b. 12 April 1923, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, d. 19 January 2001, USA. A deep and abiding interest in American folk music and early country blues led Oster into a 30-year-career teaching these and related subjects at the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Additionally, he recorded many rarely heard artists in their homes, places of work, and in prison. These field recordings, on some of which he was aided by Richard Allen, were made in and around towns such as Baton Rouge, Eunice and Scotlandville, Louisiana.
Among many blues singers and instrumentalists Oster recorded, between the mid-50s and the early 60s, were Savy Augustine, Lucius Bridges, Robert ‘Smoky Babe’ Brown, Johnny Butler, James ‘Butch’ Cage, Roosevelt Charles, Bee Deshotels, Sally Dotson, William Dotson, Ben Douglas, Emanuel Dunn, Clarence Edwards, Cornelius Edwards, Isom J. Fontenot, Chuck Guillory, Herman E. Johnson, Murray Macon, Rodney Mason, Odea Mathews, Andy Mosley, Hogman Maxey, Wallace ‘Cheese’ Read, Willie Rufus, James Russell, Creola Scott, Rebecca Smith, Leon Strickland, Willie B. Thomas, Shelby Vidrine, Otis Webster, Guitar Welch and Robert Pete Williams. Owing to the efforts of Oster and Allen, Williams was released from his life sentence for murder (he claimed self defence) after serving only a few years. As can be seen, in numerous cases, these recordings by Oster are the only known examples of performances by these singers, thus making his efforts a significant contribution to blues archives.
Representative Oster recordings, mostly featuring various artists, are A Sampler Of Louisiana Folksongs, Angola Prisoners’ Blues, Angola Prison Worksongs, Angola State Penitentiary, Angola Prison Spirituals, Blues From New Orleans, Portraits In Blues, Country Negro Jam Session, Folksongs Of The Louisiana Acadians and New Orleans Washboard Blues. Other Oster recordings included Reverend Pearly Brown’s Georgia Street Singer, Snooks Eaglin’s New Orleans Street Singer (1958), and Jesse Fuller’s Greatest Of The Negro Minstrels (1963), the latter spinning off a minor hit with ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’. Several of these albums were first released by the Louisiana Folklore Society, others on Oster’s own Folk-Lyric label. Some of these albums were re-released as LPs and, in the 90s, CDs by Arhoolie Records and Storyville Records. Oster’s published work includes 1969’s Living Country Blues and 2000’s The Penguin Dictionary Of American Folklore. He also published in academic journals many learned articles and essays on arcane musical matters, all of which demonstrate his integrity of purpose and the quality of his research.