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Presenting Beauty to the World
Remembering Joe Bussard, July 11, 1936 - September 26, 2022.
In an issue of Down Beat Magazine from 1957, Duke Ellington was quoted saying that he was not interested in educating people. This statement inspired Sun Ra to write the following response:
“It is really incredible that Duke Ellington should say ‘I DON'T WANT TO EDUCATE PEOPLE.’ My aim is to educate as many people as I can so far as the appreciation and enjoyment of good jazz music is concerned. The jazz leaders of today must prepare the way for the jazz of tomorrow. We must live for the future of the music.
Many musicians think that most people are destined to be musically ignorant, but I know that there is a spark in every person which will respond and glow to the touch of beauty. Because I know this, I am going to continue presenting beauty to the world until I ignite that spark in people's hearts.” — Sun Ra, 1957
Although Joe Bussard believed that the era of great jazz music had passed by the time Sun Ra wrote this, I feel that Joe would wholeheartedly agree that he too was on a mission to present beauty to the world — in some capacity as a musician, but primarily as a record collector and a sharer of the rare sounds he spent his life saving.
I first encountered Joe while I was working as a radio DJ at Georgia State University. It was 1998, and I had taken over a roots music show from a friend who was graduating. Armed with just the Anthology of American Folk Music in the beginning, I set out to build my collection and the station’s library. I could find blues, country, and jazz, but the one genre I had difficulty locating reissues for was gospel, so one day I decided to go straight to the source. Inspired by a line that I consistently saw in the credits of reissues: “Original 78s courtesy of Joe Bussard,” I tracked down a phone number for a Joe Bussard in Frederick, Maryland and gave him a call.
That first conversation I had with Joe lasted more than two hours. I think maybe I got in ten sentences. Immediately, I could tell that Joe went beyond the role of what I thought a collector would serve and was acting more as a proselytizer for the music he loved and was driven to preserve.
I began receiving cassette tapes of gospel music from Joe in the mail. The bubble mailers smelled so strongly of cigar smoke that I learned in order to prevent my apartment from reeking of cigars I needed to carry the mailers outside and place them directly into the dumpster as soon as I opened them. As for the tapes, I would eagerly listen to them with headphones. The recordings I heard often made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My listening sessions would be followed by phone discussions with Joe. He would tell me about the artists, the recording sessions, the record labels that released the music on 78s in the 1920s and ‘30s, and in what small town he had found the record usually on his canvassing trips in the 1960s.
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Many of these cassettes found their way onto my Sunday morning radio shows, and they also inspired me to think about listeners beyond the area of the station’s broadcast reach. I believed everyone should be able to hear these recordings, so I began to conceptualize a reissue project of rare, pre-WWII gospel recordings. I told Joe about my idea, and he responded with enthusiasm telling me that he would be happy to take whatever records I wanted to re-release to his friend Jack Towers in Washington, DC for a high-resolution transfer.
This was the beginning of a series of enthusiastic responses from Joe that would define mine and his relationship for the next two decades. In 2004, when I proposed creating a box set featuring the recordings he had made on his own 78-RPM record label Fonotone Records, including a separate box set of just the John Fahey sides, he said let’s do both. The next year, when I suggested taking his Country Classics radio show onto Georgia Tech’s radio station and also making it a podcast, he said he would send us new shows every week. In 2012, when I asked if he would be willing for us to set up equipment in his basement for what likely would be several years to digitize his entire record collection for our non-profit Music Memory, he said yes.
Thinking about Joe’s life, I return to Sun Ra’s quote about his mission: “to present beauty to the world until I ignite that spark in people's hearts.” In many ways, that was Joe, channeling his passion for the music he loved to ignite the spark in others. Through his assistance on hundreds of reissues, his Country Classics radio show that ran in some areas for more than 50 years, his participation in having his collection digitized, and his open-door policy for anyone who wanted to experience his record collection in person, Joe strived to pass on the spark that the music had created inside him at such a young age and that burned so brightly until the very end.