Banjos in Bricktown: A Visit to the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City

Dear Henry,

Have I ever mentioned that I've always wanted to learn to play the banjo? But unfortunately, I seem to struggle a bit with the hand-eye coordination required to play the instrument. Still, I love the sound and  "all things banjo," so during my recent trip to Oklahoma City, when I discovered the American Banjo Museum, I just had to go inside.

The history of the banjo is an interesting one. The instrument was created around the late 1600s or early 1700s by enslaved African people in the Southern United States and was likely based upon a West African instrument called the Kora. Americans of European descent learned to play the instrument from their enslaved people (it sounds like it was an easy way to entertain "The Master's" children). Robert McAlpin Williamson is credited as being the first Euro-American to play the banjo.

It was Joel Walker Sweeney, however, who was the first Euro-American to play on stage. Sweeney played the banjo in the traveling black-faced Mistrals of the pre-Civil War era and would popularize the instrument among Euro-Americans (and the Irish, after a stop in Liverpool) and bring the instrument to the foreground of popular music.

After the Civil War, the banjo became even more popular, popular enough to support regular music publications and, in 1868,  the first monthly magazine, "Buckley's Monthly Banjoist." In addition, the instrument was used heavily in Ragtime and pre-WWII Jazz scores. Until the Great Depression, the banjo was widely played by every social class. It was indeed an "All-American" instrument.

Of course, the Great Depression ruined everyone's party, and like everything else fun, the banjo took a backseat until after WWII.

When the sounds of the banjo remerged after WWII, it was through the Bluegrass and Folk genres, and it was through those types of music that most people seemed to associate with the banjo. However, the banjo is also a well-known sound in Celtic music. 

I still wish I knew how to play.

The American Banjo Museum was created in 1988, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, by Ragtime and banjo enthusiasts Jack Canine and Brady Hunt. The Museum was initially called the National Four-string Banjo Hall of Fame Museum and was moved to its current location in the Bricktown district of Oklahoma City in 2009.

The collection currently has more than 400 instruments, making it one of the largest collections of banjos in the world. The collection contains an instrument from every manufacturer (including primitive handcrafted ones) and a type from every musical genre. The banjos in the collection are absolutely beautiful. 

This Museum was fun to find while wandering about Bricktown during my latest OKC trip. The visit in front of a 3D recreation of Henry Ossawa Tanner's painting "The Banjo Lesson" and a short film takes you through the instrument's history. After the movie, you weave through cases of elaborately crafted instruments. The Museum has several exhibitions featuring notable players, including one for Kermit the Frog, and has created a great "Women Players" feature.

This Museum was probably, the funnest stop I made in OKC, and I've been recommending it to everyone. If you're in Downtown Oklahoma City, it's definitely worth the eight dollars. You can find it at 9 East Sheridan, and the hours are Tue-Sat 11-6, Sun12-5 

xoxo a.d. elliott 


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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