A happy Banjo Friday to you!
Today we wrap up our monthly series on Vess Ossman, the “classic style” banjoist who made some of the first ragtime recordings & also some of the first banjo recordings. As far as I can determine, Ossman’s earliest recordings date to 1897, when he recorded “The Smiler” & Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever.” In fact today’s recording, “Ragtime Skedaddle” (with piano accompaniment to Ossman’s banjo) dates to 1899.
Recordings at that time were made on cylinders—the disc record was still several years away. The cylinders were first made of wax, but later were made of celluloid, & were marketed as “indestructible.” Fortunately, a number of them proved to be, & there are organizations like the Cylinder Preservation Project (link here to their home page, & here to their Facebook page), which are making an effort to preserve the actual cylinders & digitize the music they hold. There are a number of recordings on the Project’s website, all free to listen to (obviously, all this music falls in the public domain.)
In referring you to the site, I probably should note that a fair number of music titles from this era, including several recorded by Ossman himself, contain offensive racial epithets. Sadly, the banjo has always had a fraught history in this country in terms of its symbology as an instrument that began with black/African origins & was co-opted by white/European culture.
It’s a deep subject, & one that would require more space than I have here to treat. Those who are interested in reading more about the banjo’s social history in the U.S. really should check out the fine Picturing the Banjo, which I reviewed on the blog some time ago.
In the meantime, this is delightful music, & I hope you enjoy it! Back next month with a new series.
The photo of Vess Ossman links to its source on violafair.com. It appears to be a still of Ossman from an early film. In any case, since Ossman died in 1923, any photographic image of him must of necessity be in the public domain.