Seeing Joe Bussard in a motion picture—on one of those newfangled DVDs, no less—is an odd anachronism. Like those TV commercials where grizzled Vikings go out searching for 21st century day jobs, only funnier. Much funnier.
Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music follows the story of this music lover, based in Frederick, Maryland, who has spent the last 50-plus years amassing the nation's foremost private collection of 78 rpm records. He has over 25,000 of them, neatly filed in his basement. This isn't just a hobby; it's his way of life, his mission. "I would say that about 70–80 percent of the records I have collected would have been destroyed if I hadn't got them when I did," he says.
Bussard began collecting records when he became obsessed with Jimmie Rodgers as a kid. Unlike most vinyl junkies, though, he doesn't spend his time digging through used record bins or bidding on eBay auctions. In the film, Bussard shows Australian filmmaker Edward Gillan and his crew his technique: Following up on tips, he climbs in his truck, drives to remote locations in deepest rural America, knocks on doors, and asks, "Do you have any old records?"
Blues, gospel, hillbilly, jazz, and bluegrass... these are Bussard's specialties. "America's real music," he says. In his estimation, the best stuff was made in the '20s and '30s. Back then, players from every geographical region had their own distinctive style. Traveling hours by jalopy to play a Saturday-night barn dance was a big deal; now musicians send digital sound files all around the globe at the click of a button. Efficient? Yes. But it doesn't make for nearly as many good stories, or one-of-a-kind performances.
The DVD edition of Desperate Man Blues, issued by the archivists at Dust-to-Digital, makes some welcome concessions to modern media. It includes not only the original 2003 documentary, but also 40 minutes of additional footage, a full-length performance of Son House singing "Death Letter Blues," and a new short that goes into greater details about Joe's life. The latter extra is particularly entertaining, as it features tales of Bussard's adventures while running the last 78 label in the country, Fonotone, and operating a pirate radio station out of his house as a teen.
And the music? Impeccable. Whenever Bussard drops the needle on a shellac platter, he bops and dances and rattles off anecdotes. Fortunately, Dust-to-Digital has also issued a companion soundtrack, featuring 19 tracks by Blind Willie McTell, the Carter Family, Charley Patton, Uncle Dave Macon, and many more. Any able-bodied soul who doesn't spring into a jig upon hearing the giddy string-band hoedown "Indian War Whoop" deserves to have their legs chopped off.
Bussard comes across as a cantankerous cuss; he dismisses rock as a "cancer." But roots-music devotees owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and thanks to the DVD of Desperate Man Blues, now you can welcome Joe into your home any time... without fear of him sneering at your Uncle Tupelo albums.