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
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 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
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
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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