Vess Ossman

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Vess Ossman with banjo

Vess Ossman (August 21, 1868 – December 7, 1923) was a leading 5-string banjoist and popular recording artist of the early 20th century.


Sylvester Louis Ossman was born in Hudson, New York, and made his first recordings in 1893. He became one of the most recorded musicians of his day, recording marches, cakewalks, rags, and other instrumentals. He also accompanied popular singers including Arthur Collins and Len Spencer.

Ossman married Eunice Smith and they had three children, Vess Jr., Raymond, and Annadele.[1]

In 1900 and 1903, when Ossman's reputation and fame had spread internationally, he went on tour, as well as recorded, in England. Together with Audley Dudley and Roy Butin, he performed in the Ossman-Dudley Trio.[2] He also led his own dance band, the Ossman's Singing and Playing Orchestra, in Dayton, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. The increasing popularity of his rival Fred Van Eps, after 1910, made Ossman's name appear less frequently in record companies supplements. He temporarily ceased recording in 1913 but resumed his recording career in late 1915. In April 1917, he became a member of the Popular Talking Machine Artists; a group of unrelated artists who toured together as an act. By the early 1920s, he had left the touring act.[3]

On December 14, 1917 he made his final recordings for the Columbia label. He continued to travel with his dance orchestra working in hotels all over the Midwest while living in Dayton with his family. In 1923, he joined B. F. Keith's Vaudeville houses on tour together with his son Vess Jr. At a theater show in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ossman suffered a heart attack. He was brought to hospital but soon returned to the show. Later, in Fairmont, Minnesota, he suffered another heart attack, this time fatal, after his last performance on stage. He was buried in Valhalla Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.[1]

Ossman played in what is now known as the Classic banjo style. He fingerpicked gut strings using a technique similar to classical guitarists.

Some of his recordings include "St. Louis Tickle", "Yankee Doodle", "Rusty Rags", "Maple Leaf Rag", "The Stars and Stripes Forever", "A Bit of Blarney", "My Irish Molly O", "A Gay Gosson", "Yankee Girl", "Bill Simmons", "Karama". His recordings also include ragtime-era "coon songs" such as "A Coon Band Contest", "The Darkies' Awakening", and Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike To Me," which were popular at the time but have racially themed lyrics that are distasteful by today's standards.


  1. ^ a b Gracyk, Hoffmann 2000, p. 266.
  2. ^ Jasen, David A. (2007). Ragtime: An Encyclopedia, Discography, and Sheetography. Taylor & Francis. pp. 165–166. ISBN 9780415978620. 
  3. ^ Gracyk, Hoffmann 2000, p. 265.


  • Gracyk, Tim - Hoffmann, Frank W. (2000), Popular American Recording Pioneers, 1895-1925, Routledge
  • Heier, Uli; Lotz, Rainer E. (Eds.) (1993) The Banjo on Record - A Bio-Discography, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-28492-X

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