I’ve got a few good stories to tell, since spending the summer of 2009 in Washington, DC, working with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the Folklife Festival at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (See future posts on all things Smithsonian!).
One of my favorite DC area adventures was visiting legendary record collector, Joe Bussard, at his home in Frederick, MD. Now, some of you might remember that we screened the Dust-to-Digital film about Joe and his incredible collection of 78 rpm records, “Desperate Man Blues” (2006), in the Spring of 2008 as part of the FESA Film Series. I bought this film before seeing it, because I was so captivated by this charismatic man, and his story. It turned out to be a fine purchase, indeed.
During the Folklife Festival, I got to speaking with Rinzler archivist Jeff Place about Joe and he said I should just call him up and see if he’d like to host a group of us for a little while. I thought the whole thing was too good to be true, but I called him up anyway and after sort of quizzing me on my familiarity with early American music, he said he’d be glad to host a small group of Folkways interns. (I probably just answered Jelly Roll Morton to everything).
Joe Bussard’s record collection holds original and rare copies of some of the most historically significant music in America - music that is not in the Rinzler Archives at Folkways, or housed at the Library of Congress. Bussard dropped out of school as a teenager and simply started driving around, knocking on doors in the South, seeing what rare 78 rpm records he could find. Record collecting quickly became more than a hobby for him. Since Bussard first starting collecting, he’s shared his unbelievable findings (and impressive familiarity with the music and its time) with the record collecting community. One can hear some of these rarities by tuning in to his weekly radio show Country Classics on Atlanta’s WREK, and through his limited-release box sets on his own Fonotone Records. By collecting, preserving, and sharing these rarities he has done us (Americans, music fans, historians, musicians, folklorists, archivists, the list goes on) quite the service, and I am so thankful to him for that.
Joe’s collection of about 30,000 78 rpm records consists primarily of American folk, gospel, blues, and jazz, from the 1920s to the 1930s.
Joe’s most endearing quality was his sheer enthusiasm and rhapsody whilst listening and sharing his records. I think he probably played the mouth trumpet more than a few times. Whenever I tried to capture his music moves he’d take them down a notch (understandably). This video is the closest I got:
A typical pre-listening narrative with a bit of a tour of his collection. Here he pulls a Roanoke Jug Band 78:
Next, Joe had no qualms about spinning us the record that put him in the history books – the #8030 Black Patti, “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues” by the Down Home Boys. Worth about $50,000 if I remember correctly. It was found near Tazewell, Virginia, “under a bed in a box with three feet of dust, it was one of 15 Black Pattis in mint condition and it turns out to be the only known copy of the recording” (Fonotone).
Here’s Joe spinning us the Black Patti. It’s probably one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard in a long while:
Then, Joe told us some more stories and played us some records on his incredible Victrola.
Finally, I convinced him to play us some music. Do check out his one-time band, Two Black Jacks. Here he plays his guitar with a screwdriver:
Finally, we headed to Bussard’s favorite spot, Barbara Fritchie’s Candy Cane Diner. He says he likes it so much because they don’t play “terrible music on some jukebox” (in fact they don’t play any music at all).
A week or so later, I received the custom tape I commissioned from Joe.
He asked me what I wanted on it, and I told him “Surprise me”.
FESA Secretary, Fall 2009
More pictures can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosehips/sets/72157622233080843/
A few more videos can be seen here: http://vimeo.com/album/126383