The Story of a Man and His 78 rpm Record Collection Is the Story of a Soul Lost in Music

The Washington PostGetty Images

We have an old, cobwebby feature here in the shebeen called Stuff I Like. It’s fallen out of circulation because there’s been so little to like in the past eight years or so. But the Washington Post ran a story over the weekend that fairly hollered for the feature’s revival. It was the story of a man and his obsession with 78 rpm records, and his campaign to save all the music produced in, as Van Morrison once put it, the days before rock and roll:

Since the early 1950s, Bussard (“Everybody thinks it’s pronounced ‘buzzard,’ but it’s Boosard,” he says) has been acquiring 78 rpm recordings of the earliest and rarest examples of blues, bluegrass, jazz, country and gospel music. The collection of discs he has amassed is considered by many fellow collectors as one of the finest and most eclectic of early American roots music in the country. In the basement of his unassuming home, some 15,000 records fill the shelves.

This is the music of a changing age, of the surrender of the yeoman farmer to the factory worker. It is the music that Alan Lomax and Harry Smith chased through the cotton fields and the hollers and the mountain passes. It is the music of what critic Grail Marcus memorably called “the old, weird America.” I was introduced to it when my friend Milo Miles, the terrific music critic with whom I worked long ago, made me a cassette tape of some of the Harry Smith anthology. But even Smith was a piker compared to Joe Bussard.

But in recent years, as Bussard has gotten older, the fans and musicologists have had questions. Is there a plan for the collection? Has he even thought about it? Looking for a record on the shelves in his lair, Bussard doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk right now. “Aw hell, I don’t know,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. He’d rather play some music for a visitor. “Oh my gawd, listen to this,” he says in his thick rural Maryland accent as he gently lowers the needle on a 1929 recording “Wolves Howling” by the Stripling Brothers. “This is the most beautiful sound of a fiddle I have ever heard in my life.”

There’s more than a touch of melancholy to the story because Bussard is getting along and has made no plans for his massive collection after his death. He is adamantly against handing it to a museum or a library, including the Library of Congress.

His temper rises, though, when asked whether he would donate them to the Library of Congress or a university. “Now why in the hell would I do that?” Bussard says. “If I give ’em to a university, you know what they’d do? Throw ’em in the basement Nobody ever sees them again. It’s like a black hole. ”
Having these records quieted is a fate worse than death. And selling the collection while he is alive has never been on the table. “I like to say I’ll enjoy them until I croak,” Bussard says. “Then whatever they do with them is fine.”

This is the soul of a human being lost in art. As it happens, Bussard works part-time as a DJ at two radio stations — one in Knoxville and the other in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. Not that it’s any of my business, but I think he could do a lot worse than to make sure they end up in places like that, where he could be sure the music got played, and the history contained in the grooves lives on and on , as history is supposed to.

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