Banjo music floats down the sidewalk on Sheridan Avenue in Oklahoma City, radiating from a red brick building with a marquee that reads “American Banjo Museum.”
Inside the museum, the music grows louder and invites visitors to walk through years of banjo history and learn how banjo music has shaped American culture.
Located a half mile away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the American Banjo Museum sits in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City. It hosts the largest collection of banjos in the world and is dedicated to showcasing the history of the instrument.
Johnny Baier is the executive director of the American Banjo Museum. He said the museum was founded in 1998 in Guthrie, Oklahoma, by Jack Canine, a businessman who had a personal collection of banjos.
As the museum grew, it found a new home in Oklahoma City, where it received an endowment through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. The museum now has hundreds of instruments in its collection, Baier said.
Lucas Ross, the community outreach and promotion coordinator at the museum, said the museum provides a history lesson to anyone unfamiliar with the story of the banjo.
“For years, it was kind of hailed as America’s first instrument that grew up with America, but mostly it’s because it came over with African slaves,” Ross said. “That story, now more than ever, is so important for us to highlight and show in a respectful light.”
The museum has several exhibits that feature different genres in banjo history, including bluegrass and jazz. Baier said the instruments are not only informational but also beautiful, as several of them have designs on the back to make a musical performance more visually appealing.
“The visual dynamic of the jazz age banjos far surpasses any of other eras of banjo development, with carving and painting, that sort of thing,” Baier said. “They are works of art as much as they are musical tools.”
Ross said the museum allows people to not only learn about the history of the instrument but also to appreciate the intricate details of the instrument. He said the museum can feel like an art museum when examining the colors and carvings on the various banjos.
“They are surprised by, not just the amount of banjos we have and the presentation of it, but the artwork that’s involved,” Ross said.
In addition to the exhibits on the banjo’s history, the museum also includes displays that feature the banjo in pop culture. Currently, the museum has a Jim Henson display, honoring the legacy of the famous cartoonist.
The display features an actual Kermit the Frog Muppet, which is temporarily on loan from the Jim Henson Company. Kermit is commonly seen playing the banjo on “The Muppet Show.”
“Anything that I can do in terms of exhibitory here at the museum that has a banjo connection but will engage people who are not banjo players, I will gravitate toward that,” Baier said.
Baier’s personal relationship with the banjo started when he was a kid. He said he first saw a live banjo performance at a pizza parlor when he was about 10 or 11, and he fell in love with it.
“When I heard the songs that I knew and then I saw the banjo, I put it all together,” Baier said. “It’s the banjo I like.”
Baier said he acquired a banjo a few years later and learned to play. He became the director of the museum in 2004 and helped it grow and expand, he said.
Although he loves his job, Baier said his administrative work takes him away from actually playing the banjo.
“I tell people that if I ever write a book, it’s going to be titled, ‘All I Ever Wanted To Do Is Play the Banjo,’” Baier said with a laugh.
Nevertheless, Baier said he loves being a part of the banjo community, who has become like a second family to him.
“We get together at events around the country and that becomes our little community,” Baier said. “We all know the guy that’s going to tell the same stupid joke year after year like your uncle at Thanksgiving.”
Baier said awareness of the museum varies greatly in the Oklahoma City metro area and around the world.
“There are people in Czechoslovakia right now who are now planning a trip to the United States, to Oklahoma City, to the American Banjo Museum as their destination,” Baier said. “And there are people who work at The Melting Pot across the street and have worked there for 10 years who don’t know we’re here.”
Baier said the museum also hosts monthly jam sessions and a yearly concert called Banjo Fest, where banjo players from different genres and across the country perform.
Emily Holland, community relations coordinator for the Downtown OKC partnership, said the American Banjo Museum is a key component of Bricktown in Oklahoma City. She said the museum has grown significantly over the years and is always eager to participate in community events.
“Bricktown prides itself on being diverse, and so having a museum of that type focusing on music and the history as well as education, that’s been something that we really value,” Holland said.
She said the museum teaches attendees a history that they will not learn anywhere else.
Ross worked on and off at the museum for a few years before officially starting last November. He said he likes being surrounded by his passion every day when he comes into the office.
“Getting to finally work here, it’s really a dream come true every day,” Ross said. “I can’t believe it, and I keep wondering if it’s real, if my key’s going to work.”
Ross said the museum attracts people from all across the country, including celebrities.
“It’s the only museum like this in the whole world,” Ross said. “This is a destination for artists and musicians from all different ranges. Elton John, whenever he was on tour, came through here once. He wanted to see it.”
One of Ross’s favorite aspects of working at the museum is the “Pick a Tune” classes he teaches every month. People of all ages can come to the museum and learn chords and songs on the banjo.
He said the instrument often sparks something inside them that they did not know was missing.
“Steve Martin has said it, and Béla Fleck and other banjo players have said it,” Ross said. “There is something about the banjo, and it’s this thing that is embedded in our culture and our country. It rings in your heart.”