A young Joe Bussard in his basement, surrounded by vintage 78s.
Courtesy of Dust-to-Digital

Joe Bussard, renowned as the world’s leading collector of jazz, blues, bluegrass, country and folk recordings from the early 20th century has passed away at the age of 86. His archive of between 15,000 and 25,000 records, primarily 78 rpm discs, is a preservation of music so rare, it’s importance will live on well beyond his passing.

As well as collecting music made in the past, from 1956 until 1970, Bussard ran the last 78 rpm record label, Fonotone, which was dedicated to the release of new recordings of old-time music. He was a regular radio show host on Georgia’s WREK Atlanta and was famous for his generosity and love of sharing music. He would allow people tours of his basement where his collection was housed, and would even tape music for people for a nominal fee, as it was surely the only place they would have access to these long forgotten artifacts.

Joe Bussard – Image: Eilon Paz & Dust & Grooves

In 2003, Bussard was the subject of a documentary called Desperate Man Blues, the film capturing his essence and excitement for finding and collecting records, many of which are the only remaining copies in existence. He also released several compilations including Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s and Joe Bussard Presents: The Year of Jubilo — 78 rpm Recordings of Songs from the Civil War and Fonotone Records: Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969) — the latter five-CD set, beautifully housed in a cigar box, was nominated for best boxed or special limited edition package at the 2006 Grammys.

His renowned fever for collecting legendarily trumped that of even his most hardcore peers who sometimes had to distance themselves from Bussard, lest they too be completely consumed. His music came first – above his wife, friends and family, but Bussard was a man with a mission to preserve and share the music he loved so much, and now that he has passed, I dare say The Smithsonian or a similar institution will want to protect his life’s legacy – the last of it’s kind.

Lastly, I highly recommend reading this article from the Washington City Paper which gives a fly on the wall look at Bussard’s mindset and approach when scouting the deep south and other areas of the USA for his beloved shellac treasures.