DOWN IN THE BASEMENT
Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926-1937
Old Hat RCD-1004
Reviewed by Matt Wellins / Dusted Magazine / September 19, 2003
The past five to six years have seen a palpable resurgence in older American music. It’s easy to see the appeal– contemporary music shares a good number of thematic ground with the dug-up graveyard of early American recordings. Fears of overwhelming and misused technology, convoluted academics, unemployment, shitty minimum wage jobs (making the retail sales clerk analogous to the steel mill worker and shoemaker) and feelings of existential angst are all included. These have all been elements of our national identity for quite some time now, and strangely enough, in the past 10 or 20 years, fringe music and fringe music culture seems to cling to this identity more than anyone else. Considering that folk revival of the 1960s, one could maybe assume that counterculture, once again, has made patron saints of these older artists simply on the basis of a perceived outsiderism, a projected sense of rebelliousness and purity that undermines the reality of these performers’ lives, or the reality of the American experience, whatever that is.
So, this resurgence is partially accredited to John Fahey’s return to the fringe culture limelight. Starting in the mid-’90s, Fahey sent a mammoth, mythologizing missive to Americans in the form of Revenant Records, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, a book with consistent references to the golden strange days of Jimmie Rodgers, Bukka White, and Skip James, and of course, reissues and releases in his unfathomably diverse catalog, probing the dichotomy between folk music and the commercial sheen of volkmusik And of course, there’s also Greil Marcus, R. Crumb, and the Coen Brothers floating in and out of the public eye in an even wider sense. Labels and bands have since popped up, gracing the music of the ’20s and ’30s with better liner notes and better packaging, more and more from the vantage point of the armchair anthropologist/record collector/rock critic.
Maybe that’s why listening is partially an issue of dubious marketing campaigns. The listener is forced to ask him or herself a line of questions. After all, wasn’t Dean Blackwood the one really in charge of Revenant records? Who made the “Old, Weird America” into a slogan to sell the “New, Weird America”? What is really occurring here? What is the difference between an archivist and record fetishist? Who do we think we are, having such a close relationship with this music? What is this romantic old world we’re longing for? Are we choosing to ignore the slavery and miserable poverty?
The record up for discussion here is Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926-1937, an absolutely phenomenal, nearly Smithsonian-worthy anthology of old tunes. Adorned with Joe Bussard’s grinning face, this release on Old Hat records includes a 72-page booklet chock full of record-collecting stories. Where many releases would romanticize the artists, their murderous and consumptive impulses, their inconsolable voices, their antediluvian and peculiar, regional ways of life, Down in the Basement is simply about finding great 78s, in large quantities, and how they resonate as the crowning achievements of Bussard’s life. There the brief reminder that Bussard recorded and released Fahey’s first album, but where this fact would be presented front and center in a Screaming and Hollering-style documentation, we are left primarily with stories of canvassing neighborhoods for records. It’s strange, but somehow less suspect– there is the unspoken bond of record collecting, the almost shameful voracious appetite for records, the endless envy, and the maddening expense. Canned Heat, Bussard tells us, paid for his swimming pool.
With American music, we are being sold versions of ourselves. That is what differentiates this music from the colorful and occasionally anthropologically imprecise (though none-the-less beautiful) reissues on Nonesuch Explorer—Americans look to this music for a definition of themselves. More accurately, perhaps, we come to this music with an idea already in our head about how we were, and how we are, and bend the music to our will. What makes Fahey’s work and Harry Smith’s Anthology so special is that they’ve managed to bend the music to the point where they are part of the tradition; they become part of the arcane and unknowable romantic world, without losing a sense of their own modernity. Bussard is not a character in that regard. He’s surprisingly straightforward – here is a man who loves music and collects it, here are some selections he’s picked out, and since so much of it is so severely obscure, it hasn’t been spoken for yet. Not to mention, if you have heard it, it’s come directly from his famous collection of 78s, which serve as the primary materials for any number of reissue projects.
Down in the Basement gives the listener a chance to discover this music on a very undiluted level. It’s an unmarked tape passed on from a friend, a blindfolded introduction to the sheer eclecticism of older American music, ranging from jazz the likes of which you’ve never heard, to disparate strains of the neither/nor of gospel/blues or to the indecipherable dialect of Cajun music. There is even a recording that was never officially released, a message from the past that could only be viewed in the light of the present. Another recording is the only known copy in the world. There is a sense of getting this music directly from the source, or at least as close to the source as you can get.
Granted, it’s not all from the depths of obscurity. Gene Autry, Uncle Dave Macon, and Blind Blake all appear, among a few other more-or-less well-known names, yet everything fits gorgeously, and the record as a whole is an intimate experience, one that feels virtually first-hand. Unlike some of the other projects Bussard assisted, this release by Old Hat isn’t selling you the artists, they’re selling you the form of music as a whole. This is “24 rare gems from the king of record collectors,” as it says on the cover– that’s it. Often, this sort of older music is explained as a kind of feverish fantasy, filled with never-ending possibility and variation, like a Krazy Kat comic strip. Those looking to start their own folk mythology, to start exploring their own aberrations, could start here.