Where the music lives

The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK - Joe Bussard yearns for the music made before he was born 71 years ago. So every day he clomps down to his basement and into a hidden world hopping with the music that carries him off to foggy mountain hollows and smoky juke joints. New Orleans-style jazz. String band crooning. Old-time jug band tunes. Cajun fiddling. Soulful blues.

He might be the product of the rock 'n' roll era, but Bussard long ago thumbed his nose at just about everything recorded after Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration. Instead, he has devoted his life to reaching way back for the sounds of the 1920s and '30s that still launch him into dreamy reveries.

The other day, as the needle floated to the end of a jazz track from 1931, Bussard shouted with joy in his faint twang.

"Aww, man! After hearing that, who wants to hear anything today? It's just so incredible. ... The world doesn't know what they're missing."

Bussard knows full well what the world is missing: some of the finest early jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun and country around. And one of the world's biggest and best collections sits right here in his wood-paneled basement, a trove of 78-rpm records worth millions tucked inside an ordinary brick rancher in Frederick.

Over the decades, Bussard has scoured West Virginia coal towns, Baltimore junk shops and everything in between, nabbing his share of one-of-a-kinds and amassing a vast haul of 25,000 old 78s. Age may have etched a few grooves into his face and sent his eyebrows on an improvisational riff, but the music brings him a childish delight.

So does his quest to spread the gift of good music as an antidote to the many modern scourges he perceives, starting with the entire oeuvre of rock 'n' roll.

"He's assembled a massive collection, but his other passion is sharing and turning people on to the music he has loved for so long," said Lance Ledbetter, who runs Dust-to-Digital, a reissue label in Atlanta. He relied on Bussard for three-fourths of the 160 songs on Goodbye, Babylon, a critically acclaimed 2003 gospel box set.

Bussard tapes weekly shows for radio stations in West Virginia and three Southern states. For $1 a song, he'll dub any track onto a cassette, shrugging off the possible legal infringement. He has put tracks onto CDs, including five jazz discs that go for $15 apiece. And he invites music lovers to descend his cellar steps for an unforgettable listening experience.

"I think if he's sustaining this great and wonderful rare collection, that's a great role - playing it on the radio, making it accessible," said Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. DeAnna applauds everything but the legally iffy retail sideline.

(Various state laws restrict unauthorized copying of recordings for commercial use, though experts doubt that record companies would go after someone like Bussard, given the minimal money at stake.)

Bussard has a fair bit of music that neither the Library of Congress nor anyone else has, and more rarities than most collectors. There is no central repository of American sound recordings, and over time even big labels lost or tossed some of the masters used to reissue recordings on CDs. That makes Bussard and fellow collectors unofficial guardians of part of the nation's musical legacy.

He boasts that his collection includes the only known record featuring the 1929 country toe-tapper "Way Down in North Carolina," by the Grayson County Railsplitters; one of three examples of "Outside Woman Blues," recorded by Blind Joe Reynolds in 1929; and a never-issued test recording of Frank Stokes' 1927 rendition of "Jumping on the Hill."

His most prized gem has to be the world's only known copy of "Stack O' Lee Blues," released in 1927 by the Black Patti label. A high-profile blues collector named John Tefteller openly covets it. "That's a significant blues piece; of course I'd like to have it," he said.

But Bussard has told him he turned down $30,000 for it, and Tefteller's frustration was evident over the phone from his home in Oregon. "You can say, 'I'll pay more,' but it doesn't seem to make any difference to him, because he doesn't want to sell."

And so that 10-inch shellacked black disc stays in Bussard's basement, hidden in the shelves that extend 18 feet across and rise 6 feet toward the ceiling. The catalog exists only in the collector's head, the better to thwart would-be thieves. The only nod to climate control is a dehumidifier.

One recent morning in his basement, Bussard suddenly took on the look of a madman. He flung his arms wide, splaying both hands like matching stop signs. His eyes darted this way and that. He stuck out his tongue.

It was his signal that real fun lay just ahead.

This came two minutes 14 seconds into "After You've Gone," a 1931 jazz tune spinning on his turntable. On cue, the song swung up-tempo, as did Bussard. With a fiddle now whining and whistling from the big speaker in the corner, his right hand sliced an invisible bow back and forth through the air. He grinned, grimaced and wagged that tongue.

When not bopping in his basement, Bussard often can be found at the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant. He's there every day for breakfast. He always sits near the kitchen door in case a gunman comes in ("you never know"), eats bacon and eggs, and chats up the waitresses. One manager rolled her eyes good-naturedly and said, "Joe, you ain't right."

Over breakfast he related how his life of collecting began in 1947 when, at age 11, he walked into a record store looking for Jimmie Rodgers music. Told that the country singer's records had been discontinued, young Joe began knocking on doors in Frederick begging for old Rodgers records.

He scored a couple, along with plenty of records featuring other artists. He never stopped collecting. By selling his family's farm supply business, he was able to devote his attention to collecting without the distraction of having to earn a living. (It helped that his wife, Esther, who died in 1999, continued to work as a hairstylist.)

Music consumed him in other ways: He formed Jolly Joe's Jug Band - he played the guitar, banjo and jug - and cut old-style music on his own label, Fonotone Records.

Mostly he collected, racing against time as old 78s -- forerunners to vinyl LPs - were junked, turned into wall decorations or hurled through the air by kids. Often the harsh needles from windup Victrolas had badly scratched the records, but he found many in pristine shape, such as on a 1960s trip to the coal camps of Bluefield, Va.

He had reached the last house in one row when he peered down a ravine. There sat one more house. An elderly woman answered his knock and invited him inside. In the phonograph case he spotted what he had long sought: "Hen Party Blues" by the Dixieland Jug Blowers. He also found Sweet Papa Stovepipe's "All Birds Look Like Chicken to Me." For the set he gave her $100, far more than she asked.

In this way he accumulated his 25,000 records, three-plus minutes per side. To hear it all would require a month of nonstop playing. He also has a few thousand LPs and 45-rpm records. Other collectors have superior stashes in one genre - early country, say - but Bussard's runs the gamut. "There's one or two people I can think of in the entire world who have done that," Ledbetter said. "It's one of the top record collections in the world."

Bussard kept only the best, pitching lots of "junk." To him, American music peaked in the 1920s and '30s. "The world was just bustin' with music," he said. It has been downhill since. In fact, he asserts that jazz "ended" in 1933, due both to the Depression and to the advent of the big band sound he likens to "watching cars rust." So he doesn't think much of Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw or John Coltrane. And Duke Ellington? Only the early stuff, Bussard says, "when the Duke was still the Duke."

Country, he says, fared better, but only until the mid-1950s. Then rock arrived and, in his view, tarnished country and every other music form - except his beloved bluegrass. (He's got thousands of bluegrass records, too.) As the rock craze swept America in the 1950s, Bussard burrowed ever deeper into old record stacks.

"I never liked Elvis," he said. "I couldn't see anything into it. It just didn't move me whatsoever." And the Beatles? "Rotten." Johnny Cash? "You mean Johnny Crack?" To Bussard it's all illogical, intolerable noise. The off switch, he says, is "the best button on the radio."

Spend enough time with Bussard and his two-track demeanor emerges. Side A is the sunny music nut, the one who plays a mean air sax, air clarinet and air piano; who marvels at how different musical styles sounded on opposite sides of the same mountain back in the day; and who'll spin the "last" record for a visitor only to hop up and shout, "Wait! I gotta play one more."

Side B is the crotchety grump who not only has an aversion to modern music but to lots else besides, including cheese (he can't explain why), Democrats (don't get him started) and drums, to name a few.

While he might wish he could time-travel back 80 years, it would be a mistake to accuse him of consistency. He has a MySpace page and a Web site ( www.vintage78.com) that his daughter's ex-husband helps run.

He's also more than willing to digitize his music library - provided he's fairly compensated.

The Library of Congress has ambitious digitization plans with an eventual aim of putting the music online. A recent study found that only 14 percent of the 400,000 American records made from 1895 to 1965 can be bought on CD, via iTunes or the like. Most recordings remain in the hands of collectors like Bussard and institutional archives, while some languish in record company vaults or no longer exist.

The library will have to work with collectors, said DeAnna, to expand its catalog of 3 million recordings.

To which Bussard says, bluntly: "I hope they have plenty of money. I'm not doing anything for free." He says he has sunk too much time and money to lend out his records gratis, even if that would spread the music more widely than he could on his own.

Ledbetter values Bussard's collection at $5 million to $10 million, based on eBay prices. Bussard has no desire to sell, though, not now. He doesn't really need the cash with his reverse mortgage, Social Security payments and modest music sales. More to the point, "I'm not that close to the grave yet. Music is the only thing I really enjoy."

Besides, he can't imagine Heaven sounding any sweeter than his basement.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Video of Bussard and his records at baltimoresun.com/bussard

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