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AMERICAN BANJO MUSEUM – OKLAHOMA CITY
Musical Americana in Bricktown


Banjo Plantation Origins photoThe banjo is America’s instrument. Originating in the African roots of the slaves brought in ships as cheap labor force in colonial days, developed from simple African instruments of the stretched tightened skin on a gourd and strings of gut, to the familiar ornately designed cousin of the guitar which forms our memories of a forgotten time past. The Banjo was brought to the consciousness of white America through that now vaguely uncomfortable entertainment form of the minstrel show, appearing on the river boats of the Mississippi and theaters of the east, exploding in popularity in the Roaring 1920s, then fully embraced by Bluegrass and folk music artists.

Banjos Collection photoThe American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, located in the revitalized downtown Bricktown entertainment district celebrates the instrument, its history and famous players - from the first minstrel star, Joel Walker Sweeney in the 1840s to contemporary banjo hero, Bela Fleck, with Earl Scruggs and Pete Seegar and dozens of the less familiar pioneers of the Jazz Age. The American Banjo Museum began life as the National Four String Banjo Hall of Fame with over 300 Banjos, from replicas of primitive instruments to several of the “holy grails” of banjo collecting, with every era of banjo evolution represented. The museum now displays the largest collections of banjos anywhere in the world on three floors, a dazzling display of gleaming American musical artistry. The self-guided journey starts with the history of the instrument in black America of the plantation, perhaps a true but slightly discomforting connection with an awkward past, a look at a movie loop of the appearance of the banjo in movies, perhaps becoming most familiar through the soundtracks of films like "Bonnie and Clyde" with its chase scenes to the famous ultimate banjo tune of Smokey Mountain Breakdown, and the iconic Dueling Banjos sequence from "Deliverance".

Gibson Mastertone Banjos photoThe Banjo was developed through the 1800s through a number of makers, often players who made their own innovations, but the museum spends a good deal of its display on the principal commercial producer of the Banjo, Gibson. Now known for its guitars, the company’s founder Orville H Gibson, introduced his first Banjo in 1918, perfecting the instrument with increasing ornate models through the 1920s and 1930s. Gibson’s heyday of the Banjo was between the two wars, with an enthusiasm for a distinctly American homegrown music in 1918 as boys were coming home from the first world war, when Dixieland Jazz caught the imagination until 1938 when the big band era was ushered in, with a rediscovery of world music formed pressed by soldiers heading off to all corners of the globe. In the second world war. Gibson still makes its famous Mastertone, redesigned with the help of master Earl Scruggs. The popularity of the Banjo and Bluegrass eventually faded for Rock and Roll and Gibson switched its focus to the guitar.

Shakeys Parlor replica photoOne expects to find Banjos at the Banjo museum, but not a pizza parlor. I’m old enough to remember going out with the family to a Shakeys Pizza Parlor, where striped-shirt armband characters in 1890s costume played Banjo and piano music while the family sat at long communal tables with big mugs of root beer and pizza. The rather oddly Californian view of the “Olde Time” pizza parlor, known for its witty signage “Shakey’s doesn’t cash checks and the bank doesn’t make pizza” invented by entrepreneur Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson, who opened his first parlor in Sacramento in 1954. Shakey’s pizza business still exists as a world-wide chain, but the banjo music entertainment is gone, in the cost to profit ratio world of today. The Banjo museum features a recreation of the traditional old time Shakey’s Pizza Parlor from the 1960s, complete with faux stained glass windows and tables. There is no pizza served, but live Banjo music is still performed with the player piano accompanying. Check the schedule of live shows, otherwise just a nostalgic look at bygone era.

Visiting the American Banjo Museum

Banjos on display in Oklahoma City photoThe Banjo Museum of Oklahoma City is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 6pm and Sunday from 12 pm to 5pm. Admission for adults is $6, Seniors (55+) and students $5, kids 5-17 years $4, children under 5 free. The museum is closed on Mondays and major holidays. It is located near the old Santa Fe railroad station and the water taxi canal of clubs and restaurants reclaims from Oklahoma City's old werehouse district which comes alive when the sun goes down.
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