This historically important artist was part of a group of performers who made the first recordings of so-called ragtime music. He began recording in the early 1890s and was the dominant banjoist in the minds of the new record-buying public for at least a decade after that. His nickname "The Banjo King" was well-earned, and he continued recording through World War I. Although the widespread popularity of the composer Scott Joplin has led to a natural association between ragtime and the piano, in actuality, this instrument was extremely difficult to record properly with the equipment available in the early 1900s. As a result, many of these early ragtime performances were recordings of marching bands, vocalists, accordion, even xylophone and whistling, and, of course, the banjo, an instrument that records particularly well. Whistling but especially banjo was where Vess Ossman bested the rest and due to the efforts of the ragtime-mad label Archeaophone, many of these early discs can actually be appreciated via digital listening technology. The recordings by this artist that have been reissued by this company tend to be either solos or duets, but Ossman also worked in other contexts. He was involved in a series of recordings featuring various permutations of Vess Ossman's Banjo Orchestra for the Gennett label, cutting provocative titles such as "Paddle-Addle Fox Trot" or "Go To It Fox Trot." But actually, as far as provocative titles go, some of Ossman's might be a bit too much for more modern times. Despite the language used in their own recordings, it is hard to imagine black rap artists of the 21st century approving too highly of Ossman numbers such as "A Coon Band Contest," originally recorded in 1901, "Darkies Awakening," cut during the heavy social consciousness of 1904, or the worst one of all, "All Coons Look Alike to Me." President Theodore Roosevelt must have enjoyed Ossman's outlook, as legend has it that he invited the banjoist to perform at the White House several times. This remains in the realm of legend, however, because the Ossman presence at the White House is not something that the White House Historical Society has been able to confirm.
He was born Sylvester Ossman, and whether or not he actually made good friends with Roosevelt as the story goes, he positively did go to England and perform for the king. At the point when he received this honor, it would have been hard to determine exactly how many public performances he had already given, but the number would be high. Prior to the invention of the first recording technology, songs were sold by sheet music only, and Ossman was part of a group of popular performers who promoted these tunes and themselves by wandering around the countryside playing for public gatherings. The repertoire he built up allowed him the ability to record hundreds if not thousands of songs on cylinders and 78 discs once such a thing was possible. He was also part of a touring troupe of performers who had appeared on these early recordings. The troupe was organized by the singer Henry Burr, who apparently made even more records than Ossman. The banjoist's importance in the development of ragtime is not the only historical aspect of this recording career. He also was the first artist to record for the Victor label and has been credited as the first to record a piece by John Philip Sousa, "The Washington Post March," to be precise. But neither he nor Fred Van Eps were the first banjoists to ever record, as is sometimes reported. That honor belongs to a woman, Carrie Cochrane of Buffalo, NY, who beat them to the punch, or rather the frail, by recording some 1889 tests for Thomas A. Edison. But it is Ossman, not Cochrane, that made the list of the 100 great "Songs of the Century," compiled in 2000 by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Ossman places number 70 with his recording of "Yankee Doodle," right between W.C. Handy and "St. Louis Blues" and the Mamas and Papas and "California Dreamin'." ~ Eugene Chadbourne