Old Town School of Folk Music (1957-) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Old Town School of Folk Music (1957-)

Historical Note:

The Old Town School of Folk Music was given a collection of thirty historical banjos during the 1970s by Dr. Henja, an orthopedic surgeon at Chicago's Rush Presbyterian Hospital.  According to Paul Tyler, who curated the Old Town School of Folk Music's banjo exhibit, the Henja banjo collection began as a "magnificent collection of Samuel Swain Stewart banjos that were brought together over many years by Robert Johnson of Rossville, Georgia." The banjos were later purchased by Dr. Henja in June 1969 from the Hathaway and Bowers auction house.  This collection originally consisted of twenty-six Stewart banjos that were manufactured in Philadelphia during the late nineteenth century.  In addition to these instruments, Dr. Henja also included four other historic banjos that were made by other American banjo makers.

The Henja banjo collection was originally displayed for nearly twenty years in the foyer of the Old Town School of Folk Music that was located on Chicago's Armitage Avenue.  The instruments, according to Paul Tyler, "were afforded no particular conservation or security other than the trust and good manners" of the school's many students and teachers.  In 1987 the Armitage Avenue building was renovated and the banjos were sent to Evanston, Illinois' Guitar Works to be restored by Terry Straker.  When this restoration work was completed in 1988 a new exhibition space was created on the second floor of the building, and Paul Tyler was hired to be the school's Curator of Collections and Exhibitions.  His primary responsibility was the creation of a special exhibit that documented the origin and development of the banjo in America using the Henja collection.

In 1989 the school's new exhibition of the Stewart banjos, modelled after Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 1984 exhibit, "Ring the Banjar," opened as "The Making of the 5-String Banjo: From Hollowed Gourds to Silvered Rims."  The Old Town School's exhibit according to Tyler, "highlighted the continuities between a popular musical instrument that was mass-produced in American factories" and the banjo's early origins as "folk lutes carved and assembled by various West African peoples" who were brought to America through the Atlantic slave trade.  The exhibit was revised and reinstalled in 1991 after the School's exhibition, "Weaving and Identity: Folk Are from Guatemala," was closed.  The revised banjo exhibit remained open until 1993 when the Old Town School closed its exhibition gallery to make more room for their growing number of folk music classes.

Sources: "The Old Town School of Folk Music and Its Place in Banjo History: An Overview" provided by Paul Tyler on January 19, 2015.
Note Author: Paul Tyler

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