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Joe Bussard, the collector who preserved early American recordings, has died at 86

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

Joe Bussard, the record collector and American roots music historian, died Monday. Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, confirmed the death to NPR through Bussard's daughter Susannah Anderson. Bussard had been battling pancreatic cancer for almost three years. He was 86.

Bussard was born July 11, 1936, in Frederick, Md. From an early age, his passion was preservation. He sought out obscure 78-rpm records that otherwise would have disappeared: jazz, blues, bluegrass, country and folk recordings from the early 20th century — the history of America, pressed to shellac. In time, he amassed thousands of records all stored in his basement, none of them in any order except the one in his noggin.

But Bussard didn't just collect old records, he made new ones. As a teen, he started Fonotone, a label that released 78s when no one else was, and focused on hillbilly, bluegrass and fingerstyle guitar music being made at the time, including some of celebrated guitarist John Fahey's earliest recordings. From 1956 to 1969, Fonotone documented what Mike McGonigal called "a different (and rarely seen) side to the folk revival, one originating less in the academic or protest sectors, and more from the collectors' perspective." In 2005, Bussard worked with Ledbetter to compile the label's catalog as Fonotone Records: Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969) — the five-CD set, beautifully housed in a cigar box, was nominated for best boxed or special limited edition package at the 2006 Grammys.

Bussard's personal collection has also yielded 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, compilations that transport the listener to another place and time. But more than anything, Bussard just loved to share the music. "If I start playing records, I don't want to stop," Bussard told NPR's Steve Inskeep in 2003. That generosity bore out in several radio shows he hosted across AM and FM dials, but especially at his home in Maryland.

"He loved people," Ledbetter tells NPR. "He loved to connect people through music. He was a fountain of knowledge, but he loved to share." Even as late as this year, fans visited Bussard's basement to hear records from his collection — "that meant a lot to him," Ledbetter adds. You can see that giddy excitement in the 2003 documentary Desperate Man Blues, but even more recently in a short video posted by reporter Joe Heim, when, after placing the needle on a beloved record, Bussard's eyes just sparkle.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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