It is distressing to be a libertarian who loves both history and Americana, if only because both are so often subsidized. There’s The Oxford American, all the amazing photographs that exist thanks to the WPA, the Library of Congress, PBS documentaries, NPR shows…. My fascination with radio, after getting just a taste of it summer before last, is furthering the problem, but I have felt it at least since I loathed Cosmo and loved The OA.
There’s no market, or not enough of one for historical stuff. One upon a time, when I was growing up, the History Channel may have prioritized Hitler, but at least they showed solid, Grandpa-from-Gilmore Girls-narrated documentaries about the events of World War II. Now, instead of moving Ancient Aliens, weird rumors about cyptids, and Aliens I Saw Just Now to, say, the Hilarious Bullshit Channel (HBC) where they might belong, they push history out entirely.
I hate to say “market failure,” and yet… There are still documentaries. Sirius radio and internet radio,, and, well, podcasts can help with the feeling that that medium is dominated by Top 40 robots, or that cozy, aspirational clique over at NPR. I haven’t given up entirely or anything.
There are many easy to mock tropes of public radio, but at the same time, their music is better, and the fact that they tell tales of weird is awesome. I dislike that PBS and NPR are subsidized. The smallness of their budgets is perfect for revealing Republicans as hypocrites when they rail against the subsidies while not going after defense or Medicare, or anything substantial. Yet, the smallness of their budget, and the heartiness with which the left clings to them betrays their own pettiness, and their own deluded distrust of anything left to the market or private sector.
Still, given the opportunity, I don’t know that I would go to hell if I worked for either. Maybe the first level. Maybe just purgatory. For principled purity, then, I have to object to their existence, and I suppose the Library of Congress. For practical reasons, it’s amazing that such a thing exists as a resource. For real-world compromise reasons, I would have to live to be 500 before I need worry about a treasure trove of subsidized knowledge. At the same time, when reading this 1999 Washington City paper piece about legendary 78s collector Joe Bussard, I was pleased when I hit this passage:
They have gathered to make some digital transfers of Bussard’s 78s for a Time-Life Music project on prewar blues. Since the advent of CDs, Bussard has been in great demand as companies such as Time-Life have reissued the old music. His collection has been tapped as much as any, especially by the Yazoo label (featuring the famous Black Pattie peacock), which has put out such acclaimed sets as The Roots of Rap and Jazz the World Forgot. Thanks to these sorts of reissue projects, the sounds of the ’20s and ’30s have never been more accessible to the average record buyer.
“The important thing about Joe Bussard is that he has disseminated the music more than anybody else on earth,” says Richard Nevins, head of Yazoo and its New Jersey-based parent company, Shanachie. “He has preserved and popularized the music more than anyone, and he’s done more for the music than anyone—all the institutions are bogus nonsense. They don’t do any good at all….The asshole Library of Congress refuses to tape 78s for people, not that they have anything worth taping anyway, but here’s Bussard: If the UPS driver comes to his house to deliver a package, he won’t let him out of there ’til he plays 78s for an hour for the guy. There are people in Australia who have tapes of his entire collection.”
Perhaps the Library of Congress isn’t as bad as all that. But at the same time, Bussard is a man who picked 78s over mutual human relationships. The fact that he has a wife at all is surprising. The fact that she is second fiddle — and knows it — to thousands of country blues, early jazz, and other records is not.
Bussard is hyper-individualistic. He’s a Randian hipster who disdains everything past the ’20s in terms of jazz. The descriptions of him as a pushy, desperate salvager of old records are not flattering. He did it because something clicked in his brain and he became obsessed. It might not make him the nicest person, but it made him a saver of history. And though it sounds like you come to his basement to listen, not to share anything you have to say, Bussard is still generous. He tapes for people. he shares what he has collected. He isn’t hording it all for the cultural apocalypse. I love that. I love that a crank can save music from turning into dust. No subsidies required, just a man with one consuming love.