Joe Bussard, who built a basement temple for music worshipers, dies at 86

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

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

Mr. Bussard, an enthusiastic talker and storyteller — as long as the subject was music — 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.”

That raw, unadulterated sound of early American music captivated him, and he spent the rest of his life searching for recordings made before mass production and an increasingly homogenized culture ruined music, in his view.

Over the decades, he took long drives through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, sometimes even farther 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 got to know exactly when to drive on by and when to stop,” he wrote in his entry in “The Encyclopedia of Collectibles,” a 1978 volume published by Time-Life Books. “I stopped if I saw a house with not too much paint on it, with old-fashioned latticework, maybe a stained-glass window in the door or a lace curtain. To me that house just hollered, ‘Old records! Come on in!’ ”

He remembered the adrenaline spike when he came across an especially rare and valuable recording, some of them 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 down to keep them from shaking.”

This year, Mr. Bussard said he had about 15,000 records remaining in his basement though he once had more than 20,000. The records filled every inch of the shelves he had built for them in the 1960s. They were kept in identical green paper sleeves and arranged in an order only he knew — and never divulged.

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

The quality of Mr. Bussard’s collection, which has been compared with the Library of Congress’s holdings of traditional American recorded music in terms of breadth and quality, astounded those who came in contact with it.

“It is one of the great glory holds, probably the finest in the world,” the late music researcher Tom Hoskins said in a 1999 Washington City paper story about the records Mr. Bussard had amassed. “He was canvassing earlier than most, and he’s been at it longer, and he took everything: He recognized stuff that he really didn’t even like at the time, but he recognized it as being good, and he kept it.”

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

Joseph Edward Bussard Jr. was born in Frederick, Md., on July 11, 1936, to a family that owned a farm supply company. He dropped out of Frederick High School during his junior year, worked for the family business, clerked in a supermarket and held other short-lived jobs that allowed him time to spend untold hours collecting music. He also spent eight years in the National Guard before that, too, interfered with his fixation.

As a child, he told the Baltimore Sun, he had loved Gene Autry westerns and country recordings but felt even then “something wasn’t quite right, like there ought to be something more.” He said an epiphany came around 1948, when he heard Rodgers and instantly felt a lightning-bolt connection, a feeling of authenticity in a world that had seemed to settle for the artificial.

At first, he was mostly interested in country songs recorded in the 1920s and ’30s, but his tastes expanded to include early jazz, blues and gospel performers who recorded for Gennett, Vocalion, OKeh and any number of now-obscure labels. In a West Virginia coal town, he found what he called “the rarest of all county blues records,” “The Original Stack O’Lee Blues” made by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull for the short-lived Black Patti label in 1927.

A savior of abandoned American music contemplates his collection

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

When rap came up, he pointed to something he felt superior: the Beale Street Sheiks’ 1920s blues recording of “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 had his own label, Fonotone, recording musicians at his home, including the influential guitarist and composer John Fahey.

Featured in documentaries, books and countless articles, the often-cantankerous Mr. Bussard was never happier than when he had guests in his basement and could astonish them with music they may not have ever had a chance to hear.

His daughter estimated that at least 150 people a year spent time with Mr. Bussard at 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 them and what year they were released.

A few years ago, Jack White, the lead singer and guitarist of the White Stripes, spent an afternoon with Mr. Bussard listening to old records — and listening to Mr. Bussard talk about them. He remembered Mr. Bussard pulling out a jazz record, playing it on a modern turntable, and claiming it would sound as if the band were playing live in the basement.

“I was like, okay, whatever, eye roll, and then damn, if he wasn’t right,” White told The Post. “Thirty seconds into this song, l was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What is this? Who recorded this? What is the speaker we’re listening to this through? What amplifier 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 gorgeous thing he did for me.”

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

Survivors include his daughter, of Frederick, and three granddaughters.

Anderson says she hasn’t decided yet what to do with the recordings. For now she plans to leave them be.

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

For his part, Mr. Bussard wasn’t particular about the ultimate fate of the records other than that he didn’t want them to go to a university or library where he thought they would just collect dust.

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

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