The American Banjo Museum Says Nobody Puts Banjo In a Corner
A lamentably departed colleague of mine from the New York Daily News, Bill Bell, had a banjo joke.
This guy owns a banjo and he’s sick of it. He doesn’t want it any more. He just wants to get rid of it. He tries to give it to schools, to shops, to his friends. No one will take it.
Finally, in desperation, he drives his car to the worst crime-ridden part of town, a place where nothing is safe. He parks the car on the street, opens all the windows, puts the banjo on the back seat and walks away.
He returns half an hour later and the back seat has four more banjos.
I should add that Bill was an aficionado and lover of Southern music, and he told this story in the spirit of a friend. Still, there are places where the banjo is dismissed as a peripheral member of the American musical instrument team, employed for nothing more substantial than Dixieland sing-alongs.
The American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City is not one of those places.
Here the banjo is not a limited novelty instrument, the string equivalent of the spoons or the tambourine.
Here the banjo is a revered instrument with a rich history and a full-partner role in the development of modern American popular music, including jazz and country. Its instruments are works of art, its practitioners as accomplished as they are undersung.
A century ago, the museum points out, banjo performances sold out classical concert halls, where artists like Fred Van Eps and Roy Smeck adapted the string sections of sonatas and symphonies for the banjo.
In more modern times, the banjo has helped shape the songs of artists from Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio up through Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift.
The banjo has such deep musical roots that it even has camps: the traditional five-string vs. the four-string, which came into prominence in the 1920s when performers needed their sound to fill through those concert halls. The Banjo Museum likens the arrival of the four-string banjo to the development of the electric guitar.
Speaking of which, electric guitar godfather Les Paul also was instrumental in the development of the modern banjo. Among the museum’s hundreds of banjos is a Les Paul Gibson.
In fact, the museum is worth visiting just for the design craft, from an American Eagle and American Indian up through an homage to Yellow Submarine. And that’s just on the backs. Front sides are crafted with inlaid necks or a dappling of gold. Seeger’s banjos, one of which is on display here, carry the Woody Guthrie-inspired line “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender.”
The banjo sailed to America in the 17th century with African slaves, who here again gave the New World far more than the New World gave them. The earliest known banjos often had a body of hollow gourds, which correctly suggests the banjo contains considerable DNA from drums as well as stringed instruments.
The earliest known instrument with banjo trappings was drawn on the wall of a cave in France, about 15,000 years ago. Like most instruments, it morphed through homemade variations over the millennia, until it became popular enough in the 1800s that professional instrument-makers began developing more sophisticated versions.
This coincided with the banjo’s popularity in 19th century minstrel shows, which weren’t bastions of racial sensitivity, but which did become enormously popular in both white and black incarnations. Stephen Foster wrote extensively for minstrel shows, in the process creating American standards like “Oh Susannah.”
The banjo’s golden age was the Roaring Twenties, when banjo artists like Van Eps, Harry Reser and Roy Smeck became widely popular recording artists and concert stars. Smeck and his banjo made a singing-and-talking motion picture a year before Al Jolson made The Jazz Singer.
The banjo helped shape jazz, with its ringing dance rhythms, and early country music stars like Jimmie Rodgers frequently employed it. The banjo was pervasive enough that it merged with the ukelele to create the hybrid banjo uke, a smaller instrument that became popular with children.
This was particularly significant because until only a few decades earlier, the banjo had been regarded as a musical bad boy, flaunting an exuberance some considered unseemly in polite society.
It was considered inappropriate for women, never mind children, to forsake a respectable instrument like the piano for the banjo. Happily, women paid no attention to this dictum, and the Banjo Museum has a fascinating and expansive section on women banjo players going back more than a century.
It notes that early artists like Bunny Longo, Cousin Emmy Carver, Helen Baker and Mabel Morey, while they did not get the attention or promotion of their male peers, had considerable influence on artists like Seeger.
The museum highlights moments when the banjo broke through into mainstream culture, like with the theme from Deliverance, and it gives proper reverence to Earl Scruggs, whom Porter Waggoner appropriately called the Babe Ruth of the banjo. Scruggs had multiple mainstream moments, including the Beverly Hillbillies theme he recorded with his long-time partner Lester Flatt, and the museum has a whole section on the banjo’s role in the winding path of bluegrass.
While the museum isn’t physically massive, it packs a lot into its space, and it punctuates sections with fascinating historic videos. No one should miss Eddy Peabody, one of the banjo’s most flamboyant and entertaining personalities, leading the Lawrence Welk Orchestra through “Anchors Aweigh” and then sitting down for a manic solo of “Baby Face.”
If there are areas where you wish the museum had a little more, that would include some of the early black banjo players — about whom, alas, documentation is scarce — and popular banjo stars of the ’20s and ’30s like Gus Cannon, who led a jug band and wrote “Walk Right In,” or Charlie Poole, who developed a bluegrass-type picking style when his hand was broken in a baseball accident, or Uncle Dave Macon, one of the most beloved stars of the Grand Ol’ Opry and a master showman.
But that may mostly underscore the museum’s premise: that the banjo has such extensive history and influence it would be impossible to give full credit to every character in this 15,000-year-old drama. From the rickety back end of medicine show wagons to the stately Hall of Carnegie, the banjo has been part of the American ride.