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The Banjo's Trip Through History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 8, 2023 3:00 am

The Banjo's Trip Through History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 8, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Johnny Baier, Executive Director of the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, takes us through the history of the Banjo starting from the beginning until today. 

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Listen to find strength in community on the MG journey on the I Heart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, including your stories. Send them to OurAmericanStories.com. They're some of our favorites. One of the things we love to do is take you around the country and pursue American's hobbies, American's quirks, and also museums of all kinds, from presidential museums down to the arcane and the fun, which brings us to Johnny Beyer, who's the executive director of the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma, sharing with us some banjo history. The museum was born out of a jazz banjo festival in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

This festival eventually came to be a museum which opened in 1998. In 2009, they moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City, where they have close to 400 banjos on exhibit. Here's Johnny with the story of the banjo.

The most popular part of the museum visitors' experience tends to relate to things that they can relate to immediately. Most of our visitors are not banjo players, so when we can do something that ties the banjo directly to something that they have an already soft spot in their heart for, we've hit a home run. Some of our exhibits included Steve Martin.

Of course, Steve Martin everyone loves as a comic and an actor and a playwright and all these things. He's a wonderful superstar, but he's also a great banjo player. So right now we have one of the instruments that Steve had donated to our museum, and when people see Steve Martin's picture and the banjo that he gave to our museum, all of a sudden they say, hey, I know that guy and he's cool, so the banjo must be cool too.

I mean, that's the kind of thought process we want to get through people's heads. We just closed an exhibit not too long ago about Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets. Now, if you're a Muppet fan, you would have remembered Kermit the Frog playing the banjo in the Muppet movie. And anybody of a certain age has almost without fail an affection for Kermit the Frog. So when we did this, how should I say, the exhibit about Jim Henson, my goal was to get Kermit the Frog here to the banjo museum. And with the help of the Jim Henson company and Jim Henson's family, they allowed us to have Kermit here for almost two years strumming his banjo. And when people see that, they immediately put, I love Kermit. I really liked the banjo. I forgot that connection.

Those are the things that really hit home with people. The banjo, while we call it America's instrument, because it's so associated with so many types of American music, it actually has its roots in Africa. When the slave trade came through the Indies and brought enslaved Africans to American soil back in the 1600s, they brought with them knowledge of what we would call early folk banjos, basically tree trunks that might have been hollowed out and covered with an animal's skin. And that little body of the banjo, kind of like a drum, had a handle attached to it that they put strings on.

And our assumption at that point in time is that the strings were more like percussive sounding things, like on the back of a snare drum rather than melodic notes. But as time went on, apparently it became obvious that that rhythmic sound of kind of scratching across the strings on a banjo could be turned into musical notes rather than you'd hear by the, let's call it the late 1700s and into the 1800s. White culture embraced the banjo and made it its own or thought of it as its own, starting basically in the late 1800s.

It was a time that minstrel shows, minstrelsy we call it, were an accepted and popular form of entertainment. Obviously not the case today, we don't promote minstrelsy, but we can't tell the story of the banjo without touching on the minstrel era because the banjo was so associated with that very, very popular form of entertainment at that point in time. The banjo has been evolving since its earliest forms constantly. The next style of popular banjo playing, we call it the classic era that came out from basically the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Now in that point in time, the banjo was no longer generally a handmade folk instrument.

It started to become a manufactured product. So the banjo, because of its association with minstrelsy, kind of had a reputation of being a rough and tumble kind of folky, not a very musical instrument, not a serious musical instrument anyway. When the classic era came around, the banjo was played in a very refined manner. It was played with bare fingers, the strings were made of animal intestine, and the refined manner of playing during the classic era is what sets it apart from any other period of banjo evolution. During that classic period, banjo players were expected to read on-site actual notation of musical scores. The real golden era, the mainstream popularity of the banjo came after that classic era.

During the late 1910s and teens, popular music in America started to incorporate early ragtime, and the dance music that was from the late 1800s, that Victorian kind of proper European-influenced dance music, was really giving way to America's own music. Now that all led to early jazz. So what happened was the banjo started to take on, back to its roots, it take on a role as a rhythm instrument. And rather than playing single note lines of melody or harmony or things like that, the banjo was looked upon during the jazz age to be the rhythmic pulse. It's an absolutely perfect description of the banjo in the jazz age.

And that went on beautifully and very, very commercially successfully until the stock market crash. And you've been listening to Johnny Beyer, and he's the Executive Director of the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. When we come back, more of the story of the banjo here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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And we continue here with our American stories. We've been listening to executive director Johnny Byer from the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City. We left off with Johnny talking about the effect of the stock market crash on, of all things, music. When the stock market crashed in 1929, musical tastes changed quite dramatically. You got to keep in mind during the 1920s, it was an era we called it the Roaring 20s, but it had a lot of other nicknames, names like the Lawless Decade and such. Prohibition was in place for all that time. So what you had following World War I was this huge influx of ex doughboys or veterans coming home, young men coming home, having suffered a terrific ordeal through this incredible war that they'd been through.

They got home and they couldn't have a drink and they were looking to have some fun. So prohibition being in place, jazz coming out of the woodwork, literally, and speakeasies, you know, these illegal bars where liquor was sold and jazz was king as far as the soundtrack were becoming very, very, very popular. So the jazz music and the banjos association with it kind of was part of that subculture or that, you know, underground culture of the speakeasy. But it all came crashing down when everyone thought that the economic boom of the post World War I era would go on forever. The stock market crashed and no one wanted to dance the Charleston anymore.

We were facing the Great Depression. People, you know, who were stars, you know, the banjo stars of the 1920s, they were basically kind of shuffled off into the shadows at that point in time. Dance music became very subdued, slower. Banjos and dance bands were replaced by guitars. And the banjo, for all intents and purposes, was dead by, you know, the end of the 1930s. It was just gone. After World War II, the banjo did come back to a degree of popularity.

But then, in a new identity. It was back in September of 1945, I believe, when Bill Monroe, who had been working on a new string band sound, he came from Kentucky. So he called his band the Bluegrass Boys. But it wasn't really until Earl Scruggs brought his banjo and this new style of playing the banjo that most people had never heard before, because it was confined to the rural areas of the Appalachians or Kentucky.

It was a style back to that old classic style of playing with bare fingers, but it was updated with those banjos that had steel strings and picks. As fate would have it, nostalgia kicked in. So after World War II, there was this kind of longing for a simpler time. You got to keep in mind, after World War II, you had a lot of political upheaval, a lot of social unrest here in the United States, and people were looking to gravitate towards a simpler time, what they considered to be a simpler time, before World War II.

So what happened was after World War II, there was a phenomenon. We call them banjo parlors. There were nightclubs in major cities that were starting to feature music of the 1920s and 30s.

Now, where did it go from there? Well, there hasn't been a lot of new style of music being created by the banjo. Now, there are some great musicians out there playing the banjo who are always experimenting, trying to take the banjo in new and different places. But some of the most active banjo identities over the most recent years are, again, going back to banjo roots. There's been a huge amount of interest in the African roots of the banjo among young black musicians who are reclaiming the African roots of the banjo and taking it full circle.

And then, of course, the Mumford and Sons type of phenomenon also. It's part of this ongoing evolution that we cover the entire story of it here at the American Banjo Museum. My favorite part about the banjo is it becomes an extension of who I am musically.

I hear music all the time. The banjo is the one that I can get who I am out, who I can speak to an audience with the tenor banjo. Now, the tenor banjo is an out-of-date instrument.

It hasn't really had, as I say, outside of Celtic music, it hasn't had any mainstream relevance for decades. I'm just going to play a little, a strum a little bit and give you kind of an overview here of the instrument. When you think of banjos these days, you generally don't think of hearing all the notes at one time, making up a chord like a guitar player plays.

You would normally think of picking out individual notes. This tenor banjo that I'm playing, it has four strings on it, four strings that go the equal length of the neck. That makes it different than most banjos today.

Most banjos today have an additional tuning peg that sticks out of the upper part of the neck, the side of the neck, of the neck, the side of the neck, and it tunes a what we call a droning string. And that droning string is a string that part of that picking pattern I talked about, it doesn't change its pitch. So the droning string in this case would be this note here. And you'll hear this note played over and over and over again.

You're hearing that droning pattern. Now the fact is, what I'm showing you is kind of an imitation of how a bluegrass player would play. Play a couple notes and hit the droning string. But you have to do it fast, and that's where it starts to sound like bluegrass.

Sounds like it. It was a long introduction to play the banjo the way you recognize it. And it's my experience that if you play the banjo in a manner that your audience recognizes, they will let you do anything else on the banjo, okay? And that's when I go into any number of different styles of banjos. As I say, when you're playing the songs of the 19th century. So if I were playing in a dance band, that's how I'd be playing. While the trumpeters were going. And so again, you're basically an accompaniment instrument. But as I mentioned in the 1920s, some of the banjo players had that single string facility under their fingers to be able to play melodic passages. It could be sweet and simple.

Something like that. You can do a lot of things with a banjo. It just depends on where your musical head is at and how much you're willing to commit musically to it. So I'm going to do a song written by Woody Guthrie. This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York island.

From the redwood forest to the Gulf stream water. This land was made for you and me. As I was walking that ribbon of highway. I saw above me that endless skyway.

I saw below me that golden valley. This land was made for you and me. This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York island.

From the redwood forest to the Gulf stream water. This land was made for you and me. This land was made for you and me. This land was made for you and me.

And a special thanks to Johnny Byer for everything including that final performance, a story of the banjo, the story of American music and so much more. This is our American stories. Now is the time to flex your footprint. With T-Mobile for Business and the nation's largest 5G network, inspiration can strike from virtually anywhere. So whether you're in the office, on the road, or on your PT not quite O, you'll be ready for the next big thing. After all, if geography doesn't limit your business, your network shouldn't either.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-08 04:08:44 / 2023-09-08 04:16:55 / 8

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