Joe Bussard's Frederick basement holds a whole era of swinging American music

December 29, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- Once you descend the stairs with Joe Bussard you're trapped.

You're a prisoner of the 1920s and 30s, detained not by steel bars but by Mr. Bussard's raging exuberance and his stunning collection of 78-rpm records of traditional American music -- country, Cajun, early swing, gospel, the blues.

"Joe has the greatest collection in the world -- far away and hands down," in the opinion of Richard Nevins, a fellow collector and president of Shanachie Records in Newton, N.J. Its Yazoo label specializes in early American rural music.

Mr. Bussard, 56, owns about 25,000 78-rpm records, not to mention 1,000 45s, 2,000 LPs, 30 to 40 Edison cylinders of music from 1898 to 1928, and the tie Hank Williams Sr. supposedly was wearing on the night he died.

A lifelong resident of Frederick, Mr. Bussard, silver-haired, unshaven, wearing jeans and house slippers, escorts a visitor into his basement and closes the door. He lights the first of an endless string of Dutch Masters cigars and says with the urgency of an exclamation point: "Now you're going to hear what Duke sounded like when Duke was the Duke."

He plops Duke Ellington's "Misty Mornin'" on the turntable. Suddenly the clarinets, the trumpet, the upright bass of the 1928 recording blow out of Mr. Bussard's incredible speaker and sweep back your hair.

"Too loud?" he says.

He doesn't hear your reply. He shakes his legs, throws back his head, closes his eyes, opens his mouth, wags his tongue and he's lost, gone, floating on the ceiling.

"You talk about feeling, man," he says. "This is it! It doesn't get any better than this. And it's there, right in that old wax, buddy!"

Mr. Bussard has collected that old wax since he was a boy. He liked the hillbilly music he heard on the radio, especially Jimmie Rodgers -- "the greatest singer that ever lived, no doubt about it," he says.

But Jimmie Rodgers died at age 35 in 1933, and this was about 1948. The 12-year-old Joe Bussard couldn't find Jimmie Rodgers' records in stores.

So he boldly went door-to-door around Frederick, asking: "Got any Jimmie Rodgers' records?"

He started driving at 16 and motored around Frederick County and eventually into West Virginia, Virginia, the Carolinas, knocking on doors, asking: "Got any old records?"

He worked at an electric company, an A&P, his father's farm-supply store, and he joined the National Guard. But every spare minute he chased down records.

"I'd come back with 400, 500, 600 records sometimes," he says. "People would always tell me: 'We just got a TV set. We don't listen to that old Victrola anymore.' "

Mr. Bussard got the records cheap and sometimes free. He had no idea that they'd become valuable, or that he'd become the greatest chronicler of 1920s and 30s American music. He just liked the songs.

"He was the earliest of anybody collecting these records," says Mr. Nevins, the record-company president. "He's just done it with a fury, a vengeance all these years.

"This guy has been the No. 1 force, depository, library, archives ,, in the world for traditional American music. The Library of Congress has nothing. There's no collection in the Smithsonian. One or two colleges have great collections, but Joe blows those collections away."

What's more important, he says, is that Mr. Bussard has always shared the music with anyone willing to listen.

When he was 15 Mr. Bussard built a radio station, WCRT, in his house -- a control room, three turntables, an antenna in the yard on two poles. He even sold advertising.

"Every chance we got we were on the air," he says. "Played nothing but hillbilly music. We covered Frederick like a blanket."

After about eight years, he says, two FCC officials came in and shut him down -- reluctantly. They had been listening for months and enjoying the music, he says.

From 1958 to 1970, he ran his own record company, Fonotone, recording old-time string music, bluegrass and the blues in a studio at his house. He also played guitar, mandolin and banjo in his own band; he was Jolly Joe in the Jolly Joe String Band.

Since 1959 he has taped a radio show for WELD in Fisher, W.Va. He also tapes shows for three other stations, two in North Carolina and one in Thurmont, WTHU, 1450 AM.

He records old country music on cassette tapes in his basement and sends them off every week. He also transfers music from his 78s onto cassettes for sale around the world.

(For his jazz and blues catalog, or his country catalog, send $1 to Joe Bussard, 6610 Cherry Hill Dr., Frederick, Md., 21702. His tapes are $7 and $9, including postage.)

But don't expect to find songs by B. B. King or Garth Brooks. As xTC far as Mr. Bussard is concerned, jazz died in 1934 and gave way to big bands playing swing. The blues died shortly thereafter, and country faded out about 1955.

"Anything's better than now," he says, referring to modern music. "It's like wind blowing through a hollow log."

He especially loathes rock 'n' roll.

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