Until not too long ago, before computers and samplers changed the way people make music, the dominant instrument of popular music was the guitar. In some circles, it still is. But 'twas not always so. Back at the turn of the century, when you wound up the Victrola in your front parlour to hear the latest tunes, what you'd most likely be listening to was not the guitar, but the dominant instrument of pop circa 1900: the banjo.
The banjo was not really more popular than the guitar with musicians at the time, but it had the edge when it came to recording. The loud, plucked strings over the drum of the banjo's body carried a lot more sound to an acoustic recording horn than most guitars of the day. Musicians who wanted a big, strong sound on their records knew that the banjo would do the trick. And nobody in the early recording industry knew this better, and exploited it more effectively, than Vess L. Ossman.
Vess Ossman, born Sylvester Louis Ossman in Hudson, New York in 1868, was nicknamed "The Banjo King" for good reason. In the early years of the recording industry, from about 1890 to 1910, he made and sold more records than any other banjoist of the day, and even more than some of the most popular vocalists. He was also almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing what was then called "Rag Time" music; he would transcribe the most popular piano rags of the day for his banjo, which could be heard more clearly on acoustic recordings than the instrument they were written for.
Ragtime, for those not familiar, was an early form of syncopated dance music that started in New Orleans and St. Louis in the 1890s. Its name refers not to old pieces of used cloth, but to "ragged time," or the feeling produced when musicians transformed a traditional march rhythm by introducing more complex African rhythms. The star of the genre was Scott Joplin, whose "Maple Leaf Rag" was THE hit of 1899. Vess Ossman, though, was the guy who really sold ragtime to the public on phonograph records.
Ossman recorded his first cylinder as far back as 1893. He was one of Columbia Records' first stars, recording loads of songs between 1896 and 1899. Around 1897, however, when recording for the Berliner company, he made the record that was perhaps the first to reference ragtime music: "Rag Time Medley." Many more rags would follow, especially once Ossman joined up with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1900. His many records from around this time included major hits like "Cocoanut Dance," "Keep Off the Grass," "Whistling Rufus," and "Dixie Medley."
Although it could be argued that Vess Ossman was a very enlightened individual for bringing ragtime, a largely black style of music, to the public at large, it also can't be denied that many of the songs he recorded were informed by blackface minstrelsy, in which the banjo was heavily featured. Several of Ossman's hit records bear the mark of this tradition. Titles like "A Coon Band Contest" and "All Coons Look Alike to Me" are unsavory to us today to say the least, and somewhat ironic, considering the origins of the banjo as an African-American instrument. Fortunately, the majority of Ossma's songs are instrumentals, so much of the ethnic humor that mars other records from this same period is absent.
Today's post features a medley that Ossman recorded in 1912, about five years before ragtime as a style would start to be overwhelmed by the new strain of "jass" music. Ossman's banjo is crisp and clear, and his brisk, hardy style gives you some idea why other musicians nicknamed him "Plunks." His rolls on the strings about half way through are pretty terrific, and he even winds it up with "Auld Lang Syne."
Ossman toured the world with his banjo and recorded tons of records along the way. He took a break in 1913-14, and while he was not recording, a young upstart named Fred Van Eps came along with a flashier style. The New Breed had arrived. With the coming of jazz and the death of ragtime, Ossman was a man out of his element, and he recorded his last record in 1917. He still played out, though, all the way up until his death of a heart attack in 1942 at age 55.
(written by Joe McGasko)
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