UT/Knoxville hosts banjo history exhibit

The University Of Tennessee at Knoxville’s McClung Museum is currently hosting a Special Exhibit on the history of the banjo. Entitled The Banjo: From Africa to America and Beyond, the exhibit is a mix of art, photos, instruments and live performances and will be housed at the McClung Museum through April of 2006.

Exhibition Curator Matt Morelock tells us that they have 55 instruments on display, plus many photos, some banjo toys and even some 19th century advertisements featuring the banjo. The banjos in the exhibit range from African lutes to Appalachian banjos, including some early gourd banjos, minstrel era instruments and some turn of the century banjos as well.

Morelock’s background is in cultural anthropology, and he spent a year assembling the various artifacts for the exhibit after he was tasked with its creation. He was especially thankful for the help he received from the banjo community, with pieces on loan from The Museum of Appalachia, David Ball, James Bollman, Ulf J???gfors, Jeffrey Menzies, Pete Ross and Peter Szego.

“My focus from the beginning was to present the lesser-known chapters of banjo history. The historical span of the exhibition is from the late 1600’s, when the first black banjoists were described in the Caribbean, up to the late 1920s…just before the bluegrass explosion. This is a PRE-bluegrass history of the banjo, and was created to inform fellow bluegrass fans that the banjo as we know it today is a product of centuries of development by both African-American and Anglo-American musicians and instrument builders.”

The Museum reports that the exhibit has been quite popular since it opened on January 14, with both an increase in total visitors, and more importantly to the McClung, an increase in the types of people who are visiting. Morelock suggested that people just love banjos… plain and simple.

“I enthusiastically invite all bluegrass fans to Knoxville to learn more about our favorite instrument, the banjo. A deeper understanding of the history of American music provides one with a much richer and more fulfilling experience as a listener, and this exhibition will surely deepen your love of bluegrass, and hopefully, many other types of music.

Centuries before bluegrass, African slaves created the banjo. The first whites to play the banjo, in the 1800s, were doing their best to imitate slave music. The banjo then passed through a classical era at the turn of the 20th century while it was making its way into hillbilly music in the southern highlands. Only then, around the 1940s, was the banjo primed for bluegrass action. Come and see the instruments, pictures, publications, and more that illustrate the span of this amazingly American instrument and learn more about the music that you love. I assure you that you’ll walk away a happy camper!”

There is no charge for admission to The McClung Museum, and maps and directions to the University are available on their web site, along with information on their hours of operation.

A highlight will be a performance from Mike Seeger on April 15 at 2:00 p.m., though an admission fee will be charged for his concert.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.