By Edward Tutwiler – All God’s creations have voice. The mountain speaks in silent grander, the flower in radiant beauty, and folks sing and shout. Stringed musical instruments have voice as well. The fiddle cries, the mandolin rings, and the guitar hums with soul. But the banjo, oh the banjo—he is so filled with joy he can’t help but laugh. His happy nature always prevails, and he must laugh out loud for us all to hear.
Recently, while attending the IBMA conference in Raleigh, NC, I had the good fortune to speak with some folks from the American Banjo Museum and learn a bit about their organization. Let me tell you what I learned.
The American Banjo Museum is a $5 million, 21,000 square foot facility located in Oklahoma City, OK. It houses a collection that contains over 400 instruments, recordings, film, video, printed music, instructional materials, and other artifacts associated with the banjo. Reportedly, this museum is home to the largest publicly displayed collection of banjos in the world.
Every Kind Of Banjo
While the core collection consists of ornately decorated banjos made in the US during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s, the collection also houses a broad selection of banjo types that include replicas of primitive banjos developed by African slaves; instruments from the mid-19th century that were used during the popularity of the minstrel performances; some classic instruments from the late 1800s; and newer instruments that were used by performers in bluegrass, folk and world music.
The museum originated as a non-profit organization formed in 1998 in Guthrie, Oklahoma by Oklahoma attorney, Brady Hunt and Indiana industrialist, Jack Canine. They called their original creation, The National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame Museum. . (The four-string banjo was the predominate stringed instrument associated with the jazz age of the 1920s and early 30s and that version of the banjo was the one the museum founders originally focused upon.) Mr. Canine was a banjo player who believed that preserving and promoting the history of the banjo for future generations was important.
Exploring The Roots
It did not take long for the founders to realize that the banjo had been evolving for over 400 years in the US alone and that it had taken on many different forms and styles over that period of time. Thus, the museum needed to evolve into an organization committed to tell the entire banjo story—from its roots with enslaved African people to its most recent association with bluegrass and international folk music. Therefore, in 2009, the museum moved to Oklahoma City and developed a mission statement that reflected this new view. To that end, the museum curators have organized the 400 or so banjos and associated artifacts into the following categories: The Minstrel Era shows that by the 1840s banjo design shifted away from handmade folk instruments to the modern style we know today. The Classical Era illustrates that by the 1880s, the banjo became a legitimate classical instrument. The Jazz Age explains that during the 1920s and 30s, the design, style, and manufacture of the banjo reached its highest level. Jazz age banjos are considered the best designed and produced banjos. Bluegrass and Beyond tells that after 1946, banjo popularity was driven primarily through its association with bluegrass music and the three-finger playing style that changed the musical sound of the banjo. Finally, the Folk Explosion shows that socially conscious urban musicians created a new voice for the banjo as part of the resurgence in the popularity of traditional folk music.
This collection that the museum has amassed is a must see for banjo players of any genre of music; however, that is only one part of the story. I recently spoke with Mr. Johnny Baier, executive director of the American Banjo Museum, about a research project that the museum folks have just launched, and this is an important project that you, dear readers, can help with.
The American Banjo Museum has just launched a new research project called The Banjo Players Directory. This project encompasses both an interactive museum exhibit as well as an online research tool. The Banjo Players Directory is a project aimed at identifying and cataloging as many banjo players as possible—both past and present and of all skill levels and playing styles. It is very important to realize the museum staff wants all banjo players to be remembered in this directory not just the famous. Mr. Baier recently was quoted as saying, “You don’t have to be Earl Scruggs or Béla Fleck to be listed in the directory. Any banjo player at any skill level should be part of the directory. We want everyone listed from the big names to the unsung individuals across this country and around the world who keep the banjo alive through performances everywhere from clubs and churches to the front porch.”
Mr. Baier told me, “The Banjo Players Directory is truly a ground up, starting project for us. We’ve just rolled it out. We’ve been collecting data for the project since day one of the museum but as to a place to store this data, that concept was recently created by one of our board members, Paul Poirier. Paul is a banjo player as was his father-in-law, and it was Paul’s idea that the museum create some type of identity file that would recognize banjo players of all skill levels and styles. Paul’s idea was specifically aimed at remembering people like his father-in-law to insure folks like him were not lost in the shuffle of the major names and pioneers of the different banjo styles. We want the directory to be for all banjo players.”
It is important for you to understand that the name of any person who plays a banjo can be listed in this directory, and those people or their fans can make the submission for inclusion. That player can be you, a banjo band, or another player you may know or want remembered. You or your submission need not be famous—just be a banjo player. Do not think that submission is a nomination process. It is not an award or an honor to be earned or voted upon but rather a way of maintaining a legacy and identifying as many banjo players as possible. Mr. Baier explained it this way, “The term Self Populate is the term that we use. Even if you are not a banjo player but you know banjo players who are not currently listed in the directory, you can send us their names, the type of banjo they play, where they come from, and the life span of the players and we will include that information in the directory at no cost. That level of the project fulfills our mission of indentifying as many banjo players as possible and preserving: name, location, playing style, and playing era.” If you want to see a more robust remembrance included in the directory whether that is due to fame or vanity, that level of information is tied to a fund-raising element of the project. For different levels of donations to the museum support, people are permitted to include photographs, extended biographies, and even links to You Tube® video performances that someone may have placed on line.
I asked if the directory is growing, and Mr. Baier told me that it is becoming a regular part of his staff’s workload to be adding names to this directory. He said that it has grown a great deal just in the last few months. Some of this growth is coming from existing information that the museum has amassed in its archives. They have different banjo related publications in their collection that cover over 100 years of banjo history, and they review these documents for names of players that they include in the directory. Baier said, “Quite honestly, this project might have an end but it does not have any end in sight for us at the museum. This will be an ongoing project for years and years.”
What are the museum folks doing with this directory, you might ask? The Banjo Players Directory is available to museum visitors through a dedicated computer kiosk loaded with a searchable directory data base. It is freely available to all who visit the museum. More importantly, you should know that this data base lives on-line so people do not need to go to the museum to access the data base of banjo players. The information available on the web site is the same information that is available at the museum. Plus, people can input banjo player data on the web site as well. The web site address is: www.BanjoPlayersDirectory.com.
I asked Mr. Baier, to leave us with some thoughts about the directory project and the museum’s mission. Here are his words: “The museum does not discourage any directory entries be they the most modest unknown player in the world to the most famous successful banjo players in the world. We want them all and feel that we would not be fulfilling our mission statement to do otherwise.”
He continued, “From where we started with the museum and its various projects to where we are today has been a very long and deliberate process. We are quite pleased since we moved to Oklahoma City in 2009. This year has been gratifying in terms of attendance. We attribute that increase to the exhibit that we have up now about the banjo life of Steve Martin. To the general public this man represents the banjo in a way that is modern and palatable even if you are not a banjo player. Our hope is that we can present the knowledge to people that the banjo’s appeal is much broader that just a bluegrass music instrument. We try to show how one banjo style bled over into another to influence and change the other. We feel that this knowledge is not well known. Meaning no disrespect nor wanting to minimize the value of anyone, but Earl Scruggs did not wake up one morning and invent how to play a banjo using the three-finger style. That style of playing existed 60 years before it became popular in bluegrass music. What really happened is those players that we remember as originating three-finger style were actually using elements of the classical refined style of playing using fixed steel strings that were popular in the late 1800’s. These playing elements influenced a next generation of players until Earl Scruggs introduced a form of that playing style to the world and helped create a new genre of music. This is an example of the evolutionary progression in banjo. It continues to this day. Mr. Jerry O’Conner, who plays a sort of hybrid Irish style on the four-string tenor banjo using a different tuning and a different picking pattern, achieves a different sound that has taken the banjo to a huge audience that did not exist before. Banjo players are creating new styles and creating new literature every day that never existed previously.”
There is so much more to know about the museum and the directory project. To that end, point your computer browser to www.AmericanBanjoMuseum.com.
Americana Rhythm Music Magazine