If someone offered you $30,000 for just one out of the 20,000-plus records in your collection, would you sell it? Not Joe Bussard. If you aren’t familiar with the name, let me introduce you. Joe was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1936. He dedicated his life to collecting and preserving 78 rpm records. His collection began at the age of seven or eight with Gene Autry records, then Jimmie Rodgers 78s, and it grew from there into an astounding library of thousands upon thousands of old shellac discs. Joe had a love affair with the jazz and blues music of the 1920s and early 1930s. He was as opinionated as it gets. He said that whatever they called “jazz” wasn’t jazz after 1933. Joe loved old country music, but felt that no good country music was made after 1955. He called Nashville “Trashville,” and thought rock and roll music was a cancer.
Joe’s method of collecting consisted primarily of simply driving around and going door to door asking people if they had any old records that they didn’t want anymore. Labor intensive? You bet, but he hit the jackpot time and time again. Once he got his driver’s license, he started combing much of Virginia and West Virginia. In one weekend, he could come home with 400 to 500 discs.
Joe Bussard was not just a record collector. He played bottleneck guitar and also hosted radio shows featuring songs from his collection. When he was in his teens, he broadcast a local show from his basement until some suits from the FCC showed up. While reluctantly admitting that they enjoyed his programming, they had to shut his operation down. He went on to work with local licensed stations, taping his shows from the basement archive that housed a complete broadcast studio along with his collection.
In addition to radio, Joe founded a record label, Fonotone, in 1956 that was the last commercial label to issue new recordings in the 78 RPM format. He recorded local musicians and made limited pressing runs, all without contracts, distribution deals, or (probably) profit. One of the artists whom Joe recorded was a young John Fahey.
Joe was probably born a collector. Young Joe collected birds’ nests, of all things. He was a prankster as well. His interest in electronics led him to make a portable television jammer, and he would drive around until he saw someone through a window watching TV in their home. He would activate the jammer, only to turn it off as the annoyed viewer got to the set to try to adjust it. Of course, he didn’t just stop there – he made the hapless victim get up from the chair multiple times.
In 2002, Old Hat Records released a compilation CD of some of his rarities entitled Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926 – 1937. It can be heard in its entirety on YouTube.
Joe was the subject of the 2003 documentary Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music. Scenes of him listening to some of his favorites depict a man whose joy is unbridled and infectious. Seeing Joe smoking a cigar and rocking out to old blues and jazz discs can’t help but make one smile. He’s got a story for every acquisition shown in the film. So encyclopedic is his knowledge of early American recordings and music that it’s easy to get the impression that he could sing along and tell you something interesting and obscure about each and every one of his 78s. You also get to go along with Joe on numerous expeditions in search of rarities, and there is an abundance of archival imagery.
The documentary is not available on streaming services but it is rentable as a DVD from Netflix, and a copy is available from alibris.com at the time of this writing. One of the extras on the DVD is a shorter, but equally fascinating documentary called Joe Bussard: King of the Record Collectors. It is now viewable on YouTube at the link below. Although there is another YouTube entry showing a Warner Bros. logo, purporting to be the full version, do not click on it! You will be trapped watching some young woman with an inflated sense of self-importance.
Another DVD extra that can be found on YouTube is footage of Joe demonstrating his cleaning method for 78s, which involves dishwashing liquid and a shoe brush!
Here is a 20-minute interview with Joe by Otis Gibbs.
This video gives you a nearly complete view of Joe’s amazing basement.
There are many more entries about him on YouTube. I think you’ll find that time spent with Joe is rewarding.
Oh, and that $30,000 record? It was “Original Stack O’Lee Blues,” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull on the Black Patti label, one of the titles featured in that Old Hat compilation. Joe found it by sheer happenstance (once again) while on his way to a flea market to search for records. He stopped to ask a local for directions, and together they drove toward the market. Joe was playing tapes of music from his collection and he asked the man if he had any old records. He said there was a box under his bed and Joe was welcome to take a look. They went to his home, and after looking through a few of the incredibly dusty platters, Joe found his Holy Grail. He believed it to be the only copy in existence.
Joe Bussard passed away at the age of 86 on September 26, 2022. He said he wanted that Black Patti record to be buried with him. We may never know if that final wish was granted.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mminsker.
One comment on “A Most Dedicated Record Collector”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Interesting article Rich.
I’m not quite as old as Joe was, but closer than most readers here. When I was a youngster my dad had a collection of ’30s and ’40s jazz 78s. So no surprise that one Christmas I got a 78 album by Gene Autry. That included four records with eight of his best-known songs. I loved it.
So I started out similarly to Joe, but it ended for me after a couple more 78 albums. By the time I became a teenager, rock and roll emerged and I started collecting 45s. Then by high school it was LPs, but with what became a much wider range of music. Now just a few years ago I moved 2/3rds of the way across country to again live close to family. By then I had accumulated over 3,000 LPs which would be too much to move. Besides, was I ever going to listen to them all again? No chance. So I selected out about 1,000 of my “favorites” to bring with me and sold the others to a local dealer. Wonder what became of Joe’s collection?