rare Paramount recording from 1929 entitled "The Kansas City Call" by Winston Holmes and Charlie Turner, an oddball combination of harmonica, bird calls, scat vocals, spoken comments, slide guitar, whistling and yodeling. The music is strangely beautiful, and this record, like every other, has a story to go with it:
A guy I know up in New York, I used to let him have stuff for LPs. All kinds of stuff. I never charged him a damn thing. He put out LPs. And he was out in St. Louis in the '60s, and who did he find? Winston Holmes! Holmes was one of the big guys at Paramount Records. He was a big shot, he owned a lot of stock or whatever in Paramount. So here this guy finds him, he's still living. And he goes up and knocks on the door [knock, knock]: "Is Mr. Holmes in?" There's a woman at the door, and she says: "No, he's not here." He says, "Well, I want to see him about some records." "Well, come on in." And every room was full of Paramount records in boxes. Stacked up six feet high! He opened up one box , there was twenty-five copies of 12877 [Charley Patton], all mint, original sleeves! Next there was 12879 [Blind Leroy Garnett], mint! There must have been every Paramount. She said, "Oh, this basement is full, too." And he says: "Well, I'd like to see them, but I can't stay." AND HE LEAVES! Jesus! He walks out! I'd have stayed on that doorstep if it had been hailing big as baseballs!
But he goes back to New York, and about seven or eight months later, he comes back. [knock, knock, knock] "Is Mr. Holmes here?" "I'm sorry, he passed away." "Oh, I'm very sorry about that. Well, I was here about the records." "Oh, the recordswe took them to the dump." HAULED THEM TO THE DUMP! All Paramounts, all new! He probably had every damn Paramount there ever was, at least five copies! GONE!
These last words are delivered in a tone of stunned outrage. Transcriptions don't begin to do justice to Joe's stories, because every story is like a theatrical performance, with Joe playing every part. He takes great delight in telling his tales, complete with gestures, inflections, characterizations, and sound effects. And his material seems limitless, each story prompting another, all drawn from a huge reservoir of memory and told with unceasing enthusiasm. Each story sounds completely spontaneous, though he's probably told them countless times:
I was hunting for records down in Virginia. I went into this filling station right across from where I was staying at a motel and there was an old guy pumping gas. In his seventies I guess. I showed him a record: "You got any of these? You know anybody that's got any?" He said, "Oh, yeah. If you want records, I know somebody, he lives over here on the other side of the mountain. He's got all kinds of records." And he told me this guy's name. The guy ran a hardware store. So I got the name and looked in the phone book. And it cost a dollar to call the other side of the mountain. So I dropped four quarters in, and I got the store: "Oh, he's not here, he's up at the house." I said, "What's the number up there?" And I got the number, and I dropped four more quarters in. The best two dollars I ever invested in my life!
When I got him, he said "Yeah, I got a lot of them old records over here." I said, "Look, if I come over there, can I pick out and buy what I want?" "Yeah!" So I drove over there, went all the way up the other side of Bluefield and back into Virginia and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this town wasn't in Virginia, but in West Virginia very close to the line. I'd have to get a map. It was a little coal town, it had been forgotten long ago by bypassers. And I went right down in the heart of the thing and the street wasn't any wider than this room, the main street where the store was. I looked all over for a place to park, I had to park on the sidewalk. It was dead, the whole place. Walking into this old store was like going back seventy-five years. Big old round globe lights hanging down, five or six of 'em in a row. And the old tile ceiling, that old metal tile with pictures in it, that wrapped around. And I went back and finally found the guy, a little short bald-headed guy. He said, "Yeah, yeah, I'll take you up where the records are."
We got in this freight elevatora snail could have got up there faster! I thought we'd never get to that second floor! But we finally got there, and there was a balcony that ran all the way out the whole length of the store. You could walk in the back and look down on all the merchandise. And halfway out the balcony was a shelf with, I'd say, five or six thousand records. They were stacked in there, all paper sleeves, and the sleeves that were out on the outward side were black with coal soot. I reached up in the very far left hand corner of the shelf. The first record I pulled out was "Sobbin' Blues" by King Oliver's Jazz Band on OKeh, new. Absolutely mint! I put that down, I pulled the next one: "Dead Man's Blues," Vocalion, new! Put that aside, next one I pulled was "Jack Ass Blues," new! "Deep Henderson," new! Next one was Jelly Roll Morton's "Steamboat Four" on Paramount, mint! It just kept going on and on and on, and I know I must have peed in my pants three times! I kept feeling like the balcony was tilting and I was going to slide off over top of the rail down on the floor below, like something was drawing me backwards!
It was heavy on Columbias, very heavy on Brunswicks, Paramounts, Bluebirds, Victorhad all the major labels. Vocalionsthere was three Uncle Dave Macons there. That was the only country stuff, because all the country stuff had been bought out. You know, because it was down in that area. Uncle Dave's first record was there: "Chewing Chewing Gum" and "I'm Going Away To Leave You," 1924. That was the first one I found. Absolutely new, never been touched. And another Uncle Dave I found was "The Bible's True," you know, "nobody's gonna make a monkey out of me." That was in there, and there was unusual stuff in there. The Old Pal Smoke Shop Four, mint, came out of there. All kinds of stuff! Kansas City Stompers on Brunswick, all kinds of Brunswick 7000s. Oh, my Gaahd! It was just unbelievable!
I had five stacks of records at least four feet high! And I carried 'em down, I went down the steps, I took as many as I could carry, and took 'em all downstairs and put some on the floor and some on this table, and the table was wobbling side to side with so much weight on it. And the old guy comes up: "Oh, I see you got some there." He ran his hand along a stack of records and the soot flew off the sleeves. "How many you got in a stack?" I said, "I don't know, I didn't count 'em. How about a hundred bucks for the whole works?" He said, "Take 'em out of here!" I put those five 20-dollar bills in his hand so fast that Jackson just about slid off! And I didn't walk out of that store, I floated.
Joe makes his collection readily accessible to anyone interested. For just the cost of xeroxing, he'll send you detailed lists of every record he owns, carefully typed out on his manual Underwood, and grouped according to category. Old-time country music alone constitutes well over 200 pages! Then, for fifty cents a song, he'll make a custom cassette tape of any program of music that you put together from his extensive listings. This is quite a bargain considering the rarity, scope, and value of the original recordingsand the service is really fast, too. [Joe can be contacted at 6610 Cherry Hill Dr., Frederick MD 21702.] Even now, in the era of CD reissues, Joe still gets numerous requests for tapes each week, proof that there's still plenty of music on his shelf that's not available anywhere else. There was a time when Joe produced 78s as well, and put them out on his own Fonotone labelperformances by friends and fellow enthusiasts of old-time music, including John Fahey's first-ever recordings. Now Fonotone records have themselves become collector's items.
Joe also puts together weekly radio shows for four different stations, including WELD in Fisher, West Virginia, where he's been heard for 38 years. He spends part of each Friday taping the shows in his basement programs of old-time country music flavored with Joe's unique commentary. And lately he's been adding a dose of vintage blues. ("Where do you think all the country songs came from?") Joe loves it all, and each show is infused with undiminished enthusiasm, even though he's been at it for more than four decades:
I started on WSIG, Mount Jackson [Virginia]. How I started, I was down there record hunting, and I turned on the radio for some damn reason and there was Happy Johnny, he was a DJ down there. Johnny went around to a lot of the stations and worked a while to find a nice place for him and the family to move to. He finally settled in Frederick. But he worked down there for a while on WSIG, Mount Jackson, 1,000 watts, right in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, covered a hell of a range. I used to do an imitation of Happy Johnny. I used to do him so well I could fool his wife on the telephone. Oh, I had more fun: "Gal, I've been caught up at the radio station, I won't be home till late." "All right, Johnny, I'll have your supper." "Oh, no, don't hold supper, I don't know when I'll be home." Then he'd come home and there'd be no supper! And one time, this was in the '60s, Johnny got laryngitis real bad and he had some commercials he had to cut. In those days it was records, there was no tapes, they had a cutter. So I went up there and did the commercials, and ain't nobody knew the difference!
So anyway, I went up to the station to see Johnny. Oh, we had a big reunion, we talked some on the air for a while, and this and that. And Johnny says, "By golly, Joe, there's a fellow back there you ought to see, his name is Art Barrett. He likes this old music." Art was a very distinguished man, a DJ, very neat, clean cut, I guess then he was probably late thirties, I was probably eighteen or nineteen years old. He loved Jimmie Rodgers, and we talked and talked and talked. He said, "What do you think about putting a program together of old-time records? Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, Uncle Dave." And I had all these records, so I said, "I can do it." He said, "You do it and I'll put it on my show. I've got four hours every day. We'll run it next Wednesday." So I made it, it was on reel-to-reel. There was no cassettes in those days. So I sent it down there, and I went half way down there to listen to it, they put it on, it didn't sound bad. Then I sent him another one, and the third week the mail started rolling in. They couldn't believe it75 or 100 letters, bags of mail. In those days, people wrote. They don't anymore. And it made the other two big king disc jockeys there jealous!
That show went on for quite a while, till 1957 or '58. Art was going to leave the station, he was going to Florida. So they had a big sendoff, and I went down. And Art said, "Come on over to the house, I want to give you some things before I move. I don't want to carry them with me." So I went up to his house, and he gave me the most beautiful box of records you ever seen. Bill and Charlie Monroe on Bluebird, "You Call That Religion," new. All kinds of great records. Then he opened this drawer and he said, "Here's Hank Williams' necktie. The night he died, he had this on." He said, "I got this from Hank's sister. I want you to have it." He said, "Hank would only wear a tie once. He never took the knot out of it, he'd always loosen it and then throw it away. But the undertaker unknotted it." And Hank's sister gave it to Art because she knew Art real well, and he gave it to me. I've still got it.
By now, it's 2 am and I'm ready to call it night, but Joe's energy is still in high gear. Whenever I start for the door, he brings out another gem. "The Happy Go Lucky Boysyou ever hear them? 'What're You Gonna Do With The Baby-O'? A buff Bluebirdbrand new! Oh my Gaahd! What a record!" Each time Joe pulls a record from the shelf, it's like greeting an old friend, and each one brings up memories:
In 1966, me and Bob Coltman went on a trip. We went down to TennesseeJohnson City, around in there, and we were out three days and we only had two lousy records. It was bad, man, I was really disgusted. We went up this dirt road for 30 miles and didn't see a damn house. I said, "Let's get the hell out of here." And then we were turning around and these two guys come up in a pickup truck. I picked up one of the two records I had: "You know anybody that's got any of these things?" "Hell, yeah! Go back to the Chevrolet garage in Johnson City. He's got thousands of 'em!" I said, "Chevrolet garage?" "Yeah!"
So we drove to the Chevrolet garage, walked in the door, and there was a parts counter that was probably 75 feet long, probably 5 feet wide, and was covered with records. As high as you could stack 'em, the whole length of the counter! All country stuff! Buff Bluebirds, Ernest Tubb on Bluebird, two or three copies, brand new! Lake Howard on Melotone, all kinds of stuff! Roy Acuff Vocalions, Melotones. Oh, it was just loaded with stuff! Grinnell Giggers, and all kinds of stuff! Buff Bluebirds, staff Bluebirds, sundial Deccas, Melotones, Vocalions, Champions! I said, "What do you want for these?" "Aw, ten cents apiece. If you find any that's got dirt all over 'em, you can just have those. A lot of 'em's dirty." I said, "Where in hell did you get 'em?" He said, "Oh, I bought out an old man had a record store down the mountain here a little while ago." I said, "Anybody looked at 'em?" He said, "No, nobody even wants to look at 'em. You're the first one that ever went through 'em."
Oh my Gaahd! We must have gotten twenty-four-hundred records out of there! I think I paid nearly a hundred dollars, if that. He gave me a couple hundred. And it was raining, it was storming, it was in the summer. Man, I was just sitting there drinking pop, and boy, I was handing 'em to Bob, and fast as I handed to him, he was putting them in boxes. And the guy says, "Oh, wait a minute. My wife took a big box out of here. Here, I'll call her up." [on phone:] "Hey, Hon, you got them records up there? Bring 'em down here, got somebody down here lookin' for 'em." She brought a big box down, must have been two hundred, all kinds of good stuff in there, including the Happy Go Lucky Boys. Steve Ledford plays fiddle on that one. Not long after that, I met Steve Ledford. Went over to his house, he lived over at Laurel Mountain, in North Carolina. He made Bluebirds, he was with Mainer's Mountaineers, he made hundreds of records on his own.
This was the kind of stuff that was there. It just went on and on and on. I had a '64 Ford. We had that thing so packed it was dragging the ground. There were so many records in there that Bob had boxes on his lap! We had them up to the top of the ceiling in the car. The trunktwo or three people could have got in the trunkwe had that packed! And the damn bumper was dragging! We started up Route 81, we went about 50 miles an hour and we just loved every mile! Oh, man what a haul that was!
I sold one Ernest Tubb out of there for as much as I paid for all of 'em. I ran a small record auction, and this was "The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers" and "The Life of Jimmie Rodgers" on buff BluebirdErnest Tubb's first record from 1936. I think I got $200that was unheard of in those days! There was two copies, I kept the other one, I still got it. That paid for all of 'em!
Finally, at 2:30 am, Joe ushers me back upstairs, and out into the night air. We agree to meet in the morning for breakfast. Driving back to the motel, I experience a period of sensory readjustment, the kind of stunned feeling you get when you emerge from a theater after seeing a really good movie, disengaging from an alternate world of heightened sensation.
"The 1950s was the best time of my lifeI spent every day looking for records!"
We're sitting in a booth by the window at Barbara Fritchie's Candy Cane Restaurant on Route 40, itself a relic of the '50s, where Joe is a regular. You can get real diner food here, no pretensions. And best of all, the place is quiet, perhaps the prime reason that Joe likes to come here. There's no blaring rock'n'roll and no "Nash-trash," Joe's term for most of Nashville's current product. Over scrambled eggs and bacon I listen to more tales of record collecting. It's obvious that Joe champions the music and the values of a bygone America: "1929 was the high point of Western Civilization!" But has he retreated into a cocoon of nostalgia? Certainly not. In fact, he tackles each new day with an unbridled energy, often responding in a very physical way to outside stimuli. Joe lays down his fork. Without warning he produces a large rubber band, leans forward across the table, takes aim, andWHAP!annihilates a fly that has landed on the seat back about three inches from my right shoulder. Without missing a beat, he pockets the rubber band and hoists his coffee cup to signal the waitress across the room, calling for "Mud! More MUD!" As if Joe Bussard needed another dose of caffeine!
Soon we're in my car, headed west on I-70 toward Olney, Maryland, where Jack Towers lives. Jack is a jazz enthusiast with a well-equipped sound studio installed in his basement, and he's a pro who's worked on countless reissue projects over the years. We're taking him a dozen selected discs from Joe's collection, packed carefully in a cardboard box. On the way, Joe provides a running commentary, cursing the heavy traffic and the new housing developments that sprawl across former woods and farmland: "Too many people! There's no end to it! Nobody needs a house that big! Gaahd, they're ugly!" My compact car is too small to comfortably accommodate Joe's lengthy frame, but he tolerates it, and even refrains from smoking, sucking on peppermints instead. Unfortunately, we miss the Olney turnoff, and soon we're rapidly approaching Baltimore, a town Joe wishes to avoid at all costs.
"Cut across! Cut across!" Joe's usual urgency is heightened as he points out a narrow strip of asphalt that connects our side of I-70 to the opposing northbound lanes, marked "Authorized Personnel Only." And I'm thinking: "A sudden, illegal U-turn at 65 miles per hour on a crowded Interstate? Oh, sure, Joe, no problem!" Needless to say, I wait and take the next legitimate exit, which promptly leads us into a confusing maze of back roads. After several wrong turns, Joe finally recognizes familiar landmarks and we make our way back toward Olney, arriving at Jack's an hour late.
Jack Towers is a patient man, unperturbed by our tardy arrival, and his quiet, reserved manner provides a counterpoint to Joe's extroverted personality. Soon the three of us are hunkered down in his basement, listening to 78s as Joe pulls them one by one from the cardboard box. He hands each record to Jack, who tries out various stylii before making the transfer to digital tape. This is fiddle music, obscure but great, that holds a special interest for me since it will be part of the anthology I'm working on: "K.C. Railroad Blues" by Andrew & Jim Baxter, "Beaver Slide Rag" by Peg Leg Howell & His Gang, "Vine Street Drag" by the Tennessee Trio, "Alma Waltz" by the Mississippi Mud Steppers, and more. If these names aren't familiar to fans of old-time country music, they should be, considering the vital contribution that African Americans have made to the evolution of the music. Of course it's all music that Joe Bussard discovered many years ago, when mainstream America was listening to the likes of Perry Como and Doris Day!
Our business concluded, Joe and I drive back to Frederick, stopping along the way to buy a couple of porterhouse steaks that we slap on the grill once we get back to his house. Over dinner, Joe talks about the old days in Frederick, and his beginnings as a record collector:
I got started when I was seven or eight years old. I was crazy about Gene Autry! I went down to McCrory's Dime StoreI bought Gene Autry records there when I had money35 cents apiece. Daddy gave me a dollar a week allowance. They were OKehs, purple OKehs, those late ones. The wall was covered with 'em, and the counter and the shelves. And they'd give you a record and you'd go back in the little booth and listen to it, and if you wanted it, it was thirty-five cents. And then I went and got a chocolate sundae across the street at Peoples Drugstore, sixteen cents for four scoops of ice cream. And I can remember Sears & Roebuck was next door, they had windup phonographs still sitting in their showroom, in the window. There was no air conditioning in those days. You walked into McCrory's, it was like somebody hit you in the face! It was like 150 degrees in there, and big old fans are running, you know. It was stifling! You got an ice cream in there, it would melt before you could eat it!
I used to hear stuff on the radio, live. I'd hear guys picking guitar, and they'd do a little note, a little something beautiful like thatbut they didn't do it long enough. They only did it for a seconda certain sound that really got me going! And then I heard Jimmie Rodgers, and I went nuts. I went completely nuts! I was eleven or twelve years old at the time. I went to the record store, I said: "I gotta have anything you got by Jimmie Rodgers, I want it!" They went and looked in the book: "No, we don't have anything. Nothing in here. Nothing available." This was in 1947. But I heard that he sold a lot of records, so I figured, well, somebody's got some. So I started going around to old houses. I knocked on this door, and this woman came, and I said, "You got any old records?" She said, "Yeah, I got a big box of 'em, you can have 'em, just take 'em." When I got 'em home, there was two Jimmie Rodgers in there. And there was other stuff in there: "Hey this sounds good. This guy stinks. This guy's not bad. Hey, I like this." So one thing just leads to another. Then I started going all over town. I hit a guy down on East South Street. He had hundreds of records. Boy, I mean, I didn't know what I was picking, but I saw those buff Bluebirds and I liked that label, so I picked those and they had a lot of good stuff on 'em. And then when I got my license when I was sixteen, of course I'd learned a lot about records by then. And I started going out all over the place. I canvassed all around here first, and then I started branching out and going further south. It was nothing to go out on a Saturday and come back with 500 records!
Later I met a guy from Washington D.C. named Ed Watsonhe collected jazz and he gave me a list of stuff to look for. "Oh, okay." So I started hitting some black houses, and I started getting some of these records he wrote down. So I wondered, "What do they sound like?" I put one on, and I said, "Oh, hell no, he ain't getting that one! This is too good!" I had never heard any jazz. I loved it right off! And the blues, I got interested in the blues. So then I started hitting all the black neighborhoods, going further south, down and around. I used to listen to these old guys down on East Street. Old black guys sitting down there with bottleneck guitars. . . ."
Soon we're back in the basement, where Joe hauls out his own guitar, a Gibson, lays it flat across his lap and starts playing, sliding a bottleneck along the strings. He begins with "Guitar Rag," an instrumental first recorded by Sylvester Weaver back in 1925. "That record must have sold a million copies just in West Virginia! Every house had one!" Next, at my request, Joe plays "Bottleneck Blues," another Sylvester Weaver piece, then segues into "Come On in My Kitchen." After that, it's a Blind Willie Johnson medley: "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and "Motherless Children," followed by Sam McGee's "Knoxville Rag." Joe's a little rusty, but entertaining nonetheless. Next he plays "Got the Mourning Blues," an Uncle Dave Macon song from 1926, then finishes up with a bottleneck version of Skip James's "I'm So Glad."
Joe quickly puts away the guitar. Joe always moves quickly, and always seems engrossed in the activity of the present moment. Now he's back at the record shelf, pulling out more favorites, and I settle in for another evening of listening pleasure. Joe's record room is a world of countless musical possibilities where each disc opens a three-minute window into the past, where each disc spins its own reality, tells its own story, creates its own characters. Here you'll find relief from the tedium of freeways and shopping malls, fast food and white noise, and all the headaches that dog you through the day. It's easy to lose yourself in the music, just lower the needle into the groove, and the hours slip away.
Suddenly I snap out of it. I realize it's nearly 10 pm, and I still have a six-hour drive ahead of me. I've got to go, but with Joe playing DJ, it's not so easy: "You gotta hear this one last record! This is one record that you never see in good shape. It is a great record, and this is the best copy known, it's mint. Absolutely mint! There is no other copy in this condition. I know five collectors that's got it, and there's always something wrong with itthere's a dig in it, there's bad lam cracks, it's worn, it's distorted. When I saw this in mint condition, I knew I had to have it!"
Suddenly the sound of a lonesome, tolling banjo fills the room, and so begins "Little Sadie" by Clarence Ashley, as clear and strong as the day it was recorded in 1929. Ashley's voice and banjo have a compelling presence, telling a tale of murder and retribution:
Went out last night for to take a little
I saw little Sadie and I blowed her down
I run right home and I went to bed
A forty-four smokeless under my head.
Three minutes later the song is over, Sadie's killer wears the ball and stripes, and the record goes back in its sleeve. I thank Joe for his hospitality and begin gathering my gear, taking one last look at the vast shelves of records that stretch the length of the basement. As I'm leaving, I notice a small scrap of notebook paper stapled to the wall by the door, almost lost amidst the musical memorabilia. It's a hand-written note addressed to Joe from one of his radio listeners, a short message, but one that speaks volumes: "Listening to your show makes my job bearable on Saturday afternoons. I love people who love what they do!"
There is no doubt that Joe Bussard loves what he does, and the world is better off for it. n
Marshall Wyatt is an artist and record collector who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is producer of the CD anthology Violin, Sing the Blues for Me, a new release on the Old Hat label.