Piano. Guitar. Violin. These are the musical instruments Americans are most familiar with. Granted, we can include others like a saxophone, flute, or cello. Still, the banjo seems to be unhappily tucked away in the fringes of musical instruments that Americans know or identify with. Yet, unlike many other instruments, the banjo is so tied up with American history that learning about it—is to step right inside the soul of the United States. This is especially true of Black American history and its intersection with slavery.
Today, there’s a little-known museum that has carefully curated and treasured the history of the banjo. American Banjo Museum is located in Oklahoma City. Of course, Oklahoma City has a dozen other attractions as well as many delightful things to do that would enthuse most vacationers. Heading outdoors to spot unique wildlife is one of them. But travelers can also spend meaningful time indoors in OK City; we’ll let you in on this special gem of a museum.
About The American Banjo Museum
The American Banjo Museum is unique not only on a statewide scale but on a larger, global scale. This is arguably the only museum on the planet that celebrates the glory of the humble banjo.
Having some similarities with the guitar, some would argue that the banjo is another type of guitar.
Like the guitar, the banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a circular frame. While the membrane will most likely be made of plastic today, that was not the case many years ago when animal skin was the default element.
This museum has not always been in Oklahoma City. Before it found its way here, it was located 80 miles to the north of Oklahoma in the city of Guthrie. Born in Thorntown Indiana in 1932, Jack Canine developed a love for banjos that would last his entire life. During his 30s, he started making a collection of banjos, some of which were the rarest ever known.
He loved banjos so much that when he formed his own company that produced liquid handling products for agriculture and industrial applications, he named it Banjo Corporation.
In 1998, Jack Canine founded the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame Museum, the precursor of the American Banjo Museum, in Guthrie.
Soon, the structure could not host what had now become an enormous collection. It’s in these circumstances that Oklahoma City, the museum’s current location, came to the scene.
The Humble Origins Of The Banjo In The United States
Contrary to popular notions, the banjo is not native to the United States. And no—it wasn’t the centerpiece of white rural life in the Appalachian woods as many imagine today.
The truth is that enslaved Africans introduced it to the United States. And centuries before it could be allowed to sit at the table with other instruments in the United States, the banjo was clothed in contempt and scarcely regarded as a meaningful musical instrument.
At the time, it was called banza or banjar. However, some people called it bangor or bangie.
While the banjo has come to be modernized and perhaps “civilized,” the earlier versions were rudimentary. What one needed to make a banjo was some hollow gourd, turtle shells, and a tree trunk.
For the top covering, the skin of a snake or goat—would come in handy. But some people also used the skin of a woodchuck. Nails would then fasten these.
If the materials that went into making the banjo head were peculiar, the ones used to make the strings were downright queer. This is where animal intestines or horsehair would prove useful. Of course, plant species were not entirely left out. Twine or hemp fiber would also feature prominently.
These strings, usually three or four, would be attached to a wooden handle. Once this was done, it would be time for tuning.
Just like the banjos of today, the thumb was the primary artist. The place of music in the history of slavery is well documented. And the banjo would soothe the pain induced by the back-breaking labor so common in the Southern States at that time.
What To Know Before Visiting The American Banjo Museum
Sitting on 21,000 square feet, The American Banjo Museum is home to over 400 instruments. Aside from the music, visitors will find other memorabilia associated with the banjo—as well as film and video recordings.
- Cost: Adults $8, youth aged 5-17 $6.
- Location: FF8Q+PC Central Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City, OK
- More information: American Banjo Museum
This museum contains the largest collection of banjos in the world. While the history of the banjo will enthuse visitors, the icing is that visitors can also learn to play the banjo at the American Banjo Museum.
Here’s the take-home: the American Banjo Museum will interest all kinds of visitors. But for history buffs or music lovers, it’s a must-visit.