We Paid a Visit to Fonotone Records Founder Joe Bussard, the First Guy Ever to Record John Fahey

We Paid a Visit to Fonotone Records Founder Joe Bussard, the First Guy Ever to Record John Fahey

To get to the records, you gotta get downstairs. Follow Jolly Joe inside through the side-door, watch him feed his cats in the bedroom, totter around all the used pots and pans on the kitchen floor, hop over the heaps of piled-up laundry, and finally creak down the wooden steps to the locked basement room where thousands of old 78rpm records line the walls. Jolly Joe’s keys jangle as he puts them back in his jeans pocket. He cocks his head and smiles with his eyebrows, like he’s saying, "You’ve made it now." Then he pulls Peg Leg Howell’s “Beaver Slide Rag” from the shelf, shouting, “Take a look at this shit! 1927 on Columbia Records.” He sidles up next to you and stuffs a record in your face that’s so clean you can see yourself looking in it. “This’ll make the piss run down the side of your leg,” he yells, sliding the record onto the turntable and wiping it down with a cloth on the first spin.

Jolly Joe is Joe Bussard, whose collection of American blues, country, cajun, ragtime and jazz 78rpm records is one of the most complete and noteworthy in the world. Any favorite you can think of, Joe’s got it and then some. I made my first trip to Joe’s basement in Frederick, Maryland in late March, with a friend who’d gone down a few times before. Before heading downstairs, though, Joe hopped in our car and lead us to the best cheeseburger place in town. “You like the Carter Family?” he asked me between bites of his burger at lunch. “I got every record they ever made.” He’s the only one in the world who can say that.

Born in Frederick, Maryland in 1936, Bussard started collecting records when he was seventeen. Every weekend, he’d drive through the South, going from town to town and door to door, asking people if they had any old records they wanted to trade him. Often those at the center of town would send him deep into the backroads, where people old enough to know about Charley Patton and The Skillet Lickers might be living. In his basement, Joe will often tell you the story of exactly when and how he found each record. It’s strange to imagine a twenty-year-old kid driving alone all night through Virginia just to ask some old folks if he could flip through crates of records they’d long since stashed away in the attic. But Bussard did exactly that-- in the right place, at the right time. Since most people were transitioning from 78s to 45s and 33s in the late ‘50s, Bussard could often buy hundreds of records per weekend for pocket change. During the week, he’d listen obsessively in his basement, figuring out what “sent the pee down [his] leg” and what was so scratchy it sounded like “marbles falling down a drainpipe.” What he liked he’d keep for his collection, which today numbers somewhere around 20,000 records. Bussard would sell the scratchy records on the cheap out of his basement or at the radio stations where he worked. The records that remain in the basement today are the product of over sixty years of this process, and are therefore often the best preserved copies known in the world.

In 1956, Joe decided to start recording his friends from Frederick playing old-time jug band music and press 78s himself. The resulting label, Fonotone, would release hundreds of records over the next thirteen years. Bussard sang and played slide guitar and banjo on many Fonotone releases, including several as the frontman of Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, the source of his nickname. In 1959, a twenty-year-old named John Fahey made the trip down from Takoma Park, Maryland to hear some of Joe’s records. He brought a guitar with him, and Bussard suggested that he record for Fonotone. The records from this session, released under the fake name Blind Thomas, are Fahey’s first recordings. Bussard would record Fahey at least once a year for the next four years. When I asked Bussard about Fahey, he laughed. “We had a lot of fun,” he said, and then leaned over the edge of his chair, squinting his eyes and slurring his words to do his best Fahey impression: “Farrrrr out mannnnn. Farrr outttt.”

Bussard’s claim that he was the first guy to ever record the great Blind Joe Death is of particular interest to those keeping tabs on the current “American Primitive” revival, a term Fahey used to describe his music. Atlanta-based label Dust-to-Digital has released multi-disc box sets of the complete Fonotone recordings as well as a box set devoted solely to Fahey’s recordings on the label. The Fahey anthology has received more acclaim and notice than the Fonotone set, perhaps because of a growing interest in Fahey’s particular influence on a new generation of guitarists and experimental musicians. It's no secret that throughout the last decade, and especially in the last year or two, there’s been a growing group of fingerstyle guitar players making waves in experimental music circles. From Jack Rose and Glenn Jones to AdHoc favorites like Chris Forsyth and Steve Gunn, so-called "Fahey-esque" music is increasingly (and satisfyingly) visible. The Fahey Fonotone anthology, which was compiled by Jones and Bussard, includes in its liner notes a black-and-white photo of Bussard, Jones, and the now-late Jack Rose standing outside Bussard’s house in Frederick, presumably after a long session in the basement. All of this works to cement the link between Bussard and contemporary underground guitar music through their mutual friend John Fahey. Downstairs, Bussard played me two cuts from Sam McGee, a virtuosic guitarist who loved open tunings. Recorded in 1926, the songs, “Knoxville Blues” and “Buck Dancer’s Choice” were both subject to near note-for-note covers by Fahey and Rose at different points in their careers. Sitting downstairs listening to McGee, I had to wonder if Bussard had played the same records for Rose and Fahey and blown both of their minds five decades apart. Later, when Bussard asked me if I wanted to fool around on his old Martin guitar, the one Fahey had recorded with, it was hard not to feel a kind of magic hovering above the strings.

Perhaps because Fahey created such a mysterious persona for himself, often recording under fake names and creating exhaustive, parody-esque fictional biographies for them, it’s impossible not to notice the major shadow he casts over Bussard’s legacy, not to mention the landscape of a particular kind of underground music. Still, Fahey’s name is thrown around rather lazily and inconsistently these days-- a kind of catch-all term for anything that sounds too weird and too American to be called anything else. To name every kind of release that involves fingerpicking guitars in strange tunings “Fahey-esque” casts a blind eye on the thousands of records sitting in Bussard’s basement in Maryland as well the wide influence contemporary “American Primitive” guitarists exert on one other. Also, on albums like The Voice of The Turtle, Fahey himself went so far as to slap his own name on original recordings of old 78s. In its transference from 78rpm to 33rpm, “Bottleneck Blues” by Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley from 1927 becomes “Bottleneck Blues” by Blind Joe Death from 1968. Fahey himself called the album “a hoax,” and the copied recordings recall the often satirical, modernist liner notes that appear on some of the early releases he put out on his own label, Takoma. Whether Fahey was attempting to comment on stolen artistic inspiration or merely trying to have a laugh is beside the point, although most likely, he was up to a little bit of both. What matters is that Fahey consistently worked to make any clear description or understanding of his art nearly impossible. When a critic today refers to a new release as “Fahey-esque,” they are using a term that the guitarist himself often warped to mean almost anything or nothing at all.

Down in his basement, Bussard gets his kicks pointing out the sound of a dog barking at the end The Dixon Brothers’ “Sales Tax on The Women,” or how a frustrated guitarist yells “shit” at the end of The Carter Brothers’ “Old Joe Bone.” He’s obsessed by the humanness of the records-- the sounds of foot stomping on “Sales Tax on the Women,” of hillbilly yodels mixing with black gospel on “Wayward Girl Blues”-- and the kinds of revelations that can only come from years of playing the same old music over and over again. Perhaps Bussard’s most common comment after playing a record (besides “Oh my god!”) is something like, “Holy shit, could they get such an amazing sound for two guitars and a fiddle.” After a few hours of listening to records in the basement, the smallest differences in the way a fiddler bows a note start to become apparent. My friend who’s visited Bussard a few more times than me told me that he thinks Bussard decides what record to play next based on the faces and noises you make while listening to the music. A wince and a “woahhh” on a Frank Hutchison tune might lead to Lottie Kimbrough; a hunched over head-shake on a Riley Puckett one might mean some Sylvester Weaver’s up next. If your tongue ever pops out, it’s time for jug bands and jazz. Just like this, a whole day and night can pass downstairs, with the music flowing seamlessly from cajun to blues rags, hillbilly string bands to hot jazz. Intonations, plucking patterns, and rhythms all become intensely magnified. So do the sounds of church choirs recording across the hallway, or record executives yelling “Go!” at the beginning of a take. The sense is not that you are visiting an old scratchy world of traditional songs, but that bodies are swinging, thumbs are picking, and voices are shouting just a few feet in front of you-- that it’s all happening right now.

Bussard’s hatred of rock & roll and any kind of jazz recorded after 1933 is something he’ll unfailingly bring up at some point. This complicates the line between Bussard and a contemporary underground world that often borrows as much from Black Flag as it does from the Carter Family. Still, in many ways, it might be impossible to imagine things like SST or K Records or Drag City existing without Fonotone or, later, Fahey’s Takoma. Those two older labels established a tradition that punk and “indie” labels carried on-- an attempt to record and release local or regional sounds and styles in a cheap but also uniquely expressive manner. In Byron Coley’s famous profile of Fahey in Spin, he quotes Dr. Demento’s claim that Fahey is the “original underground musician.” It’s equally important to say, then, that Fonotone is the original underground label. At a time in the mid-1950s, when country music had fully transitioned into an over-produced, commercialized “Nashville Sound,” and Folkways Records wrote reverent and scholarly histories of rediscovered “folk” musicians, Bussard almost single-handedly created a new third way, which didn’t follow any current commercial trends but also didn’t heave nostalgia and scholarship on a bygone era.

Instead, Bussard recorded the world of local musicians around him-- anything and everything he thought sounded cool. He set up a mic in his basement, pressed 78s for 10 cents a copy, and sold them for a buck. Fonotone’s method of recording cheaply and spontaneously (Bussard says most musicians just knocked on his front door), but onto a recording medium that carried with it an entire vocabulary and history, hints at the balance most underground labels try to strike between the practical and the utopian. Musically, the label was also the first to create its own new and contemporary style by reclaiming the methods of the past. The underlying message of Fonotone records is the argument that the otherworldly sounds of Leo Soileau, or Sam McGee, or Charley Patton come, after all, from people—often one or two of them recording in one take into one mic—and that other people ought to try and make some of those sounds themselves. When John Fahey becomes Blind Thomas, Joe Bussard fronts up Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, or Mike Seeger transforms into Birmingham Bill, they create new identities that both place them in an imagined past but also push them towards a more human, subtle and personal type of performance.

For Bussard, the magic of recording on 78s is the way the needles cut immediately into the grooves of the wax. There’s a direct translation of live performance to recorded sound that you can watch happen right in front of you, right from your own basement. Once copied and pressed, the record collector can then spend years on end listening for sounds of dogs barking or trying to make out the words of the song. Bussard is always discovering new sounds on old records.

I’m not sure Joe would think of Fonotone as the “original” underground label, or that Fonotone is opposed to any of the earlier, commercial labels. At the end of the day, Okeh, Vocallion, and Columbia are all fine by him. In fact, according to Joe, the music on those labels is so good it could make you “crapola on your victrola.” For Joe, records are filled with a living kind of history, and 78s made in hotel rooms and basements are sure to be more life-like, more personal than most. Current underground music that is forward-thinking and uniquely expressive but also versed in the techniques and ideas of the past owes a lot to Bussard’s model, and the next time you read a review of a new release with the phrase “Fahey-esque” tacked on, you could do yourself a favor by reading “Bussard-esque” instead-- all the while imagining a man in a basement in Maryland spinning that record over and over again all night long with his tongue hanging out.

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