March 13, 1994

The Banjo on Record: A Bio‑Discography. Edited by Uli Heier and Rainer E. Lotz.  Greenwood Press, 1993.  664 pages, $75.00.  ISBN 0‑313‑28492‑X.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Rainer Lotz, one of the world’s foremost discographers of early recording history, has co‑authored this new volume that will be of considerable value to researchers.  Of more value, perhaps, than the title implies.  Dr. Lotz has an unfortunate habit of titling his books in a manner that understates their true breadth of coverage.  An earlier work, the valuable German Ragtime & Prehistory of Jazz (Storyville, 1985), was criticized by a reviewer in these pages (Vol. 19, No. 2/3) for wandering far afield from the narrow subject of ragtime.  Similarly, if you assume that the present volume is a listing of instrumental banjo records, prepare to be surprised.  There is everything here from vocal “coon duets” by Collins and Harlan with banjo accompaniment to Nat Shilkret’s big 1920s dance orchestra pumping out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” while banjo master Harry Reser plunks along enthusiastically in the background.

Banjo on Record begins with a brief foreword by noted discographer Brian Rust, on whose unpublished 1966 manuscript the present work is based, followed by a preface and acknowledgements; a most informative essay about “The Banjo in Phonograph Recording History” by Lowell Schreyer; a colorful article on the social history and technical development of the banjo by Robert Lloyd Webb; descriptions of the major types of banjo; 46 pages of black & white photographs of banjo record labels (why not photos of the artists?); the main, 530‑page discography, arranged alphabetically by artist; a bibliography; and a helpful 31‑page index of song titles.  Despite the book’s title, little biographical information is included.

The criteria for inclusion are broad: “all the records issued on cylinders or 78 rpm discs on which the banjo… plays a solo role or a dominant part” (p.xi).  The obvious suspects are all here, including Harry Reser (77 pages of listings!), Vess L. Ossman (26 pages), Fred Van Eps (20 pages), Olly Oakley, Eddie Peabody, and Ruby Brooks.  Van Eps, incidentally, must be one of the all time champs in terms of recording longevity.  His first issue was an 1898 brown wax cylinder, and his last a 1956 LP.  There are also hundreds of lesser known artists, some from such unlikely places as Kenya and Calcutta (the scope is international), as well as dance bands and others who for whatever reason used a banjo in one of their sessions.  Among those included are Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters and James Europe’s Society Orchestra!

All fields of music are fully covered, except for one.  In their foreword, the authors regret the lack of cooperation they received from country music researchers (one wonders who they approached?), and the consequent lack of listings in that field.  There are no listings for Earl Scruggs, although Uncle Dave Macon gets four‑and‑a‑half pages.

The banjo was of course one of the most frequently recorded instruments during the phonograph’s earliest years, and one of Banjo on Records’s great contributions is its inclusion of some very early artists who have been ill‑documented elsewhere.  One of these, Louis Vasnier of the regional Louisiana Phonograph Company (c.1891), is of special interest as he was one of the very first black artists to record commercially.

Due to the poor documentation of the early days the entries on many pioneer artists are far from complete, as the authors freely admit.  At least we have a start.  Unfortunately the authors sometimes present questionable assumptions as fact, so one must be careful even with some of the listings that are given.  For example Vess L. Ossman is credited with the banjo accompaniment on several early Columbia discs by baritone Carroll Clark, when there is no evidence of which I am aware as to who plays the banjo on these sides.

Recording dates are also sometimes unnecessarily shaky.  Cylinders by the Bohee Brothers, James and George, are dated as “ca. early 1890” allowing the claim to be made that they were “probably the first black artists to have recorded commercially.”  The reader should be told that this date‑‑and therefore the claim‑‑is based on very shaky evidence and some large leaps of assumption, as detailed in an article by Dr. Lotz published in 78 Quarterly, Vol. 1 No. 7.

Perhaps the most amusing gaffe occurs on page 201, when the authors solemnly inform us that several 1906 titles recorded by the American Record Company were issued on “Indian Records,” so named “because of the Red Indian on the label.”  Nonsense!  (The label is in fact “American.”)  Do we list Victor Talking Machine Company products as “Dog Records”?

Despite the occasional errors and omissions, Heier and Lotz have made an admirable start at documenting an important genre of early recording.  Moreover they have cast their net widely enough to make this book useful to early recording researchers in general, not just to banjo enthusiasts.  Banjo on Record will be valuable to anyone concerned with recordings which in any way involve the banjo.


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