Where the music lives

A Frederick man has a treasure trove of American recordings of the '20s and '30s

June 05, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

FREDERICK - Joe Bussard yearns for the music made before he was born 71 years ago. So every day he clomps down to his basement and into a hidden world hopping with the music that carries him off to foggy mountain hollows and smoky juke joints. New Orleans-style jazz. String band crooning. Old-time jug band tunes. Cajun fiddling. Soulful blues.

He might be the product of the rock 'n' roll era, but Bussard long ago thumbed his nose at just about everything recorded after Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration. Instead, he has devoted his life to reaching way back for the sounds of the 1920s and '30s that still launch him into dreamy reveries.

The other day, as the needle floated to the end of a jazz track from 1931, Bussard shouted with joy in his faint twang.

"Aww, man! After hearing that, who wants to hear anything today? It's just so incredible. ... The world doesn't know what they're missing."

Bussard knows full well what the world is missing: some of the finest early jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun and country around. And one of the world's biggest and best collections sits right here in his wood-paneled basement, a trove of 78-rpm records worth millions tucked inside an ordinary brick rancher in Frederick.

Over the decades, Bussard has scoured West Virginia coal towns, Baltimore junk shops and everything in between, nabbing his share of one-of-a-kinds and amassing a vast haul of 25,000 old 78s. Age may have etched a few grooves into his face and sent his eyebrows on an improvisational riff, but the music brings him a childish delight.

So does his quest to spread the gift of good music as an antidote to the many modern scourges he perceives, starting with the entire oeuvre of rock 'n' roll.

"He's assembled a massive collection, but his other passion is sharing and turning people on to the music he has loved for so long," said Lance Ledbetter, who runs Dust-to-Digital, a reissue label in Atlanta. He relied on Bussard for three-fourths of the 160 songs on Goodbye, Babylon, a critically acclaimed 2003 gospel box set.

Bussard tapes weekly shows for radio stations in West Virginia and three Southern states. For $1 a song, he'll dub any track onto a cassette, shrugging off the possible legal infringement. He has put tracks onto CDs, including five jazz discs that go for $15 apiece. And he invites music lovers to descend his cellar steps for an unforgettable listening experience.

"I think if he's sustaining this great and wonderful rare collection, that's a great role - playing it on the radio, making it accessible," said Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. DeAnna applauds everything but the legally iffy retail sideline.

(Various state laws restrict unauthorized copying of recordings for commercial use, though experts doubt that record companies would go after someone like Bussard, given the minimal money at stake.)

Bussard has a fair bit of music that neither the Library of Congress nor anyone else has, and more rarities than most collectors. There is no central repository of American sound recordings, and over time even big labels lost or tossed some of the masters used to reissue recordings on CDs. That makes Bussard and fellow collectors unofficial guardians of part of the nation's musical legacy.

He boasts that his collection includes the only known record featuring the 1929 country toe-tapper "Way Down in North Carolina," by the Grayson County Railsplitters; one of three examples of "Outside Woman Blues," recorded by Blind Joe Reynolds in 1929; and a never-issued test recording of Frank Stokes' 1927 rendition of "Jumping on the Hill."

His most prized gem has to be the world's only known copy of "Stack O' Lee Blues," released in 1927 by the Black Patti label. A high-profile blues collector named John Tefteller openly covets it. "That's a significant blues piece; of course I'd like to have it," he said.

But Bussard has told him he turned down $30,000 for it, and Tefteller's frustration was evident over the phone from his home in Oregon. "You can say, 'I'll pay more,' but it doesn't seem to make any difference to him, because he doesn't want to sell."

And so that 10-inch shellacked black disc stays in Bussard's basement, hidden in the shelves that extend 18 feet across and rise 6 feet toward the ceiling. The catalog exists only in the collector's head, the better to thwart would-be thieves. The only nod to climate control is a dehumidifier.

One recent morning in his basement, Bussard suddenly took on the look of a madman. He flung his arms wide, splaying both hands like matching stop signs. His eyes darted this way and that. He stuck out his tongue.

It was his signal that real fun lay just ahead.

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