Banjos in Bricktown: A Visit to the American Banjo Museum


Dear Henry,

Have I ever mentioned that I've always wanted to learn to play the banjo? 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" and 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), and, Robert McAlpin Williamson is credited as the 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". The instrument was used heavily in Ragtime and in pre-WWII Jazz scores. Until the Great Depression, the banjo was widely played, and by all social classes.  It was truly an "All-American" instrument.

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

When the sounds of the banjo remerged after WWII, it way through the Bluegrass and Folk genres and it is through those types of music that most people seem to associate the banjo.  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 originally 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 manufacture (including primitive handcrafted ones) and a type from every musical genre. The banjos in the collection are absolutely beautiful. 

This museum was such a fun thing to find while I was 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 history of the instrument, after the film, 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