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Thursday, September 28, 2023


Film shows beauty of music often overlooked

Despite the film cliche of a rotating record seen from above, watching one spin at the now unfamiliar rate of 78 rpm is a stirring image at the start of a movie.

It’s exciting because it’s vaguely familiar but only recognizable as a format that died out roughly 50 years ago to be locked in attics or tossed out with the junk.

Only a handful of collectors keep the format alive, and the most well-known and avid of these is Joe Bussard, the owner of basement-operated Fonotone Records in Maryland and the focus of the film Desperate Man Blues.

After swearing off rock ‘n’ roll and insulting it at every opportunity, Bussard started collecting bluegrass, folk, blues, jazz and other old-time 78s around the age of 16, roughly 47 years ago. His collection is now considered one of the most refined, and, even though it ranges into the tens of thousands, boasts quality and condition over quantity.

Bussard isn’t considered a hobbyist; his records are his life, and his love for music has guided him into occupations that surround it. Playing in bands, working for his own and other radio stations, converting rare and unheard records to tape (and now digital formats) have been his sources of income to fuel his passion – and his obsession.

But Desperate Man Blues isn’t only a documentary about Joe Bussard. It’s a look at a forgotten genre and a love for making music. It’s also about forgotten people and a forgotten American history. His searches for records across the country have led him to back roads and mountain trails, to homes without electricity, plumbing or addresses. Almost no one knows that people live there until Bussard knocks on their door to see if he can buy their records.

Later, Bussard explains that music changed in the early 1930s and almost completely for the worse. Bluegrass was almost entirely made up of families, which led to perfect harmonies and very precise, very "tight" musicianship among band members. The film places a portion of the blame on the Depression, also suggesting that the blues transformed into Depression songs and the genre of jazz completely ended.

He treats this observation with a sort of bittersweet nostalgia. When asked by a reporter to "tell me about your impressions of music today," Bussard replies, "There is no music today. Rock is the cancer of music, and it ate into everything."

The film also shifts into collections of archival footage of early musicians such as Son House, Uncle Dave Macon and Charley Patton, as well as some incredible film reels of poor communities dancing in the street to a performer’s guitar. The music in the film and in these times obviously had a sentimental and important role in the lives of its makers and listeners, and Bussard proves his point that music was more important to everyone back then.

The almost complete absence of commercialism, singles, marketing, MTV and MySpace forces you to recognize the genuine voice amidst the quiet hiss and pops of the records.

Whether or not you agree with his heavy-handed bias isn’t important, and the haunting and beautiful history of American music can’t be ignored. With almost an hour and a half of extra scenes, featurettes, photo galleries, performances and an eight-page booklet, the DVD release of Desperate Man Blues is the perfect starting point – and supplement – for anyone interested in American music as it started and as it continues.

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