The King of 78s – Joe Bussard
Text: Marc Minsker & Eilon Paz | Photos: Eilon Paz
“Jazz music ended in 1933, with the last recordings of worth being Clarence Williams in 1932. Jimmy Murphy’s records (six titles actually) that were recorded in Trashville, oops, I mean Nashville, were the last real recordings.”
ew people have devoted as much of their life to records as Joe Bussard has.
Born in 1936 in Frederick, Maryland, he started playing records on his parents’ phonograph and by the end of World War II, he had the collecting bug. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, he led thousands of record expeditions through the mid-Atlantic region and the South, looking for 78s of jazz, blues, ethnic and down-home/bluegrass music. These expeditions went well beyond the typical digger routes of mining thrift stores or finding out-of-the way record stores. For Joe, record collecting has always meant driving into the backwoods, parking your car, and walking door-to-door asking the locals if they had any records in the house and, if so, would they be willing to sell them. It is not an exaggeration to say that over 50,000 records have passed through Joe’s hands or circulated through his collection.
In addition to his status as a collector, Joe is single-handedly responsible for the creation and operation of Fonotone Records, an independent record label responsible for documenting and preserving bluegrass, folk and blues music of the 1950s,1960s and 1970s (including the first recordings of guitarist John Fahey). A musician himself, Joe performed on guitar, banjo and vocals with his group Jolly Joe and His Jug Band, as well as performing and recording with many others. He has also been hosting radio programs since 1956, when he set up his own pirate radio station out of his home.
Joe Bussard is the subject of the excellent documentary film by Edward Gillian, “Desperate Man Blues” (2003).
Q: Your Full name, age, where you live?
A: Joseph Bussard, 76. Frederick, MD.
Q: What was your first album? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling? Do you still have it?
A: The first 78 that I went out and found was….God, you’re going back 50 years or so! That’s almost impossible to remember. I know that I found Gene Autrey records early on but it would probably be Jimmie Rodgers. When I heard him, that about did it. I was hooked.
Q: What prompted you to start collecting? What age did you start?
A: I had a phonograph at my house (still have it) and was playing records when I was six years old. Neighbors would bring records by the house that I grew up in, on Fairview Avenue in Frederick.
Q: What was your Initial interest in music? Did you have any influence from your family? Or perhaps your best friend ?
A: Not really. My family didn’t have much interest in it. I listened to the radio a lot and our local station, WFMD, used to have live stuff…mostly bluegrass. I got more deep into music when I got my driver’s license, hitting up houses, going door to door. In those days a lot of the roads around Frederick were still dirt, and I’d drive up and down every hollow, throughout the County. Learned everyday about some new musician.
Q: are you following any specific genre in your collection? Or maybe pressing years?
A: I got all types of music: everything from string bands and southern artists to Country blues and early jazz. Gospel and Bluegrass. In terms of pressing years, the best stuff is from 1929 to 1933, especially 1931, 1932, 1933. Nobody had any money, sales were low. So that what makes the records so scarce. And people didn’t take care of them with those old damn wind-ups. Those needles destroyed the grooves. That’s what happened to all those Charlie Patton records.
Jazz music ended in 1933, with the last recordings of worth being Clarence Williams in 1932. Also Benny Moten’s last recordings (he died in 1935). The problem was the sound changed in 1933; the tone was gone. When they came back with .25 cent records, the sound had changed for good. It wasn’t the same. Lost that beautiful tone.
In 1955, country music had its last gasp. Jimmy Murphy’s records (six titles actually) that were recorded in Trashville, oops, I mean Nashville, were the last real recordings. Songs like “Here Kitty Kitt,” “Looking for a Mustard Patch,” and “Baboon Boogie.” It all changed after that.
Q: Is there a music genre that you avoid?
A: Rock-n- roll. Period. Any of it. Hate it. Worse thing that happened to music. Hurt all types of music. They took blues and ruined it. It’s the cancer of music….ate into everything. Killed Country music, that’s for sure.
Q: A lot of people would claim the complete opposite. that Rock-n-Roll re invented and recharged music. What is it about rock-n-roll that annoys you so much?
A: Don’t like. Just my personal taste. Don’t like the sound of it, the meaning of it…doesn’t promote anything beautiful or meaningful. Idiotic noise, in my opinion.
Q: So artist like Miles Davis, John Coltrane don’t deserve your time?
A: Oh my god, you gotta be kidding me. None of that music moves me.
Q: Do you know what’s an MP3? Do you know that people can share songs today over the internet, download music for free, listen to it from their phones. what do you think of that?
A: A computer isn’t? I don’t have anything like that. Most of the music they’re getting for free ain’t worth a penny anyhow.
Q: A lot of young people are going back to vinyl records these days. they give up on digital music format and go back to this old beloved medium. what do you think is the reason to that?
A: It’s all about tone…It has a mild tone and is much more mellow than this new digital music, which I can’t stand to listen.
Q: How many albums in your collection? can you give a break down?
A: Let’s get this straight: they’re not “albums”…they’re singles. 78s. I’ve got a little over 15,000 records left these days. Blues, jazz, bluegrass…all types.
Q: you’re famous for your 78 RPM collection. can you tell us why do you concentrate in this medium?
A: Cause that’s where the music is…where else you gonna find it? The greatest music ever recorded was on 78s. My wife liked Bluegrass and so she had 45s and a lot of LPs. I have LPs; they’re alright…there’s a lot of good stuff on those. But the 78s contain the best stuff, a lot of which never made it to LPs.
Q: How do you organize your collection?
A: By sections and different music styles. But in terms of the overall organization of records, only I know where everything is.
Q: Tell me a useful record storage / shelving tip!
A: Well, of course, store them on the edge. Back in the day some people would stack ‘em. Use heavy jackets for 78s. In the early 1960s, I got the last thousand that this company Cohost had in their warehouse: box of 1000 paper jackets for $30. Still have a box of those down in my basement.
Q: What do you look for in a record?
A: I guess who’s on it, the music that’s on it, the rarity, the condition.
Q: What’s your partners’ reaction to this obsession?
A: My wife never paid much attention to it. She liked a lot of the stuff I had. Sure she’d ask me “Why you wasting your time on that? Going down there and buying all those records?” But in the end, she liked music.
Q: Name some golden grails from your collecting history.
A: Any of the Black Patties that I found over the years (12 of them). That label put out 55 titles but some of those are real stinkers. They made records in 1927 for seven months. That’s it. Sold by mail out of Richmond, Indiana. I also treasure my Charlie Patton records on Paramount and my pristine copy of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” on Okeh. Let’s see… Gitfiddle Jim’s “Paddlin Blues” on Victor – probably the nicest copy in existence. Jimmie Rodgers “Picture Disc #12” – that one came out on Victor after his death, a special issue for collectors.
Q: Tell more about that Robert Johnson album here. Why did you pick this one up? what’s so special about it? (on the title is: Test Pressing: Phonograph Blues)
A: Well I got in a collection back in the early 1960s. It’s what they call a “Shellac test.” The guy wanted $100 for the whole collection of singles– a lot of money in those times. At that time, Robert Johnson wasn’t very famous.
Q: How do you get your hands on these rarities?
A: Spent most of my life looking for records, knocking on doors, digging through junk shops, going into the hills.
Q: But why? what is it about those records that made you spend all your life running after them?
A: Music. Powerful music. Couldn’t get them nowheres else so went out looking for it. Spent my life learning about all types of music and digging deeper into the traditions of country blues, jazz, gospel. But now I’m getting up there in terms of age and am considering selling my whole collection. What good is it going to do me once I’m gone?
Q: Which album makes you wanna jump and dance?
A: That’s hard – lots of ‘em! “New Goofy Dust Rag” by Benny Motten in 1923 on Victor.
Q: Is there a specific musical instrument that attracts you when listening to music?
A: Slide guitar and banjo. Those are my favorites.
Q: Any instrument that you just can’t listen to??
A: Close up? Those damn drums. I hate them. They were ok in the 1920s ‘cause they were in the back ground. Then they brought them up in the mix. Horrible.
Q: Tell me about a dollar bin record you would never part with!
A: My Black Patti records – I paid $10 for the whole bag. Down near War, WV, way back up in the woods. I say near War because I found a record in that bunch that had a “War Pharmacy” sticker on it. That was in the 1970s.
Q: what about digging buddies? Do you share or you go solo?
A: I always had somebody to go along with. Somebody watch the car while I went up to knock on the doors. I had another guy who’d knock on doors with me and if he found anything, he’d holler for me. Oscar Morris, who played harmonica in my band Jolly Joe, used to go with me. He’s dead now.
Q: Tell me a particularly sad record story!
A: There’s one that still brings tears to my eyes. This was in the 1960s. We were driving north out of Bluefield, WV, and came to this real little town. The main street was no more than five feet wide but they had a few shops. There was an S.S. Kresge Five and Dime Store with the original sign from the 1920s so we parked the car up on the sidewalk and went in. You wouldn’t believe the mess! Broken records all over the floor. Apparently they’d pulled bunches of them off the shelves to throw away –when nobody cared about records anymore – and they dropped all types of records on the floor. I saw Robert Johnson and Carter Family records that probably had never been played cracked and scattered on the floor with people just walking all over them. But this guy at the only filling station gave me a tip. We then went into the hardware store across the street, and oh my God! This guy had all these records upstairs, dealer stock, and he’d stopped selling them during the depression and never got back into it. An entire floor of mostly unplayed 78s. Jesus, I must have gotten about 2000 really choice records from the guy. Paid him $100.
If it I hadn’t found that hardware store after the tragedy at that five and dime, I might-a gone out and committed suicide! (laughs)
Q: Tell me about a record you still regret not picking up?
A: I don’t have any.
Q: Who has the toughest record collection that you have ever seen?
A: There are several guys like me that have been around for 50+ years, like Rich Nevins in New York. Dave Freeman down in Virginia, too, though his collection is mostly country.
Q: What do you see happening to your collection after you leave the planet?
A: Auction it off and let the collectors enjoy it. I’ve seen collections go to libraries and colleges and the records just get stuffed into storage. Nobody ever looks at them, listens to them. It’s damn shame.
Q: Any words of advice to the young generation who’s getting into music and records?
A: Well, there’s nothing today coming out that worth’s anything. Kids are all brainwashed today listening to that electronic garbage. Sure there’s a few kids interested in the old music. And they’d have to pay a hell of a price to get into that music. These rare records disappear into collections and into black holes. Never see them again.
You can write Joe an email, and perhaps he’ll make you a mix tape of some of your favorite old time artist (just don’t mention Miles Davis :-))
Huge thanks to Marc Minsker who made the initial connection Joe and eventually co-wrote this feature.
Marc Minsker: When not working as an assistant principal at a high school outside of Washington, DC, Marc Minsker is collecting records, interviews, and research in preparation for his documentary-in-progress END OF AN EAR. His first documentary, JOHN FAHEY: THE LEGACY OF BLIND JOE DEATH, debuted at the Takoma Park Film Festival in 2010. He lives with his wife and two boys in Bethesda, MD.