Joe Bussard, Obsessive Collector of Rare Records, Dies at 86

Joe Bussard, who made it his life’s obsession to collect rare 78 r.p.m. records — some 15,000 of them, encompassing jazz, blues, country, jug band and gospel — and who spread his love for the music on radio and among visitors who joined him to listen to the fragile disks in his basement, died on Monday at his home in Frederick, Md., one floor above his hoard. He was 86.

His death, in hospice care, was confirmed by his daughter, Susannah Anderson. She said the cause was pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in 2019.

“He basically lived the songs, breathed the songs and passed them on to as many people as he could,” John Tefteller, a rare-records dealer and auctioneer, said in a phone interview. “It was his life from morning to night. I consider him a national treasure.”

And any fan of his treasures could come to his house and listen to his 78s.

“Anybody who got ahold of him, he’d say, ‘Come on over,’” Ms. Anderson said.

From his home near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mr. Bussard (pronounced boo-SARD) drove the country roads of the South seeking 78s that had been languishing in people’s homes. He was selective about what he brought back to his basement. He loved jazz but detested any jazz recorded after the early 1930s. He loved country music but decreed that nothing good came after 1955. Nashville? He called it “Trashville.” Rock ’n’ roll? A cancer.

“How can you listen to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw when you’ve listened to Jelly Roll Morton?” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2001. “It’s like coming out of a mansion and living in a chicken coop.”

One day, in the 1960s, Mr. Bussard was driving the streets of Tazwell, a small town in Virginia — the kind of place he often canvassed door to door, asking people if they had 78s — when he met an old man who said he had some 78s at the shotgun shack where he lived.

From a dusty box under the man’s bed, Mr. Bussard found some good country records (Uncle Dave Macon, the Carter family) and then the sort of mind-blowing discoveries he craved: a 78 on the Black Patti label, which recorded jazz, blues and spirituals in the late 1920s.

“‘Oh my Gahhd!’” he recalled thinking in the liner notes to his CD “Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s” (2002). “It was all I could do to keep my hands from trembling.”

“So I laid it down, you know, and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice,” he continued. “The old man says, ‘Oh, them, there’s a lot of them in there.’”

There were 15 Black Patti records, and the old man, who didn’t care for them, asked for $10 for the bunch. Years later, Mr. Bussard said, he was offered $30,000 for one of them, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull. He didn’t sell it.

“When I leave this world,” he added, “I think I’m gonna have that record laying on top of me in my coffin.”

Mr. Bussard with an early record by the country music star Jimmie Rodgers, a particular favorite.Credit…Ted Anthony/Associated Press

Mr. Bussard built his life around his records. After working in a supermarket and in his family’s farm supply business, he held no regular job after the late 1950s. He was supported by his wife, Esther (Keith) Bussard, a hairdresser, and his parents.

“It’s like my mom and I were in one world, he was in another,” Susannah Anderson said in a phone interview. “It was hard. He was like an absent father, even though he was in the house.”

In a profile of Mr. Bussard in Washington City Paper in 1999, his wife was quoted as saying that if she had not been a “born-again, spirit-filled Christian, who the day I married him made a commitment to God,” she “would have left long ago.”

But, she added, she loved music as well (she blared bluegrass records in another part of the house while her husband blared his music from the basement), respected his collection and appreciated that he was “saving it for history.”

Mr. Bussard found kinship in people like Ivy Sheppard, a disc jockey and 78 collector with whom he recorded radio programs for several stations including WAMU in Washington and WBCM in Bristol, Va., all built mostly around his rare records but also including some of hers. He recorded shows for a variety of stations over more than 40 years.

Ms. Sheppard recalled that she and Mr. Bussard often talked for hours on the phone while listening to records. She described visiting his basement as “the greatest experience in the world.”

She added, “I’m lost in this world without that crazy old man. He was my best friend.”

Joseph Edward Bussard Jr. was born in Frederick on July 11, 1936. His father ran a farm supply business, and his mother, Viola (Culler) Bussard, was a homemaker.

When he was 7 or 8, Joe began stocking up on records by Gene Autry, the star of western movies who was known as “the Singing Cowboy”; within a few years he heard the country singer Jimmie Rodgers and was smitten. When he couldn’t find any of Rodgers’s records at a local store, he began hunting for them, knocking on local doors until a woman gave him a box that contained two of Rodgers’s 78s.

As a teenager, he began hosting a local radio show from his parents’ basement. When he got his driver’s license, he expanded his search for the records he loved — the 78s made of hard, brittle shellac resin, the format that preceded vinyl — while canvassing in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

It became an obsession, one that delighted him and made him dance and play air sax, air guitar and air banjo in his basement. (He also played the guitar and mandolin.)

He made one last trip a month ago, to a flea market in Emmittsburg, Md., in search of 78s, but didn’t find any.

“He had a lot of record hunting left in him,” Ms. Anderson said, adding that there were no plans, for now, to move the collection.

Mr. Bussard in his basement in 1965. He not only collected 78s; he also built a studio there to make his own.Credit…Joe Bussard Collection

Mr. Bussard not only collected 78s; he also built a basement studio in his parents’ house in the 1950s to make his own. Under his Fonotone label, he recorded artists like the Possum Holler Boys, a country and rockabilly band, and the Tennessee Mess Arounders, a blues group (he was a member of both), as well as the influential fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey. (He later moved his collection and his studio to the house he shared with his wife and daughter.)

A five-CD collection containing 131 of Mr. Bussard’s 78s, “Fonotone Records: Frederick Maryland (1956-1969),” was released in 2005 by Dust-to-Digital and nominated for a Grammy Award for best boxed or special limited-edition package.

In 2003, Mr. Bussard was the subject of a documentary, “Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music,” directed by Edward Gillan.

In addition to Ms. Anderson, he is survived by three granddaughters. His wife died in 1999.

Once, in a little coal town in southwest Virginia, Mr. Bussard asked a gas station attendant where he could find records and was told to go to a nearby hardware store. When he got there, the owner guided him to a cache of 5,000 records, which had never been played.

“The first one I pulled out was ‘Sobbin’ Blues,’ by King Oliver on Okeh, absolutely new, at least a $400 record,” he excitedly recalled in the Washington City Paper interview, referring to a record label founded in 1918. “The next one I pulled out was ‘Jackass Blues’ on Vocalion by the Dixie Syncopators.” He picked out four stacks of 78s and paid $100.

“I was so high when I went out of that store,” he said, “I could have floated.”

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