Vess L. Ossman

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Because I want to have a conversation about Vess L. Ossman.

I made a CD compilation, here is the blurb about it I put up on my blog:

Trailblazing artists are usually better-remembered than Vess L. Ossman. The first musician to make a ragtime record, the ‘King of the Banjo’, and one of the biggest names of the Edwardian era, Sylvester’s reputation suffered three blows in the post-WW1 era – his genre was superseded by a more inventive one, his reign as the ‘King of the Banjo’ was cut short by the rapid rise of a rival, and most importantly perhaps, his instrument fell out of fashion, except in bluegrass music, where it was played in a very different way.

Vess was born in Hudson, New York in 1868, and spent the entirity of his adult life as a professional musician, recording for 25 years, and touring America and further afield for more than 30. His final recordings were made in 1917, but he continued to tour with his son, Vess L. Ossman Jr., until his death from an on-stage heart attack in 1923 at the age of 55.

Vess L. Ossman was the first musician I felt I’d “discovered” in my research – a bit of an arrogant framing, I’m afraid. In his lifetime Vess achieved international fame and recorded plenty of good music, much of it of great historical importance, but the ragtime banjo now seems like it should be an obscure footnote. it isn’t. With this compilation I hope to do a little to spread awareness of his legacy.

You can download the CD here - all recordings are way out of copyright.

Poll Results

OptionVotes
Maple Leaf Rag (1907) 3
A Coon Band Contest (1901) 1
A Bunch of Rags (1898) 1
The Old Folks at Home (1900) 1
Fun in a Barber Shop (1908) 0
Smiler Rag (1908) 0
Moon Winks (1909) 0
Cocoanut Dance (1895) 0
The Moose (1910) 0
Universal Fox Trot (1915) 0
The Buffalo Rag (1906) 0
Medley Little Bit of Everything (1906) 0
St Louis Rag (1905) 0
The Drake's Awakening (1904) 0
Marriage Bells (1904) 0
Razzle Dazzle (1903) 0
Darkie's Awakening (1902) 0
Whistling Rufus (1899) 0
Little Bit of Everything (1899) 0
Merry Whirl (1916) 0


mfktz (Camaraderie at Arms Length), Sunday, 17 February 2019 22:42 (three months ago) Permalink

Thank you for giving us three weeks. I’m gonna take my time with this one.

Mr. Snrub, Sunday, 17 February 2019 22:57 (three months ago) Permalink

thanks for this! ossman is the earliest recording artist i feel like i can genuinely say i'm a fan of but i haven't heard a huge amount of his recordings, so i'm looking forward to absorbing this comp. it seems to me that a lot of these early recordings is based on what survives and in what quality - "a bunch of rags", even though it's 1898, sounds fantastic, his "space guitar" if you will. his take on "the old folks at home" is really great, that particular tune is a little overdone but i like how he does it and it's interesting to hear him accompanied by piano. in contrast his "maple leaf rag" seems to fall a little short.

the percussive effects on "the drakes awakening" (uh, that word probably isn't "drakes", is it?) are nice, i don't know what that is. that 56 second recording is really strange - i guess it's an incomplete recording? fades weren't something that existed back then, were they? one can hear why rerecordings were so popular in those days just by the difference in sound quality between the 1899 and 1906 versions of "little bit of everything". more cool percussion on "fun in a barbershop". arrangement on "smiler rag" is pretty good, the backing sounds like it's supporting ossman rather than competing with him like it does on the earlier recordings

interesting hearing him attempt to adapt with the times on the later recordings, doing foxtrots and whatnot. not necessarily good, but interesting; the incessant spike jones-style interjections on "universal fox trot" don't really improve things to my ears.

really weird to me that his rival, fred van eps, went on to record with, like, benny goodman and red norvo. that's a long career!

anyway there are a number of good options here but i think i am gonna have to go with "a bunch of rags", such a great jam, wouldn't blame anyone if they went "old folks at home" or one of the others though!

the scientology of mountains (rushomancy), Sunday, 17 February 2019 23:55 (three months ago) Permalink

uh, that word probably isn't "drakes", is it?

Yes, transcription error I have chosen to retain because there is more than enough racism in the song titles already. As you can hear the song titles are announced on the record prior to 1910.

that 56 second recording is really strange - i guess it's an incomplete recording? fades weren't something that existed back then, were they?

I faded this one as the cylinder has been severely damaged from 0.56 onwards

one can hear why rerecordings were so popular in those days

Yeah, but don't forget that for the earliest recordings here they didn't have cylinder reproduction technology up and ready, so every cylinder was still a master copy. Then for a while after that there was significant loss of quality when they made a copy. Only from around 1905 was the duplication technique really satisfactory

really weird to me that his rival, fred van eps, went on to record with, like, benny goodman and red norvo. that's a long career!

He even recorded an LP in the 1950s! The banjo somehow not becoming an important instrument in jazz is another long story of course.

mfktz (Camaraderie at Arms Length), Monday, 18 February 2019 10:11 (three months ago) Permalink

As you can hear the song titles are announced on the record prior to 1910.

i actually had a question about that since it seems like it was done pretty inconsistently. was that just an edison thing? there's an early columbia recording with the title announced so i figure ossman recorded for a couple different companies but aside from that one edison records seems to be the only one announcing the titles. i guess it could also be the recordings being edited to remove the slate - i don't know if that happens or not

The banjo somehow not becoming an important instrument in jazz is another long story of course.

it makes more sense to me than the wholesale disappearance of the cornet! maybe it's just familiarity bias but i do feel like the guitar has appealing qualities to it that the banjo, which is more of a percussive instrument, doesn't. it is pretty weird to think that at the time charlie christian was around the guitar was just as much a novelty instrument as the vibraphone, though!

the scientology of mountains (rushomancy), Monday, 18 February 2019 14:19 (three months ago) Permalink

i actually had a question about that since it seems like it was done pretty inconsistently. was that just an edison thing? there's an early columbia recording with the title announced so i figure ossman recorded for a couple different companies but aside from that one edison records seems to be the only one announcing the titles. i guess it could also be the recordings being edited to remove the slate - i don't know if that happens or not

The main split was between cylinders (which had very little room for writing) and records (which had the label of course) - cylinders stop having introductions very suddenly in 1910, records have been phasing them out for quite a while by then. And yes, they tend to get cut off by compilers, luckily I sourced most of these from the UCSB cylinder archive, which is generally very professional and standardised.

Think banjo has less room for swerve/slurred notes than the guitar or cornet (which as far as I know was pretty much killed off by Louis Armstrong?) - but Vess seems determined to demonstrate otherwise in several of these recordings.

mfktz (Camaraderie at Arms Length), Monday, 18 February 2019 15:06 (three months ago) Permalink

three weeks pass...

OK I have taken my time and am going with “The Old Folks At Home.” The sixteeenth-triplets are o_O.

Mr. Snrub, Tuesday, 12 March 2019 11:45 (two months ago) Permalink

won't pretend I know what sixteenth-triplets are, but yeah, that performance is wild.

mfktz (Camaraderie at Arms Length), Wednesday, 13 March 2019 14:01 (two months ago) Permalink

Automatic thread bump. This poll is closing tomorrow.

System, Saturday, 16 March 2019 00:01 (two months ago) Permalink

Automatic thread bump. This poll's results are now in.

System, Sunday, 17 March 2019 00:01 (two months ago) Permalink


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