“When you want genuine music – music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose – when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!” So wrote Mark Twain in 1865, and this three-CD set goes a long way to collecting the best of the earliest banjo recordings extant.
The first disc features 25 songs by Vess Ossman ranging from “Yankee Doodle” to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” – which shows the versatility not only of his playing but of the banjo itself. On “The Mosquito Parade,” Ossman unreels a complex ragtime tune that buzzes with dazzling picking. The second disc is all Fred Van Eps – 27 songs that not only influenced jazz and country music, but also the earliest guitarists. And that’s only fitting, as he became the father of renowned jazz guitar George Van Eps, born in 1913 – halfway through the run of recordings here.
The final disc collects another 25 songs from players such as Fred Bacon, Sidney Turner, Olly Oakley, and more. Say what you will about banjos, these rare sides showcase a key era in string music.
This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.